Helping others on their path to recovery

It is National Recovery Month, so it’s a good time to discuss what it means to have a behavior disorder or addiction and how you can help loved ones affected by one of these illnesses. Common behavioral issues include eating and mood disorders, depression, ADHD, social phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and panic/anxiety disorders. Substance abuse is an extremely prevalent behavior disorder.

 “Addiction is the compulsive use of the addictive substance.” ~ Father Martin (recovering alcoholic and public speaker)

The amount of substance used makes little difference to the nature of this illness. How the substance use affects one’s life and the lives of others is what matters. Whether it’s happening as a result of problems concerning money, family or work, individuals facing an addiction typically stay that way if they don’t get help. Like many other illnesses, addiction will get worse without intervention.

We asked several Diakon Family Life Services staff members to share their insights and suggestions on this issue that affects numerous individuals and their families …

♦ When someone contacts us at one of our counseling centers seeking help for a friend or family member with a substance abuse (SA) issue, we usually speak to the caller about community resources available to provide support until the person with the disorder is ready to seek help for him- or herself.

If the person calling is unsure whether the person has a serious issue, we will discuss some of the signs and symptoms of substance abuse. We typically let the caller know that if the affected person can be persuaded to come in that day, we will speak with him or her. Fortunately, most of the time, the person with the SA issue is willing to engage in the treatment process.

Classic symptoms of substance abuse include …

  • Taking the substance in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than was originally intended.
  • Failure to take obligations seriously, such as missing work or school, not attending to children, or isolating oneself from family members.
  • Increased conflict with family members.
  • Spending significant time obtaining the substance, using the substance, or recovering from its effects.
  • Giving up or reducing important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the substance use.
  • Potentially continuing the substance use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance
  • Recurring financial issues, in particular not having money right after being paid or family members noticing that money or objects from the home are missing.

♦ For adolescents involved in substance abuse, grades may deteriorate and the youths may not participate in extracurricular activities they previously enjoyed. Further, they may experience a change in friends and the places they hang out. They may be secretive and may get multiple texts or phone calls from people the family does not know. As substance abuse escalates, the youths will no longer engage with previous non-using friends.

In addition, anyone involved in substance abuse may have bloodshot eyes or their pupils may be larger or small (opiates). They may experience changes in sleep and appetite (there may be a weight loss or gain). Personal grooming may decline, such as a lack of taking showers or baths. Family members may notice sores or certain odors.

The person may have shakes or tremors, slurred speech or poor coordination. If the person is using opiates, staff may explain to families and friends that when the person is going through withdrawal, outward signs may seem similar to those of the flu. The person may start with the “sniffles” and experience watery eyes, shakes, chills, body aches, and so on. These symptoms grow worse until the person “uses” again.

Moreover, the person may become agitated, moody, or hyperactive, depending on which substance they are abusing. Sometimes, in fact, the person may appear paranoid and anxious for no reason at all. Or the person may lack motivation and appear lethargic. For those using opiates/heroin, the person initially may “nod off” followed by bouts of energy.

♦ People struggling with substance abuse are experiencing an illness. It’s important to understand that they are the only ones who can, ultimately, take the courageous step to seek help.

Unlike many other health conditions, both substance abuse and mental illness carry a lot of stigma. This situation arises from years of misunderstanding how or why people experience these conditions. But things are changing and today there is more help than ever. People don’t have to suffer in silence. Telling someone you can trust that you are struggling takes great courage, but it’s worth it.

Sometimes, people with addictions and disorders are anxious about the recovery process.  Loved ones can offer to help them find a good therapist and then accompany them to the session.  A little support can go a long way.  Detoxification, rehab and an intervention may be needed for substance abuse when things start to get out of control. If the individual threatens to hurt someone else or him- or herself, call a crisis hotline or the police immediately. In severe cases, an involuntary commitment may be necessary.

♦ Recovery is often misunderstood to mean one is cured of the illness or addiction, but there is no “cure” for addictions and behavior disorders. Like any other chronic disease, they must be managed by using tools to support ongoing recovering. Recovery is not just about discontinuing the use of the substance. It also means a change in lifestyle.

In fact, defining recovery has been the subject of debate for many years.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration defines recovery as a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life and strive to reach their full potential.

Perhaps of greatest importance, there are several ways you can support a person in recovery:

  1. Be willing to listen and learn all you can about addiction. There are support groups for families and friends of those in addiction and recovery.
  2. Don’t judge (admitting someone has an addiction is very difficult because of the stigma associated with it).
  3. Avoid co-dependent behaviors—you are not responsible for someone’s addiction or recovery. Sometimes people relapse; you cannot control someone else’s addiction.  Do not do things for addicted persons they can do for themselves. Recovery is about empowerment.
  4. If they ask for a ride to a support group or meeting, please give it to them.
  5. If you are someone who has been negatively affected by the person’s addictive behaviors, get help. You may have to work through your feelings of hurt, pain, and anger to reestablish trust.

The substance abuse and mental health group has described “Guiding Principles” for recovery that include:

  • There are many pathways to recovery.
  • Recovery is self-directed and empowering.
  • Recovery involves a personal recognition of the need for change and transformation.
  • Recovery is holistic.
  • Recovery has cultural dimensions.
  • Recovery exists on a continuum of improved health and wellness.
  • Recovery is supported by peers and allies. Recovery emerges from hope and gratitude.
  • Recovery involves a process of healing and self-redefinition.
  • Recovery involves addressing discrimination and transcending shame and stigma.
  • Recovery involves (re)joining and (re)building a life in the community.
  • Recovery is a reality. It can, will, and does happen.


Patricia O’Donnell
Clinical Director, Drug and Alcohol Services

Joyce Galanti
Mental Health Therapist

Laurel Spencer
Clinical Director

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