Helping a Colleague in Recovery

“I’ve known Jim for some years and know he’s in early recovery. I’d like to be supportive, but I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Maybe I should just say nothing and pretend like I don’t even know that he is in recovery. Anyway, I’m no expert in drug and alcohol recovery and maybe I should just leave these conversations to professionals or close friends and family. But, like me, Jim’s a lawyer, a professional colleague. I’d like to be supportive and maybe I could be of some help.”

We are often perplexed when we want to support a colleague in recovery from problematic substance use because we don’t know how. There is no simple formula for what to say or how to say it. Every situation is different and, for every recommendation, there are usually exceptions. Let’s start, however, with some general principles that can be helpful to keep in mind.

  • People in recovery, especially early recovery, differ in their degree of comfort in talking about it. Some may be very open about their recovery, while others may be more reticent. Certainly, if the person in recovery openly comments about it, they would probably appreciate an offer of support. If the person seems reluctant to talk about or disclose his or her recovery, use discretion. Offering support or assistance in this case, while still perhaps helpful, should be more measured and carefully timed to avoid embarrassment or triggering feelings of shame or guilt.
  • People in early recovery are generally much more in need of the support of well-intended others than those in healthy long-term recovery. The latter group has generally managed to develop and take advantage of a supportive community. The former group probably has not. An exception is when the person in long-term recovery has relapsed and is now struggling to regain what is lost. This person is, practically speaking, not unlike the early recovery person; offers of support can be equally valuable to this person.
  • You do not have to be a medical professional, professional therapist, or drug and alcohol expert to offer support to those in early recovery – any more than you need to be an expert in chronic medical conditions to be a supportive resource for someone struggling with those conditions.

Three fundamental tools for effectively helping a colleague in recovery include (1) nonjudgmental communication, (2) genuine caring, and (3) healthy boundaries.

NONJUDGMENTAL COMMUNICATION.

The primary purpose of offers of support is not to advise, persuade, or convince, but simply to convey concern and availability in a clear, simple, and sincere manner. Some examples:

Heather, I really respect what you are doing in your recovery efforts. If there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know.

Bob, while I don’t know much about recovery issues and certainly am no expert, please know that I am available to you if you ever want to have coffee and just talk.

Jerry, I’ve had my own challenges with substances in the past. If you ever want to just talk sometime about your recovery, please feel free to let me know. I know it can be difficult at times.

Listening is an essential part of good communication. Often, we can be most helpful by just listening nonjudgmentally. The colleague in recovery has likely received an abundance of advice, both solicited and otherwise. If the person wants advice, it may be best to wait for him/her to ask for it. Effective listening requires truly focused attention and demonstrated interest in what is being said, the absence of distraction, acknowledgement of the message, awareness of the emotions that may be behind what is being said,
reflective feedback (e.g., What I’m hearing you say is . . . ), and appropriate questions (e.g., That sounds really challenging. How are you doing with that?). In this context, effective listening says: I care about how you are doing and am available for you.

GENUINE CARING.

Offering to be of assistance can depend in part on the parties’ prior relationship. If there has been no previous relationship or personal contact, it may be not only awkward but counterproductive to suddenly express interest in a colleague’s well-being. However, there are two important exceptions. If the colleague in early recovery has few, if any, significant social connections (e.g., no immediate or extended family, living alone, few friends, and/or absence from 12-step or community support meetings), his/her success in recovery may be problematic. In this instance, it may be especially helpful to reach out to this colleague in a supportive way (e.g., Nancy, I’m aware we don’t know each other well, but I understand you are in early recovery. I know recovery can be challenging. I just wanted you to know that if I can ever be of any help or you would like to have coffee and talk sometime, please know that I’m available.).

The second exception is when the person offering help is in longer-term recovery. This fact often transcends the lack of prior relationship. It represents a unique connection that can be especially helpful to someone in early recovery (e.g., Bob, I know we don’t know each other well, but I heard you are in early recovery. I’m in recovery, too, and have been for some years. If you’d like to have coffee sometime, I’d enjoy it very much. Or, maybe we could go to a meeting together. I know some really great meetings.).

Regardless of prior relationship, sincerely wanting to help is essential to offering meaningful assistance. Often it means no more than being a supportive friend or someone to turn to so the common challenges of recovery can be lessened by simply having someone available to talk with.

HEALTHY BOUNDARIES.

There are many things one can do to support a colleague in early recovery, including:

  • Be available to just talk, listen, and be present (often this is the most valuable support that can be offered);
  • Be supportive and encouraging;
  • Be appropriately curious and interested in what your colleague is experiencing in recovery;
  • Have coffee with your colleague;
  • Help with transportation (e.g., doctor appointment, support meeting);
  • Include your colleague in healthy social events;
  • Help your colleague reintegrate into work and social environments;
  • Introduce the person to other colleagues;
  • Introduce the person to others known to be in recovery;
  • Be willing to share one’s own recovery story;
  • Be sensitive to the fact that your colleague may have shame, guilt, and/or embarrassment surrounding recovery issues;
  • Learn about addiction and recovery issues; and
  • Remind your colleague about the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP). OAAP attorney counselors provide confidential, voluntary, and free resources to all Oregon attorneys, judges, and law students. The OAAP makes available four recovery meetings every week to our legal community, both those new to recovery and those who have been in long-term recovery. Visit www.oaap.org or call 503-226-1057.

A major challenge when helping a colleague in early recovery is seeking to be a helpful resource without being an unhealthy enabler. As a general rule, it is wiser to help your colleague resolve financial issues than to lend money; help find housing rather than offer your own house; help find legal resources rather than represent him/her; help think through employment and/or relationship difficulties rather than personally intervene. Again, there is no fixed formula. Each situation is different, and there can certainly be exceptions.

The personal and professional consequences of problematic substance use can be extensive; the person needing help may face major life challenges, especially in early recovery. For those in the legal community wanting to be supportive, the natural instinct as problem solvers and advocates can often be to put on our lawyer hats and jump into the fray. What your colleague in early recovery needs most is not unhealthy enabling, but rather to learn for oneself to deal with life’s difficulties without resorting to unhealthy substance use. This is exactly why having personal connection with others is so essential – to let your colleague know there are others who truly care and, within healthy boundaries, are present and available to help navigate life’s challenges without drugs or alcohol.

Keep in mind these additional healthy boundary considerations.

  • Use discretion in sharing with others the conversations and information learned from a colleague in recovery. The colleague’s willingness to accept help generally presumes confidentiality in the relationship.
  • The best way to find out how to help a colleague is to ask; get clarity about exactly what kind of help is being requested.
  • Be clear about what assistance you are willing and prepared to provide. If the help sought is beyond your ability or, on reflection, would not be appropriate under the circumstances, respectfully decline.
  • When you offer assistance to a colleague, it is important to follow through. For example, if you promise to call the person on a certain day, keep the promise. Dependability and reliability are essential to maintaining the helpful relationship.
  • Remember that the ultimate responsibility for maintaining healthy recovery belongs to the recovering colleague. It is not the responsibility of others – spouses, friends, or colleagues. This is a fundamental tenet of recovery. Well-meaning others can be immensely valuable and make the process easier, but success or failure rests with the recovering person.

Healthy social connections are a vital part of successful recovery and help to lessen the stigma that is often attached to chronic substance use. And, importantly, social connections facilitate the transition from an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one. Well-intentioned offers to assist a colleague let that person know that others care and are available. With assistance based on nonjudgmental communication, genuine caring, and healthy boundaries, the colleague in early recovery is best positioned to achieve success in that person’s recovery efforts.

Douglas S. Querin, JD, LPC, CADC I
OAAP Attorney Counselor