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You are Essential: How to Support a Loved One in Recovery

Your loved one has finally agreed to get treatment. After years of watching them struggle and possibly deny the presence of an eating, substance abuse or mood-disorder, they are now embarking on the journey to hope and healing. Of course, this feels like a relief and is cause to celebrate, but in some ways, it may get harder before it gets easier. There are incredible challenges for family and friends trying to support a loved one in treatment and after discharge, but they can be managed and overcome when they’re faced head-on, prepared for, and met with compassion and unconditional love.

If you have not previously known someone who has received treatment for a behavioral health issue and recovered, knowing how best to support can feel like groping around in utter darkness. What do I say, or not say? How do I act around food, or at a party with alcohol? When do I confront, or mention that I notice behaviors? What do I do when I feel frustrated, angry, and alone? These are all important questions to ask as one seeks to learn how to best encourage their loved one on the healing journey.

The first step should be to seek support while your loved one is in treatment. It is not unusual for treatment centers to involve certain appropriate family members in therapy sessions, but this does not suffice for creating your own support network. You are not alone in your struggle, but if you as a family member or friend remain isolated, you’d never know it. Consider going to a therapist for individual counseling, and ask treatment providers about recommendations for family/friend support groups, or seek out a ministry at your church, synagogue, or other faith-based organization. There are many resources available for loved ones of those in recovery, it just takes seeking them out. Creating a community of support, where you can speak honestly about your own feelings regarding your loved one will be your lifeline throughout their recovery process and when they come home from treatment. You will not be able to support your loved one well if you are not emotionally and mentally healthy yourself.

The second step will be to practice listening. Your loved one is on a journey of transformation, in essence, becoming a new person. In that process, many past wounds may need to be dealt with, issues may need to be confronted, and they may need to express pain, regret, anger, or feelings of shame or guilt. It is important to listen, not argue. They are processing, with the guidance of professional help. Listen without formulating opposing arguments or self-justification. Affirm and validate their feelings: you may not agree with what they are saying, but affirm that you hear them, and you are there for them. This helps to give them confirmation that they can trust opening up to you, affirms that they can be themselves, and helps them to see they are worthy of love and support.

The third step will be practicing unconditional love. Yes, as a parent of an adolescent, it will be imperative that you keep an eye out for behaviors, isolation, the recurrence of depression or anxiety or deception. But if your loved one is an adult, they are making decisions for themselves and on their own, and your role is not to try to control the pace or path of their journey, but to express your unconditional love and support. That doesn’t mean enabling – in fact, confronting someone with compassion and heartfelt concern can be one of the most loving things you can do. It does mean ensuring your loved one knows that even if they relapse, hit a plateau in their recovery, have outbursts of emotion, or do not recover “fast enough,” your love does not diminish or grow weary. When you continue to believe in them, despite ways they feel that they are failing, it empowers them to continue to believe in themselves.

There are many other important tools one can learn in order to support a loved one in recovery; that is what family support groups and professional help can provide. If you are in the battle to help your loved one heal, know that you are not alone, and that families do recover and go on to find wholeness in a way that they could not have imagined. There is hope. With your own support network, preparation and unconditional love, you will be an essential part of the recovery process and helping your loved one find lasting freedom.

About Kirsten Haglund

“Since my own recovery, I am passionate about educating and empowering women to get the care they need to live amazing, productive and healthy lives,” said Haglund. “I see the same compassion and desire in the Timberline Knolls team and look forward to being a part of this work of restoring women to health.”

Haglund will continue to work as an advocate for greater awareness of eating disorders and resources for care. Since she won the crown of Miss America 2008, she has spoken on more than 20 college campuses, worked with youth and church groups domestically and abroad, lobbied Congress with the Eating Disorders Coalition, and started her own non-profit, the Kirsten Haglund Foundation, to raise funds and assist families financially in seeking treatment for eating disorders.

View all posts by Kirsten Haglund