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How to Be An Ally to People Struggling with Substance Abuse and Recovery

It’s not unusual to get caught up thinking about your needs, wants, and struggles. It’s human nature. For those of us in recovery, we are often told to get out our own minds and start thinking about those around us. Help others, pass on the message, do the next right thing—these are all phrases about thinking of our fellows instead of ourselves.

But what if you aren’t in recovery? Chances are you know someone in recovery or someone still struggling with a substance use disorder. Whether they’re in active addiction or recovery, difficult times arise in both scenarios. As humans, we should try to be cognizant of these hard times. How can you be cognizant of those around you that are struggling in recovery or in addiction?

People who are using vs. sober people

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that drinking alcohol is, unfortunately, the norm in our society. It’s not necessarily weird if you find yourself unsure of how to deal with sober people. The first step to being more respectful of those with a substance use disorder is trying to understand them. You can do this by educating yourself. Look up addiction, read about this brain disease, how it works, how it’s treated and how people recover from it.

In order to be cognizant of those struggling, you have to be aware and understand. You have to begin to believe addiction is a disease and not a moral failing. Once you understand the foundation of the disease, you’ll be able to understand why people with substance use disorders act in certain ways and you can be more empathetic towards them. Addiction is an isolating disease and even when we are surrounded by people we can feel like no one understands us or has gone through what we’ve been through. Using might be the only option some people have today.

Avoiding language and actions that shame anyone who is actively using or in recovery can help them when they are struggling. Chances are if they are using, these individuals may already be stuck in a cycle of self-loathing, confusion, depression, and doubt. They don’t need more shame and guilt pushed on them. Those people you know who are in recovery may have hit a rough patch if they aren’t acting their best. They might be struggling with not using, with coping, or just dealing with the everyday challenges of life.

Being in remission from the disease of addiction doesn’t mean life gets easy again. There is still a lot to learn. As someone who wants to be cognizant of those who are struggling, we ask you to first open your heart and your mind to understanding.

Be aware of the struggle

After you come into a state of awareness, there are some concrete things you can do to make the people in your life who are in active addiction or in recovery feel more comfortable. By taking their feelings and emotions into consideration you can make a world of difference.

Don’t assume everyone drinks. This is important. In fact, it might be safe to assume no one imbibes until you actually speak with them. Let’s not assume drinking poison is the norm.

Be mindful of where you host events or get-togethers. If you’re planning an event you might want to think twice about having it at a bar or club, or a place that is centered around alcohol. Instead, you could choose a neutral place to host your event.

Listen. Ask if your friends and family are okay and then listen to the answer. Sometimes all a person needs is someone to listen to them. It helps to be able to share our struggles with others.

Create connection. All any of us want is human connection. This is something that is severely lacking for those who are still using and for many of us in recovery it can take years to restore.

Don’t make jokes about their drinking or using. Although every person is different, it’s best not to make light of someone’s dark drinking or using, past or present. Many of us feel PTSD-like symptoms when it comes to drinking memories or being around certain places or things. To us, being sober or trying to get sober is not a joke. It’s difficult and the memories can be haunting. It’s important to be sensitive to this as an ally to anyone with a substance use disorder.

If you’re unsure, ask. When I first got sober, many of my friends asked me questions like if it bothered me if they ordered a glass of wine around me, or if they should still invite me places, or if I thought I had always had a problem with alcohol. I’m glad they asked. If you’re unsure if drinking alcohol in front of a sober friend will trigger them, the best thing you can do is ask first. I would rather educate people by answering their questions than have them never ask at all.

Everyone is fighting a battle, whether it’s an internal or external, with drugs and alcohol or something else like anxiety, depression or co-dependency. Be gentle with yourself and with others.

By using these tips, I hope you’ll be able to be a better ally to those who have substance use disorders in your life. Remember, it’s a process and no one is perfect, but the people in your life who are struggling will thank you for your love, kindness, and respect. The world needs more of all of those things.