3 Ways You Can Help a Loved One Who’s Trying to Stay Sober

Discover what works — and what doesn't

Someone you care about is finally seeking sobriety after years of alcohol use or drug use. Whether it’s a partner, child or close friend, you’re desperate to help. What should you do — and more importantly, what shouldn’t you do? Here are three things to keep in mind, says addiction and recovery expert Joseph Janesz, PhD:

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1. Put your loved one in expert hands

What may help most is finding the best trained professional or recovery program you can — and then stepping out of your loved one’s way.

“Most partners, spouses and parents want what’s best for their family member or friend,” says Dr. Janesz. “But addiction is a complicated medical condition. It’s easy to underestimate its complexity and believe you can fix it.”

You may think fixing the person’s problems is part of loving them, or that it’s your duty. But such efforts are typically fruitless, and anger and resentment start to build.

When you’re living with addiction, you’re traumatized and emotionally overwhelmed. So it’s easy to let hurtful, harsh and condescending words fly — even though the alcoholic or addict is already acutely aware of the trouble they’ve caused.

“You’re in fight-or-flight mode, your worry brain is vigilant, and your best thinking cap is not on,” he says. “So you are not the best person to think out carefully what is best for your loved one.”

Ironically, they may only “hear” the advice you’ve given for years when it comes from the mouth of an expert — or a friend who has also experienced what they’ve been through.

“That’s why we encourage ‘smart recovery’ — completing inpatient or outpatient rehab, then joining a confidential self-help program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous,” says Dr. Janesz. “These groups offer a lifeline to others who understand and accept you.”

In fact, the friends your loved one meets in AA or NA are much better positioned to encourage their sobriety than family members are.

2. Take care of yourself, too

When you love someone, you can’t help but be affected by their alcohol or drug abuse. It’s easy to become enmeshed — to be unsure where their life ends and yours begins.

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A substance abuse professional can help you understand the full impact of addiction on the family. “Individual and family therapy are quite helpful,” says Dr. Janesz.

You learn to separate what you can control from what you can’t — and to take better care of yourself. After all, you’ve probably neglected your own needs for years.

Confidential 12-step programs like Al-anon, Alateen and Families Anonymous can help you with that. You realize you’re not the only one dealing with emotional, financial or legal troubles. You learn from others’ experience, strength and hope.

This helps you set healthy boundaries so that when your loved one asks for help, you aren’t doing for them what they can do for themselves.

Support and therapy can help you be calm, collected and reassuring — yet firm. That’s what your loved one needs.

“If you’re feeling hopeless, terrified of overdose, or judgmental, take a step back,” he says. “Refocus on being positive, respectful and loving — while still holding the person accountable.”

It’s important to remember that help is out there for everyone affected by alcoholism and addiction. “But it takes a team,” says Dr. Janesz. “We can’t do it on our own.”

3. Be realistic about relapse

Are your expectations for your loved one’s recovery realistic? A trained professional will explain that relapse is part of the disease — and that it doesn’t mean failure.

“Families often think the person’s problem will be solved after four days in the hospital or after one month of treatment,” says Dr. Janesz.

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“But substance abuse creates a sick brain, and recovery takes time — from months to years — just like recovery from any major illness.”

If your loved one remains sober, in good health, sleeps well and complies with treatment, it may take six months before they start thinking well again, he says.

It’s hard to predict when recovery will stick. Some people commit to recovery after a couple of stints in rehab; others struggle with sobriety after many attempts.

But the vast majority of those going through detox, followed by outpatient or inpatient rehabilitation, will relapse.

“Don’t be upset if relapse occurs,” he says. “It may take a wave of additional treatments to put substance abuse to rest. Just have a plan,” he says.

Address other issues, too

One thing to factor into recovery is that half of those with substance abuse disorders also have a mental illness that affects mood, such as:

Neglecting care for your loved one’s mental health issue will jeopardize their recovery from substance abuse.

Dual diagnosis presents a complex set of problems that experts must unpack,” says Dr. Janesz. “Look for a certified facility that provides care for substance abuse, mental health care and medical issues.”

If you need to find a treatment center or substance abuse professional, call your local substance abuse information hotline.

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