at your side: during recovery
how to start the conversation
It can be hard to figure out how to ask your friend how their recovery is going without feeling like you’re going to somehow bring up bad feelings or make them feel like they’re being watched super closely. The truth is, you’re probably way more uncomfortable than they’ll ever be about it. Here are a few tips.
- Ask if they’d like you to check in and how much is too much
It’s simple. It’s direct. And even if they say no at the moment, let them know they can change their mind anytime.
- Tell them you’re going to check in
This is basically the same thing as asking, except it’s for your friends who you know won’t want to be an imposition. “I’m going to keep checking in about how things are going. Just let me know if I’m getting on your nerves.”
- Open with a safe question asked in a safe place
When you check in, try to start with an easy opener question. “Hey, how have you been feeling?” As always, have the conversation in a place where you have a little privacy.
- Reinforce your desire to understand
As you ask deeper and deeper questions, reinforce that you’re doing it so that you can better understand their recovery process. Your friend will likely be glad that you’re asking and wanting to be supportive. It also helps to drop in a qualifier phrase like, “You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to…” every once in awhile.
- Be there for the highs and lows
Your friend is likely to have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months in recovery. Most mental health disorders are lifelong conditions but with proper ongoing treatment and services, 70-90 percent of people experience significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life.
Be there to help your friend get through the tough times and celebrate the good times. When they inevitably hit a rough patch, remind them about the progress they’ve made and keep them hopeful about all the skills, tools, and patience they’ve gained to get themselves to a bright patch again.
- Remember: Recovery is different for everyone
No two paths through recovery look alike, and they are rarely linear. We give suggestions on how to gently check in because continuing to do so is important–even five or 10 years later.
Most of the time, people who are in recovery from a mental illness have spent a lot of time preceding that recovery being treated like an illness instead of a person. They are “bipolar,” or “depressive,” or “alcoholic,” or “bulimic,” oftentimes throughout their treatment process. So, when you decide to support them on their path to health and wellness, one of the first things you need to do is restore their humanity.
- Don’t pretend it didn’t happen
You know they’ve been struggling with their mental health. They know that you know. So why ignore it and act like everything is and has always been totally fine? Tell them you’re open to hearing more about what has been going on, catch them up on things they might have missed, and check in with them when you think, “Hey, I wonder how they’re doing.”
- Remember: Your friend still wants to be involved in your life
If you used to ask your friend for advice, continue to do that. If you used to invite them to movies or concerts, continue to do that. If you have drama going on in your life, vent to them about it. The thing about a lot of common mental illnesses is that when people reach the recovery stage, they have a tendency to be even more insightful and empathic, and most of all, they want to get back on a path of feeling like themselves again. So, help them practice at being the fun, generous, engaging, authentic human they always have been but haven’t always been able to see.
- Resist the urge to hold a grudge
Yes, many mental illnesses cause people to withdraw from friendships, be irritable, and make others worry about their safety and well-being. And all of that can be really taxing for friends–no matter how superheroic they may be. It would be easy to keep holding a grudge about who they were when they were struggling, but try not to. Over the course of their recovery, elements of your friend as you always knew them will begin to reappear. Encourage that. Reward that.
- Watch movies or play video games
Sometimes there’s this tendency for friends to want to keep their friends in recovery busy all of the time–doing things they used to enjoy–especially toward the beginning of their recovery journey. Pump the brakes a little, though. At the beginning and throughout the recovery journey, doing something passive like watching a movie or playing video games can be just as valuable. Often when we engage in these kinds of activities together we remember something funny to share, we make jokes, we make fun of each other a little bit–we are our most authentic selves. So, fire up the Netflix and the Xbox.
- Don’t push or pull
It’s super cool when any friend is willing to walk alongside someone in recovery, but sometimes we struggle with trying to push or pull them along too quickly. There’s no deadline for reaching the point of “getting better.” It takes as long as it takes, and it’s a process. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel yourself pushing or pulling, but definitely stop, take a breath, and remember that your only job is to walk alongside them. It’s the only way you’ll be able to help them if they stumble.
- Be exactly who you are
If you’ve been reading these resources, then you’re a good and true friend. Your compassion and empathy are off the charts. You’re a superhero. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not for your friend’s benefit. You benefit them most by being exactly who you are, showing them your flaws, apologizing when you screw up, and walking beside them all along the way. You’re incredible, and we’re so glad your friend has you.
if they relapse
Relapse is common to many types of illnesses. Yet, we tend to attach moral judgment when people with mental illnesses relapse–as though it’s a character flaw if they aren’t able to sustain their recovery flawlessly. Here’s the thing, if we want to be good friends, we can’t see relapse this way.
- Relapse is a side effect of the recovery process
Recovery is difficult and exhausting. It often requires a total reprogramming of the way someone has interacted with the world for awhile now. What’s more, it often involves the rebuilding of old relationships, grief over those that are irreparable, and the development of new ones.
We are most vulnerable to relapse when were are most exhausted–that’s when the triggers sneak in. Instead of thinking about relapse as “back to square one” think about it as a point far down your friend’s recovery path. Think of it as an obstacle you expected to encounter along the way. Help them recognize it, get their footing (and the professional support they need), and move forward.
- “You should know better” isn’t helpful
Sure, many of us who struggle with a mental illness should be able to spot the signs of relapse better than anyone and intervene on our own behalf before it gets too bad. And sometimes we do this flawlessly. It’s just that other times we want to believe that our depression, anxiety, or eating disorder is gone for good–that the negative way we’re feeling in this moment won’t last. So, we put off asking for help. A good friend checks in regularly, asks about symptoms, reserves judgment, and helps steer the conversation toward what the best next steps might be.
- Take care of yourself.
If you’ve been closely connected to your friend’s journey so far you might have a lot of feelings about relapse. You might be angry or feel your sense of hope shaken. Do you and your friend a favor and make sure you’re getting the support you need to deal with these emotions, reactions, and challenges. Don’t hesitate to make yourself an appointment with a counselor or therapist.
- Get in touch with hope again
Many people have been where you and your friend are now. See if you can connect with someone who has made it through to the other side – through relapse AND recovery again. You might find this person through a support group like AA or Al-Anon. Or maybe it’s a professor on your campus or a friend in your community. Find someone living well with the struggles your friend is facing and see if you can spend some time together.
- Be there
Relapses can be little blips or they can be significant setbacks. Either way, your friend will need you. Use the other resources in this toolkit to be there when the darkness of a mental illness creeps back in and remind your friend that you’ll be there for them. All they need to do is reach out.