April 6, 2022
Supporting someone through recovery
Is somebody you care about going through alcohol or other drug treatment?
As a close family member or friend, you can be a major source of support.
By staying connected to them during treatment and recovery, you can help to make a lasting and positive change.1
Alcohol and other drug (AOD) use is influenced by many factors.
Nobody takes a drug to feel worse.
Most people use substances for the benefits (perceived and/or experienced) – not for the potential harm it could cause them or others.
And, we know people use alcohol or drugs for different reasons. Some people might do it for relaxation, fun or curiosity – others might do it to help deal with physical pain or manage feelings related to grief, loss, anxiety, stress or trauma.2
It’s often difficult for someone to recognise they’ve become dependent on a substance.
Once the body has developed a tolerance to alcohol or another drug, it’s difficult to stop as it’s needed to avoid extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
It can be tough for family and friends to understand addiction when it’s something you’ve never experienced.
But, learning more about addiction can help you better understand what your loved one is going through and why. Read more about understanding drug and alcohol addiction (dependence).
Treatment and support methods
Recovery looks different for everyone and can involve a variety of help and support methods, including:
- withdrawal or detoxification
- long-term residential rehabilitation
- in-community counselling
- engaging with a peer support group.
When supporting your family member or friend, they could be:
- Not in treatment yet: They might be trying to stop or cut back on their alcohol or drug use without the help of a service, or while they’re on a waiting list for a service.
- In the middle of treatment: They could be living and working in the community while accessing counselling or peer support.
- Leaving treatment: They might be finishing up their stay in a long-term residential rehabilitation facility, and in need of ongoing support to help them maintain their change and readjust to the community.
Not every person who engages in treatment will need to go into a long-term rehab facility. And for those who do, leaving the facility does not mean the person’s recovery process is finished.
Read more about different treatment methods.
How do people change their behaviour?
Reducing or stopping substance use isn’t a straightforward process.
It involves different stages of change – and it’s completely normal for people to jump back and forth between these different stages. For example, they might:
- feel ready to make a change
- then start making the change
- then decide they no longer want to make a change and lapse/relapse
- then jump back to making the change again.3
Read more about the Stages of Change Model.
What does lapse and relapse mean?
Lapse: a momentary return to alcohol or drug use. Usually a one-off event that doesn’t change the person’s goal of reducing or stopping their use.
Relapse: a person returns to their previous levels of use.4
Lapses and relapses are very common.4
In fact, around 40-60% of people in alcohol or drug treatment will relapse at some point.5
Lapsing or relapsing doesn’t mean a person has ‘failed.’4
Recovering from an alcohol and drug dependence can be a long journey that involves challenges along the way1 – regardless of how badly someone wants to reach their goal.
Many things can lead to relapse, such as:
- problems at work
- family issues
- feeling anxious or stressed
- feeling lonely or depressed
- relationship issues or breakup.6
If your family member or friend experiences a lapse or relapse, the first thing to do is ensure they’re OK.
If they haven’t used a substance for a while, their tolerance to the drug may have dropped.
This means if they take their previous usual amount after a break, it could be too much for the body to cope with and could lead to an overdose.7 If you suspect overdose immediately call 000 – ambulance officers will not involve the police unless there is a threat to their safety.
After ensuring the person is OK, it’s important to provide encouragement - remind them lapsing/relapsing is a normal part of the process and to use it as a learning opportunity.3 Recognise how hard they have been trying, encourage them to connect in with their treatment supports, and continue to offer them your personal support. Read more about relapse.
What else can I do?
Celebrate milestones and effort – acknowledge and celebrate any positive changes, no matter how small. This might include using the drug less, using in a safer way or improving overall health and lifestyle.3 It might even include acknowledging the person for simply making the effort to change their behaviour.
Be patient and understanding – cutting back or stopping drug use can make people feel sick, irritable and experience low moods, anxiety and poor sleep. Try to be understanding while their body and mind adjusts to the change. This means avoiding judgemental statements, lecturing or making them feel guilty.3, 8
Encourage healthy habits and healthy coping strategies – healthy lifestyle choices improve a person's physical and mental state, which can help support recovery. Things that can help are:
- a good sleep routine
- eating a healthy diet
- exercise – joining the gym or local sporting club, walking, getting on a bike or going for a run
- talking it out
- being with people who make you feel good
- listening to music
- playing an instrument
- listening to a podcast or streaming a series that makes you laugh
- having distractions – like being with pets, cooking, cleaning the house, going to the movies or getting out in nature.3
Look after yourself - your own wellbeing shouldn’t be placed on hold during another person’s recovery journey. Put time aside for yourself for things you love doing.9
And it’s OK to set clear boundaries around what is - and isn’t - acceptable in your home, space or relationship with them.3
If you need further help or advice, the below services offer great support for family and friends:
- Family Drug Help (VIC, SA, TAS) – 1300 660 068
- Family Drug Support (NSW, QLD NT, ACT) – 1300 368 186
- Parent and Family Drug Support Line (WA) – 1800 653 203
Peer support groups – your loved one might not feel like they need any extra support, but if they do, it can help to have a good understanding of support groups in your area, such as:
- Family Drug Support. Stepping Stones to Success [02.03.2022].
- Better Health Channel. Alcohol and drugs - dependence and addiction 2019 [02.03.2022].
- Breakthrough for Families Queensland. Concerned about a family member’s substance use? Get the facts, develop strategies and find out where to access more help. Queensland government.
- Turning Point. Lapse and Relapse [04.03.2022].
- Odyssey House New South Wales. Managing relapse is vital to sustained recovery from addiction 2016 [07.03.2022].
- Levy MS. Listening to our clients: the prevention of relapse. Journal of psychoactive drugs [Internet]. 2008 [07.03.2022]; 40(2):[167-72 pp.]. :
- Nunes EV, Gordon M, Friedmann PD, Fishman MJ, Lee JD, Chen DT, et al. Relapse to opioid use disorder after inpatient treatment: Protective effect of injection naltrexone. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment [Internet]. 2018 [07.03.2022]; 85:[49-55 pp.].
- healthdirect. How to help someone who is misusing drugs or alcohol [updated October 2021; cited 2022 March 18].
- Turning Point, Self Help Addiciton Resource Centre, The Bouverie Centre, Victoria State Government. BreakThrough Ice Education for Families Handbook. 2017.
- David WB, Dan IL. The recovery paradigm: A model of hope and change for alcohol and drug addiction. Australian Family Physician [Internet]. 2012 [08.03.2022]; 41(8):[593-7 pp.].