Recovery is tough to tackle alone. Learn how to offer hope and support to friends during addiction recovery through the story of Atrium Health teammate, Calvin Harvel.

Men's Health, Women's Health | 3 years ago

How to Support a Friend Who's Dealing with Addiction

When is the time for tough love? For unconditional support? Behavioral health experts at Atrium Health offer insight and hope to partners about addiction recovery.

Editor's Note: This article is part of a mini-series devoted to helping the loved ones of those dealing with addiction. Scroll to the bottom to read more.

For additional information and resources, visit Hope for Addiction today.

Calvin Harvel thought that he could stop drinking and using drugs on his own. And he could, he says, for a little while. But he’d celebrate a week without using by drinking a beer. And then it’d begin all over again.

Harvel went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to appease his family. He jokes that he entered recovery due to a back problem: he needed to get his family off of his back. Even though he went for them, he stayed for himself. There, he found a community of friends who were there to listen to him and to support him as he overcame addiction. Through this community, Harvel found a way to make recovery work.

“I used to think I could do this myself, that I could get sober myself. But I have a whole fellowship of guys that if something happens, I can call them and they’re always there,” he says.

The impact of friendship on his recovery led Harvel to a new career: as a peer support specialist at Atrium Health. When people enter the emergency department with problems of addiction, he sits with them to offer support and a listening ear.

“I’ll tell them, I won’t push you, I won’t pull you, but I’ll walk with you,” Harvel says. “I’ll give them my card with my cell phone number, so when they get out, if they get twisted up and they’re going south and need someone to talk to, they can call me and I’ll answer the phone because that’s what someone did for me. People think they can do this on their own, and I say, ‘You don’t have to.’”

Supporting a Friend Through Recovery

Friends can play a more important role in addiction recovery than they might realize.

“In recovery, it’s so vitally important to have social support to bolster someone’s ability to get well,” says William Wright, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at Atrium Health. “We’re social creatures – oftentimes doing something in a vacuum doesn’t work.”

People who have friends dealing with addiction or substance use disorders often don’t know how to help or where to begin. One of the most important things they can do is to educate themselves on addiction and to understand that addiction is a disease, not a choice. People who don’t understand this fact can unknowingly inflict damage by creating a stigma of addiction with their words or actions. They might use labels like “addict” that diminish a person, or they might assume that someone dealing with addiction can simply choose to stop using.

“When people perpetuate this stigma, they’re hurting our patients,” says Larry Coplin, director of addiction services at Atrium Heath. “When people tell someone with an addiction, ‘Just stop. Stop using,’ it doesn’t work that way. This is a chronic illness. It is a chemical malfunction in the brain that takes over the survival mechanisms of the person.”

Second, friends can learn the signs of an addiction. You may notice physical changes in your friend, like a loss of weight or a decline in self care habits. You may see that your friend passes out each time they’re drinking, that they’re hungover much of the time or that they’re spending more money on drugs. You may notice your friend missing work or school frequently. Be a curious friend, urges Sandra Villarrubia, LCSW, an addiction specialist at Atrium Health. If you notice these things, ask your friend about them.

“My whole thing, for people I know and even people I don’t know, is asking ‘Are you OK?’” says Harvel. “Because we know if somebody’s not OK. But be a voice to them and ask, ‘Are you OK?’”

If you do suspect addiction, understand that this is a condition that can be treated. Recovery does work – research and evidence prove the effectiveness of treatment – and there is hope.

The Recovery Process

During the beginning stages of recovery, people dealing with addiction can be hesitant to reach out to friends for fear of losing them. Some people believe that if they stop using and become sober, their friends will no longer want to be around them or, even worse, their friends might tempt them to use again. Be willing to offer support during this time, both in words and actions.

“Your friend has made a very difficult decision – please respect that,” says Villarrubia. “Support them. Listen to them and learn why they’re making that change.” This support may mean finding alternate things to do together, so that you’re not using in their presence and you can build your relationship on new mutual interests.

What your friend’s treatment plan looks like will depend upon your friend’s particular circumstances. Recovery is tailored for each person’s needs. Some people enter individual or group therapy, some use medications, some enter inpatient treatment facilities. Stephen Wyatt, DO, the medical director of addiction medicine at Atrium Health, says he believes in learning about each person – including their strengths, challenges and ambitions – and using that knowledge to create the most effective plan for that person.

“There are people in strong recovery, especially in social support groups, who are working on recovery on a daily basis. They’re recovering – or perhaps uncovering – their lives,” says Dr. Wyatt. “And family and friends are integral to people getting into strong recovery.”

Harvel agrees, recalling one of the most effective tools that he had as he entered his recovery: the belief from his friends that he could get better. “If you can bring hope, that’s all it is,” he says. “Just a little bit of a light, that’s all I needed.”

If you or a loved one is in need of assistance, Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line is available 24/7 at 704-444-2400.

Three-Part Series

Read our other two stories in the Hope for Addiction series below:

How Parents Can Support a Child Who's Dealing with Addiction

How to Support a Significant Other Who's Dealing with Addiction