Supporting Friends Without Enabling Them
Having a friend with addiction is tough. Their addictive behaviors cause them additional pain, because addiction does nothing to heal the pain that drives them to drink, use drugs, or harm themselves in other ways. I recently got a message from someone whose friend is addicted, and they ask a very good question:
“I have a best friend with a drinking problem. They told me recently that they feel like it’s become an addiction. But they asked me not to tell anyone. I’m worried something bad will happen unless I get more help for them. But they asked me not to tell anyone. How do I help my friend with addiction without breaking their trust?”
I love that this person, and that you, want to be supportive of someone with addiction. That is kind and caring, and shows that you understand that an addiction is an illness, not a failing that makes your friend a bad person.
But supporting people with addiction is complicated. What we think might be supportive might actually harm their recovery efforts. Your support doesn’t mean you have to stop their addiction or make them complete their recovery. It just means you have to continue to be a true friend, as they always have been, so they know someone is there encouraging them in their recovery when things get tough. Here are some suggestions for how you can do that.
How to Help a Friend with Addiction
Point Them in the Right Direction
Depending on where your friend is on their addiction recovery journey, they may need help finding resources, support groups, and other things that can help them. Ask for their permission to share some resources with them.
There are many addiction recovery support groups, with a wide range of approaches to treatment and focus areas. Hopefully knowing that there are many people who want to help them will encourage your friend to keep moving forward.
Trust Them to Do the Work
To maintain the trust of your friend in addiction recovery, you have to trust them to do the work of recovery for themselves. If they have come to you and shared that they have an addiction for which they need support, they are recognizing they have a problem.
As much as you naturally want to keep them out of harm’s way, you aren’t able to force anyone to do things like go to support groups, avoid every tough situation, or get rid of everything that triggers their addiction.
Respect Their Privacy
It’s important to remember that privacy is key for recovery. People need to feel safe talking about and working on recovery without unnecessary painful consequences. Addiction is still stigmatized, and people with addiction can be unfairly treated or viewed with prejudice.
Your friend was very courageous to share about their addiction with you. It’s a sign of trust that they engage in such conversations with you, and respecting that trust includes respecting their privacy. If there is ever a time you think it might be helpful for someone else to know about their recovery needs, ask for their consent before reaching out to the person or organization you hope to connect them with.
Talk About Other Things
It’s easy to be consumed by something difficult or painful a friend is going through. You care about them. You want them to be safe, and you want them to get help. But it can be overwhelming for the person living with addiction to only talk about, and only hear about, a struggle that is already so difficult.
Continue to be friends as you were. Talk about your shared interests, try new things together, and always affirm your friendship and love for one another.
If you feel comfortable talking about God, you can remind them how much God loves them, and how He has plans to give them a hopeful future and help them find a greater sense of freedom. Let them know you are grateful for them, and grateful for the recovery work they’re doing.
Only your friend can do the day-to-day work of their recovery. Let them know you support them by saying things like:
- “Thank you for trusting me to know about your addiction and recovery journey. I am here to support you. Let me know what you need from me.”
- “Thanks for letting me know you need someone to talk to. I’m here if you need someone to listen.”
- “How is your recovery journey going? I’m really proud of you for doing this important work.”
Leave the door open for them to share what they need. Your offer of support is deeply caring, and those reminders will be helpful as they work on recovery.
Go to Safe Places
Sometimes you might want to do fun things with your friend to reconnect, and to be sure that your friendship includes conversations and activities that aren’t about recovery. When you make plans, be sure you’re choosing safe places they can enjoy without a relapse being triggered. For example:
- Instead of a bar, try a coffee shop
- Instead of going to the same places and neighborhoods where they partied, try spending time in nature, hiking, walking, or having a picnic.
- If they are trying to make new friends who don’t use drugs or substances, or don’t engage in harmful behavior, introduce them to other people you care about who you know will also be caring and supportive.
Of course, you can’t prevent every struggle, or avoid every potential trigger. But making whatever effort you’re able to is a great sign of care for your friend, and will help them feel a greater sense of safety.
Be Careful Not to Enable
Enabling happens when you relax your boundaries in ways that allow a person’s addictive behavior to continue. For example:
- Covering for someone when they can’t come to work or school because of their addiction.
- Giving someone money to spend on an addictive habit or behavior.
- Taking on too much responsibility, or taking on some of their responsibilities for them, instead of letting them experience consequences or difficult situations as part of their recovery.
If you start to feel like the ways your friend is asking for your support are unhealthy, are making you unhappy, are draining you, or are making you feel like you’re not being honest with them or others, it’s time to adjust your boundaries in ways that allow you to care for yourself and your needs.
You don’t have to be a therapist or a social worker for your friend. You just have to be a friend. It might be difficult to find balance sometimes, but friendships can grow strong through a variety of challenges. If you continue trusting each other and forgiving each other, your friendship can get through the bumps in the road that come with a recovery journey.
Get Support for Yourself
It’s very important that you don’t forget that you will need support and encouragement to be able to encourage your friend with addiction in a healthy way you feel comfortable with. There is support available if you need someone to talk to and aren’t sure where to turn. TheHopeLine offers mentoring from HopeCoaches. They’ll respect your privacy, offer encouragement, and help you plan a path forward. Talk to a HopeCoach today about your friend, your concerns, and your hopes for the future. We are here for you, and we believe things will continue to get better for you and the people you care about.
If you love someone with an addiction, one question is likely on your mind: Can I help? Here are some ways I've seen people support friends and family in recovery while maintaining healthy boundaries.
Photo by Mental Health America (MHA)