National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month: The Role of Social Support

Dr. Rebecca Hoffenberg

National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month

Addiction has far-reaching effects on individuals, families, and communities. It is so prominent in our society that many of us have either been impacted by substance use directly or know someone who has struggled with this issue. National Recovery Month, now celebrating its 31st anniversary was created to promote accurate information, increase awareness, and recognize the progress made by those in recovery from addiction. The theme this year - Join the Voices for Recovery: Celebrating Connections - is meant to “remind people in recovery and those who support them that we all have victories to celebrate and things we may wish we had done differently.” As a therapist who specializes in addiction, I fully support this year’s theme and would like to shed light on the importance of support from those whom we trust. 

Debunking Myths associated with Substance Use

Oftentimes, judgments and misunderstandings about addiction can make it challenging for those struggling with substance use to feel that they can share their difficulties with their loved ones. More specifically, fears that their family or friends may not understand their struggles can prompt isolation and loss of support, which ultimately makes it harder for people to seek help. However, social support has a number of benefits for psychological and physical well-being, so it is of the utmost importance that we debunk some myths that perpetuate misinformation and contribute to stigmas surrounding addiction. For instance, Banyan Treatment Center lists common myths, including:

  1. Addictions can be overcome through willpower. People often assume that someone suffering from addiction is making a choice to irresponsibly use substances, and therefore, if they had enough willpower they could simply stop using. However, this statement does not take into account the underlying reasons that someone might be using substances or the changes that occur in the brain/body that lead to cravings and the addiction cycle. As a psychologist who has a special interest in working with chemical dependency issues, I find this misconception to be the most troubling, as it often leads to an unhelpful level of self-blame within those suffering from addiction. 

  1. Addiction is a disease, which means that nothing can be done to reverse it. As the Hazelden Betty Ford foundation explains, addiction impacts the brain and body. However, this does not mean that addiction cannot be treated or that the effects of long term use cannot be reversed through abstinence. This way of thinking leads people to believe that their addiction is stable and unchangeable, rather than something from which they can recover with the proper treatment. 

  1. Someone suffering from addiction has to hit “rock bottom” before he or she can really benefit from treatment. The reality is that a person can enter recovery at any point in their addiction process and benefit from treatment; or more to the point: there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to helping those with addiction. For instance, a person may enter treatment to cut down on his or her drinking or learn about a harm reduction approach, as opposed to committing to full abstinence. When working with patients, I always spend time at the beginning identifying their needs and discussing the various treatment approaches that may be best for their particular needs.

How Addiction Can Affect Relationships 

There are many ways that addiction can negatively impact relationships. For instance, one of the criteria for Substance Use Disorder listed in the DSM-V relates to the propensity to spend a lot of time getting, using or recovering from the use of a substance. If a person is so focused on his or her substance use, it becomes difficult for that person to be present and available for loved ones. Furthermore, when someone is under the influence of substances, he or she may not be making decisions that would be beneficial to those close relationships. Because of this, it is difficult to maintain healthy, mutual relationships when one is stuck in a pattern of addiction. 

Additionally, it is also possible that someone who struggled with social anxiety or other mental health challenges may have begun using substances as a way of self-medicating, and therefore, the initial issue driving their addiction has not been resolved. As such, once someone becomes sober or reduces their substance use, he or she may struggle to make new connections after having lost friends or loved ones during their struggle with addiction. 

Even more difficult is the fact that people who are addicted to substances may have begun to interact more with others who are using substances, and breaking those bonds can be difficult, yet necessary. When people start to work on their sobriety, they are often encouraged to identify and stay away from triggers for substance use, which includes their substance-using friends. If a person’s main sources of socialization came from spending time with others who were abusing substances, it can be a challenge to find arenas that feel safe to socialize. 

How Treatment Can Help With Socialization

Relational and Interpersonal Therapy can be extremely helpful for individuals developing friendships upon recovery. In essence, the therapeutic relationship serves as a model for which a person can practice relating to another individual in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Through this relationship, one can learn tools to develop adaptive coping mechanisms, relapse prevention strategies, process what drove him or her to use substances, and identify unhealthy patterns that maintain addiction. In conjunction with other therapeutic modalities, hypnotherapy can also be a beneficial approach for treating chemical dependency as it provides an opportunity to interrupt these patterns, reinforce healthy coping, and remove obstacles to change. 

When I work with patients who are struggling with addiction, they often feel shame and worry that their therapist will judge them for their substance use. For this reason, I find it critical to work with people on developing self-compassion. I aim to help patients understand that there are complicated reasons a person turns to substances in the first place, such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and that uncovering those reasons and finding better solutions are the key to lasting change. By demonstrating my understanding of the complicated dynamics and demonstrating compassion, I aim to help my patients internalize those beliefs and find acceptance and understanding for themselves.

How Can Reconnection Help With Recovery?

Finding a support group can be extremely beneficial when a person is recovering from Substance Use Disorders and leaving their prior social circle behind. For instance, a study by Project Match found that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is particularly helpful in providing an opportunity to form connections in support of one’s sobriety, while simultaneously working to increase one’s confidence; and both of these factors were found to be related to recovery. Like AA, Narcotics Anonymous (NA) offers a safe place for those affected by addiction to reconnect, make amends, and redefine what they want from their relationships going forward. They do not differentiate between different substances and aim to help individuals struggling with any addiction. 

For some of my patients, AA or NA may not be a good fit. Sometimes this is because they are not ready, while other times it is because the approach is not one that resonates with them personally (e.g., complete abstinence is not their goal). As a therapist, my goal in working with those struggling with substance use is to help them identify their individual needs and find the support that best fits their goals.

How to Support a Loved One in the Throes of Addiction

As previously mentioned, addiction not only affects the person who is using substances, but can also be very challenging for loved ones who are unsure of the best way to support someone struggling with addiction issues. They may question whether they are responding in a helpful manner, worry about enabling the person who is struggling, or feel concern if they instill stronger boundaries in an effort to help the person who is struggling. It can be confusing for those who are trying to support a loved one with addiction, as they may inadvertently encourage substance use despite their best intentions to help them. Therapy is a great place to also explore issues of co-dependency and provide support for family/friends. If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Al-Anon is a great resource to connect with others and garner a support network.

Dr. Rebecca Hoffenberg is a Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. For questions or to learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you, please contact us here.

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