How To Support A Friend Who’s In Recovery From Substance Use Disorder, According To Experts

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Fans and fellow celebrities alike are showing singer Demi Lovato lots of love after she was hospitalized for a reported overdose. Thankfully, Lovato appears to be okay and stable, per a statement from her representative. While it's important to remember that recovery is an individual experience, and relapse is incredibly common as one learns to manage their disorder, highly-publicized news about substance use or relapse can be triggering for people in recovery.

Paul Lavella, Jr., Director of Alumni and Family Connections at Summit Behavioral Health and Serenity at Summit, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility, tells Bustle that when people who are in recovery are surrounded by news of a celebrity relapsing or overdosing, that can "lead them to question their own ability to remain sober."

If you have a friend who lives with substance use disorder or is in recovery, it's helpful to know how you can support them to the best of your ability. When a loved one is struggling with sobriety, the best ways to support them are to "show them compassion, let them know you are concerned, seek your own support with a family support group, and be willing to discuss options for help when your loved one is ready," Lavella says.

"When a person is active in a substance use disorder, many of their actions, attitudes, values and general dispositions shift gradually, and sometimes rapidly, to that of a person unknown to you," Lavella explains. While this can be hard to face as a loved one, it's even harder to face as the person with the disorder. "[I]n essence," Lavella says, "their engaging in substance use takes them away from themselves. Even if they notice their progression, many struggle with stopping because once physically or psychologically dependent on a substance, it becomes painful and sometimes physically dangerous to discontinue."

But it's also good to remember that, as Dr. Deni Carise, Chief Scientific Officer at Recovery Centers of America, tells Bustle, for most people, seeing news about another person struggling with addition likely will not trigger a relapse. "The hope would be that it would reinforce their dedication to recovery," she says.

But for folks who are vulnerable, pop culture can present triggers. Carise says the most common pop culture-related trigger she hears about are shows and movies that "depict people actively using [substances] that could trigger someone to want to do the same." Carise says wanting to use a particular substance doesn't mean a person will relapse, "just that they have a very understandable desire for the [substance]."

Carise also says it's important to be proactive in supporting loved ones who may be actively using. "One of the biggest myths in our field is that you have to wait for someone to hit 'rock bottom' and want treatment," she explains. She adds that you shouldn't be afraid to ask someone if they're using drugs: "[People who are afraid to ask] say, 'What if I ask if they're using again and they're not and they get mad?' We should think more about this: what if you don't ask and they are?"

Carolyn Connolly Liot, Clinical Director of The Dunes East Hampton, tells Bustle that while you can definitely speak candidly about your concerns with loved ones, it's important to avoid judgmental or stigmatizing language. "What people should avoid is guilt-tripping sayings or putting blame," she says. "What they should say to show support is to ask their loved one in recovery if they need help with their support systems." Saying something like, "What can I do to support you?" over placing blame or guilt-tripping will let your friend know they're loved and supported.

News of celebrities struggling with their substance use disorder can have an impact on people in recovery, but you can check in on your loved ones struggling with substance use disorder by simply having an honest, supportive conversation. Remember that substance use disorder is first and foremost an illness — one that can be managed on an ongoing basis.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).