How Do I Help Someone Else in Early Recovery? (Without Risk of Relapse)

The final step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) encourages those in recovery to carry the message of AA to others with an alcohol use disorder. Evidence supports the importance of helping others to aid recovery.1

Studies show those who participate in AA have higher rates of sobriety. This participation may include working Step 12, being an AA sponsor, or volunteering. Both AA and studies indicate that everyone in recovery—including those new to AA or recently sober—benefit from helping others.1

In recovery, you meet other people who need help getting sober and staying sober. Deciding how to help an alcoholic without compromising your recovery includes taking an honest assessment of yourself and avoiding known relapse triggers.

First Things First

“First things first” is a mantra used by many in early recovery. The phrase serves as a reminder to keep sobriety as a top priority. Living by this motto may be challenging when trying to help someone else while in recovery.2 For example, if you are trying to help someone who is still misusing alcohol, it could put you in situations that potentially threaten your sobriety.

Helping someone else may need to be put on hold temporarily, and that is okay. You may need to take care of barriers to your own recovery efforts first, such as your: 2

Even when you do not face significant barriers, you are never responsible for anyone else’s recovery.

When Helping Is Not Helping

There is a thin line during early recovery when helping someone else can become harmful. Clear risks are associated with helping someone else when you are in early recovery.3

Codependency

According to Codependents Anonymous, relationships can start as healthy and, over time, become unhealthy.4 Denial, low self-esteem, compliance, control, and avoidance patterns can develop. All types of relationships can become codependent, including romantic partnerships, friendships, parent-child relationships, and sponsor-sponsored relationships in AA.

Codependency is becoming attached to another person, and beginning to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own at the expense of meeting your own needs. In a codependent relationship, you may also stop expecting the other person to provide you with support and expressions of affection despite feeling obligated to meet all of their needs. Codependency also means all or most of your focus is on the relationship, and you cannot imagine your life without the other person or the relationship.4

Codependency can affect the development of desirable, reciprocal relationship traits, such as clear communication and strong boundaries. This can be especially harmful in early recovery. You may make poor decisions to maintain an unhealthy relationship. For example, you may make one exception to guidelines that you have set to keep yourself away from triggers that could over time lead to relapse.

Power Imbalance

Codependency can develop in you or the person you are trying to help, which can create a power imbalance. A power imbalance can also occur when one person has a job with more perceived authority, is significantly older than the other, or has significantly more recovery experience. The risks of a power imbalance between two people in early alcohol recovery include:3

  • Misusing perceived power over someone else
  • Misusing the counseling or mentor role over someone else
  • Forcing biased AA beliefs on someone who is not receptive to them

Overburdening

Taking on too much responsibility in early recovery can be difficult and may put your recovery at risk. Taking on too much or taking on tasks that are too challenging can lead to relapse.5

A common way that AA members accidentally overburden themselves is by becoming a sponsor before they feel stable in their recovery or by treating a sponsorship relationship more like a close personal friendship, therapist-client relationship, or family relationship. You may also overburden yourself by agreeing to attend AA meetings consistently with more than one person, giving your contact information out without setting boundaries, or by trying to determine how to help an alcoholic who is in your family or circle of immediate friends whom you see often.

One study found that AA participants were negatively impacted when their sponsors did not:6

  • Show up to give them a ride to a meeting
  • Check in with them to see how they are doing
  • Follow through with promises
  • Stay sober or continued to use substances
  • Communicate truthfully about their sobriety
  • Follow boundaries, which sometimes caused re-traumatization

Behaviors like these, whether on your part or the part of the person you are helping in early recovery, may put both of you in danger of relapsing.

Know the Risk Factors of Relapse

When you are helping others while in early recovery, protect yourself by assessing if risk factors of relapse are increasing in your life due to your activities. These risk factors may include:7

  • Visiting people, places, and things that trigger urges or cravings
  • Isolating and withdrawing from AA supports or your treatment team
  • Living in surroundings that do not allow you to focus on recovery
  • Limiting support networks to just you and the person you are trying to help
  • Stopping treatment services for substance misuse, mental health, or medical issues

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Ideas for Helping Someone Else

You can avoid these risks and truly help someone early in recovery with a variety of techniques.

Be Honest

Honesty in early recovery promotes personal growth. This concept was noted as essential by 98.6% of participants in a study of people who had previously used substances.8 Being honest means stating and accepting the truth about yourself—good, bad, and complicated—and encouraging others to do the same. By being honest, you can be a role model for the person you try to help in early recovery.

Provide Access to Information About Recovery

It’s a good idea that you, and the person you are helping, learn as much as possible about AA, the 12 Steps, and early recovery skills and support. You can start with online resources available on the AA website, which offers a variety of recovery literature.9

You can share your experience with alcohol rehab centers. While you cannot create a treatment plan for another person or enroll them in a program, you may be able to help someone find answers to questions like, “how do I find alcohol detox near me that is accepting new patients?”

You can also refer others to speak with our specialists at 800-839-1686Who Answers?, where they can learn more about receiving addiction treatment services.

Positive Attitude and Introducing Them to Other Positive People

Embracing a positive attitude about recovery is noted as a major factor in early recovery.8 What you think influences how you feel, and how you feel influences how you behave.

If you believe you will never maintain sobriety, you likely won’t. Therefore, it’s crucial you know and believe you can stay in recovery. Have a positive attitude and surround yourself and the person you are helping with positive supports.

Provide Service to Others by Volunteering

Giving back aids in recovery. This can be one of the reasons you choose to help someone else living with alcohol addiction. Evidence supports the theory that volunteering and giving back may help a person stay sober. Volunteering enables you to focus on a cause you care about, something other than alcohol or drugs.8

Have the Right Mindset

Having the right mindset when trying to help someone in early recovery means staying focused on your primary goal of sobriety. Surveys of individuals in recovery indicate that long-term sobriety required a change in mindset, one that focuses on: 10

  • Submitting to treatment
  • Attending peer support meetings
  • Building self-esteem
  • Finding self-acceptance
  • Fulfilling responsibilities personally, socially, and professionally

Your mindset in early recovery can serve as an example for the person you are trying to help.

However, your focus cannot be on forcing them to follow through with the actions listed. You can’t be their counselor or force them to attend treatment. You can check in with them on their progress, but you can’t force them to work the 12 Steps. Your work is to build a whole new person for yourself, not for another person.10

Choose a Meeting, But Not Your Meeting

Seeing the same counselor or attending the same AA or 12-step meetings is not always beneficial when trying to help someone in early recovery. Whether at an AA meeting or attending counseling sessions, you want to establish and maintain boundaries.11 Boundaries prevent you from getting too close to another person when you are still vulnerable, especially if they are still misusing drugs or alcohol or are early in their recovery.

Attending the same meeting could make you feel uncomfortable as time goes on and prevent you, or the person you are helping, from being honest or sharing fully. This could put both of your recoveries at risk.

Some people mistake sponsors for counselors or mentors. Even though sponsors are not credentialed mental health professionals, they must follow protective rules regarding boundaries.11 You may attend some of the same meetings as your sponsor, but your sponsor does not take the place of a therapist, counselor, or even your close friends and confidantes.

Build Protective Factors

Risk factors are events and triggers that are likely to cause relapse. Protective factors are likely to help you maintain sobriety. You can build protective factors and encourage the person you are trying to help in early recovery to do the same.

Protective factors include:12

  • Learning new coping skills
  • Learning early recovery and relapse prevention skills
  • Helping family members get help, like through Al-Anon or Alateen
  • Building positive personal and social supports
  • Reducing stress by implementing mindfulness and relaxation techniques
  • Continuing your education
  • Obtaining or maintaining positive employment
  • Creating a plan to implement immediately in case of a relapse

Create a Crisis Plan

Creating a crisis plan can include early intervention and treatment options you can use as soon as possible after a relapse. Steps in the crisis plan may consist of re-entering medical detoxification if needed. It may also involve seeking inpatient or intensive outpatient services, continuing AA meetings or peer support meetings through another organization, attending outpatient counseling, taking medication to ease withdrawals and cravings, and attending recovery support activities.8 Many individuals increase the number of AA or peer support meetings they attend as part of their crisis plan to ensure they receive the support they need regardless of the immediate availability of other addiction treatment services.

Establishing a continuum of care to get you, or the person you are helping, back on track to sobriety will help you avoid the more significant problems associated with a relapse without a plan.

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Final Tips on Helping Someone Else in Early Recovery

There is no one-size-fits-all recovery plan. Your plan may not work for the person you are trying to help. The best thing you can do is introduce them to resources that will help them, including literature on the following:13

  • Local alcohol rehab centers
  • Tools to help them set short-term and long-term goals
  • Addiction treatment models and approaches
  • Treatment settings and processes
  • Alcohol addiction treatment options, including medications
  • Behavioral therapies and other interventions
  • Ancillary services like vocational training

Remember, you are not anyone else’s substance use counselor or therapist, including an individual you sponsor. You are only a resource to help them get the help they need and deserve. Keep your sobriety as a priority and avoid attaching it to the sobriety of someone else.

You can both achieve long-term abstinence and alcohol recovery. You or individuals you know in need of professional help can call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to an addiction treatment specialist about finding alcohol addiction services.

Resources:

  1. Pagano, M. E., Friend, K., Tonigan, J., & Stout, R. (2004). Helping other alcoholics in alcoholics anonymous and drinking outcomes: findings from project MATCH. Journal of studies on alcohol, 65(6), 766-773.
  2. Sussman, S., Forster, M., & Grigsby, T. (2015). “First Things First”: What is the First Thing?. Substance use & misuse, 50(8-9), 1015-1019.
  3. Stevens, E. B., & Jason, L. A. (2015). Evaluating alcoholics anonymous sponsor attributes using conjoint analysis. Addictive behaviors, 51, 12-17.
  4. Codependents Anonymous. (2011). Patterns and Characteristics of Codependents.
  5. McGovern, W., Addison, M., & McGovern, R. (2021). An Exploration of the Psycho-Social Benefits of Providing Sponsorship and Supporting Others in Traditional 12 Step, Self-Help Groups. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(5), 2208.
  6. Brown, S., et al. (2015). Personal network recovery enablers and relapse risks for women with substance dependence. Qualitative health research, 25(3), 371-385.
  7. US Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Reducing Relapse Risk.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services.
  9. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2021). AA. Literature.
  10. Bjornestad, J., et al. (2019). “A Life More Ordinary” Processes of 5-Year Recovery From Substance Abuse. Experiences of 30 Recovered Service Users. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 689.
  11. Natwick, J. (2017). Ethics Update – Family ties: Tackling issues of objectivity and boundaries in counseling.
  12. Moos, R. H., & Moos, B. S. (2006). Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 101(2), 212-222.
  13. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2006). Chapter 3. Intensive Outpatient Treatment and the Continuum of Care.Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 47. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).

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