One couple’s journey brings light to addiction and supporting a loved one

By Regence
May 16, 2023

Millions of Americans every year are either directly or indirectly affected by a substance use disorder. This can include addictions to alcohol, drugs and other substances. The medical community considers a substance use disorder to be both a treatable medical disease and one that can be lethal without the right care and resources. It’s safe to say that most everyone knows someone who has a substance addiction or is in recovery. So how do we best support a family member, friend or coworker on their recovery journey? Especially given the hard truth that there’s no universal solution.

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We recently spoke with one person, Kari, about her lived experience supporting a loved one’s recovery—and what we should know about reducing stigma and helping others recovering from addiction.

A story of recovery: Meet Kari and Justin

Kari is married to Justin, who is recovering from alcohol misuse. Kari’s story is one of love, empathy and resilience. She lives her truth and refuses to think that Justin’s behavioral health condition is abnormal. Kari says that talking frequently about her partner’s addiction helps to normalize and work through it. Her honesty and ability to roll with the punches has helped Justin in his recovery journey.

In the beginning of the relationship everything seemed normal. Then, new career opportunities moved the couple to Portland from the Midwest without any family or friends in the area. It was challenging at first to meet people. Like many of us, they connected with new friends over a drink.  On the surface, things seemed fine, but internally Justin was experiencing undiagnosed anxiety and depression, and alcohol was one way to manage the symptoms. This is where their recovery journey story begins.

“One of the hardest things was watching Justin grow more distant,” Kari says. “Watching him be the person he wasn’t when we started dating. And I just wrote it off as that always happens in relationships.” 

Reducing stigma and supporting a loved one’s recovery

Similar to Kari and Justin’s experience with addiction, it’s often easier to notice when someone is going through a difficult time—but the person struggling may not know how to talk about their experience, let alone how to ask for help. Family and friends can often feel lost and unsure how best to help.

Kari says one of the biggest challenges when supporting someone in active use is trying not to care too much. A person struggling with addiction can draw all the energy from others and make it more difficult for others to set boundaries.

“When you are walking with someone in recovery, you have to be really committed to unconditional love,” says Kari. “If we could really destigmatize recovery and talk about addiction the way we talk about cancer—where we don’t shame the patient about the illness—we can begin to truly understand the predisposition of a mental illness. Then you can really empathize with them and see that they are really struggling and it’s not necessarily a choice.”

After learning more about addiction and how to help someone with a substance use disorder, Kari’s empathy has deepened through her journey with Justin. “People are used to hearing about the hard stuff. My heart has grown so much larger in supporting him in his recovery and bearing witness to the incredible work that he does as a peer coach for Boulder Care.” This work has challenged Kari to have a deeper commitment to talking about mental health and substance misuse disorders in her daily life, and support Justin doing the work for himself.

Each person’s recovery journey is unique

Everyone, including people supporting someone in recovery, is going to experience a different journey. People like Kari believe this is normal and that holding someone to a standard is not fair. “You are constantly grieving, the journey isn’t linear, and it’s different for everyone. As a society we don’t talk about feelings enough which makes it harder.”  Each of us can better support a person’s recovery journey by talking openly about addiction with a willingness to recognize stigma and actively unlearn it.

Kari and Justin have found that having candid conversations about their feelings and challenges helps them work through barriers. “The journey has required an incredible amount of self-reflection for both of us.”

Ways to support someone in recovery

At times, Kari didn’t feel she had the knowledge and tools to help her husband. The support of a trained therapist and a peer coach were incredibly helpful, for both Justin and Kari. Many helpful tips and information were learned, including:

  • Recognize you are not able to change the other person and accept this. People can change but they have to be ready, and you don’t have to love them less.
  • Don’t take on their shame or guilt. A person struggling with addiction may feel like they are letting people down. These feelings of failure, guilt, shame and let down can lead people back into substance misuse. You have to let go of those feelings for yourself, too.
  • Know how to be supportive without getting drawn in, set boundaries. 
  • It is important to make plans. For example, going to a social event and after getting there the recovery person can’t handle it. Before you go, talk about the things that could happen and let them decide how they want to handle it, not tell them how to handle it. You can’t make those decisions for people, knowing this can be empowering.
  • Be committed to the person and their recovery journey. Remember it is always a work in progress.
  • Friendships change. Understand that friendships may change through the recovery journey because your priorities have changed, and that’s okay.

Today, there is more understanding around mental illness and the impacts it has on our families and communities. People like Kari and Justin, who share their stories of courage and commitment, will continue to help change the way we think about addiction and mental illness to separate the consequences of it from the illness that it is.

At Regence, we are working to improve access to behavioral health care to support more recovery journeys, including partners like Boulder Care that offer virtual care and peer coach programs to most Regence members.

We’re here to help

If you or your loved one needs emotional support or mental health care, we can help you find the behavioral health care option that fits your needs. Most of our health plans offer virtual mental health treatment options from providers such as AbleTo Therapy+, Doctor on Demand, Talkspace, Charlie Health and more. No referral is needed – you can visit the provider website and fill out their intake form for an appointment. 

In addition to the broad range of traditional and virtual mental health providers, most Regence members have access to specialized behavioral health care for those seeking help for eating disorders (Equip) and obsessive-compulsive disorders (nOCD). 

Regence also offers access to traditional and virtual substance use disorder treatment providers such as Boulder Care, Eleanor Health (WA only) and Hazelden Betty Ford. If your employer has an employee assistance program (EAP), your use of the program is confidential and at low or no cost. 

We encourage you to visit these providers’ websites or call our customer service team at the number listed on your member ID card to verify which virtual care and traditional behavioral health options are available through your health plan. 

Remember 988 – the new National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. When people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors who will listen, understand how their problems are affecting them, provide support, and connect them to resources if needed.

This story was originally published on September 30, 2021.