Become a member of Allies in Recovery and we’ll teach you how to intervene, communicate and guide your loved one toward treatment.Become a member of Allies in Recovery today.

Heads Up Information if You’re “New to SUD”

Stones - stack

Have you ever looked back over a time in your life that was particularly stressful and wished you’d known a few things ahead of it?

Or maybe you were given some "heads up" advice when managing a hard time and found that it helped drastically.

In a recent conversation on the Coming Up for Air podcast, a discussion took place as to what tips parents and loved ones may need when first facing the crisis of addiction, alcoholism or (Substance Use Disorder, referred to as "SUD").

The following “Heads Ups” are by no means set in stone, yet were (or would have been) very helpful when my own family was in the eye of the storm (as detailed in my book Unhooked).


When our Loved One is in active use:

Metaphoricallythey have hijacked brains. Realizing and remembering that is tremendously helpful. What you are experiencing will make it seem like you're dealing with their evil twin.

Tug-of-war communications will happen. Prepare yourself for when this starts. When someone is in active use, it’s often the case that neither of you can hear the other’s point. Do not expect logic to rule. Don’t take the hooks. It’s not personal. Protect yourself, stay in peace, don’t get lured into discussions or debates.

Grandiose conversations may occur. They will tell you their big plans. They will tell you someone is coming to hurt the whole family. Things tend to develop at a rapid place and explode into high drama in a matter of moments. Maintain calm, walk away, end the conversation, stay safe.

Chasing away friends and relationships – does not work. Trying to drive a wedge between your Loved One and their closest friend or a romantic partner only causes you to actually become like glue: they will bond over it. I thought if I scared or hurt the people involved with my son, they would go away. People don’t go away just because you are drama!

Chasing them, being a detective, threatening, arguing, shaming and force – do not work!

Again – shaming does not work. Take out the shame, and instead try accountability and consequences with consistency. (Read my article on Shame here).

It’s okay to drop the weapons. We tend to believe if we show loving kindness and compassion, it means rolling over or being taken advantage of. This is not so, there are better ways to handle conflict that don’t involve more conflict! The CRAFT Method is a method of applying a softer, kinder approach, and it's scientifically proven to be effective.

It helps to take things a day at a time. Uncertainty is sickening, sometimes you will have to take things a breath at a time. Cope with things as they occur.

Everyone else seems to speak a foreign language. When you are going through the nightmare of a close family member or loved one acting out of SUD, no one will understand unless they are going through it, have been through it or are professionally trained to understand the dynamics. The nicest, most well-meaning people, just can’t grasp what it's like. It's not personal.

Maybe distance yourself from the folks who can't understand or be there for you, for a time, and surround yourself with those who can.

I made my world small. I had to remain vigilant and safe on my own behalf. Look out for yourself, protect your heart, guard your personal information, tighten your circle.

You will sometimes feel crazy. Stay strong. Take breaks. Seek support.

You will need support, don’t go through it alone. There are online groups, face-to-face meetings in every city (such as Nar-Anon and Al-Anon, etc.) and professionals trained to help relieve the burden.


When our Loved One is in treatment:

They will call with complaints. There may be urgent calls about a bed not being comfortable, the treatment center is a rip-off. Their roommate is confrontational. The counselors can’t be trusted. And so on. This is common and is most likely the disease inciting them to leave and go use, more than anything else.

Do your best to end the call and trust the process, notify those in authority at the treatment center if necessary. If you feel that there is validity to their claims, look further into it. The point is, these claims more often than not are an attempt to run back to their comfort zones and unhealthy patterns. They are stressed out and turning to old coping skills. Time and trained professionals are able to calm this.

They will call for “creature comforts,” such as a favorite blanket, certain soda, or sometimes tobacco products. Your response may in fact be your part of the disease (the ways you have enabled use, consciously or not), tempting you to drop everything in order to fix, help and comfort. Think it through — you don’t have to rush to save the day!

One Dad described for me how he drove over an hour with a carton of cigarettes for his 19-year-old son, when in most cases he would never allow him to smoke, let alone contribute to it. But the relief of his son being in treatment and the Dad's remaining urge to fix and comfort caused him to jump into action, which he eventually regretted.

This time is yours. When a Loved One has entered treatment, take time to calm down and care for yourself. This is your time to take a break, take a breath and assess what needs to become well in your own life.


Relapse is part of recovery

Even if it is a shock, it’s (still) not personal. Relapse hits us in the hope! But it can lead to new growth and better preparation for not going down the same roads next time.

We can't stop a relapse. When your Loved One is out of treatment, walking on eggshells to prevent relapse won’t prevent relapse. Safeguard yourself to remember that relapse could and probably will happen in the process of figuring recovery out.



It’s a process

It takes time. These issues didn't develop overnight, they won't be resolved overnight, no one gets well overnight!

Life can become better than before. “Post-Traumatic Growth” happens more often than Post-Traumatic Stress. We can rise high after the terrible times of life, if we choose not to become stuck in them.

Recovery is not one size fits all. What works for someone else might not work for you. What went wrong in someone else’s life, might actually work out well for you. What it took for someone’s son/daughter, husband/wife, brother/sister etc., to find recovery could be the exact opposite of what yours will need. Professionals and programs help us decipher what best fits the family needs and personalities.

“We all walk the same road differently” ~Bill Valentine

Still learning,


Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)