By the time I was old enough to understand what alcohol was, I knew my mom had a problem with it. Family members tried to hide her issue from my sister and me, but they could only conceal the early-morning binges and hangovers for so long.
Our mom was an alcoholic—and no excuse or elaborate story could change that.
As a young girl, I believed that addiction was a choice. I felt burned then each time my mom walked through our door with the scent of liquor on her breath after promising to let it go. It was like she didn’t want to change. But years of her painful tears, failed attempts, and crashing withdrawals taught me otherwise.
When I was in middle school, I began to realize that my mom’s addiction wouldn’t “go gentle into that good night,” as poet Dylan Thomas once wrote1—and not because she didn’t want to change. It wasn’t about the lack of willpower on her part or that she was choosing alcohol over her family. She was trapped in her addiction.
As President Russell M. Nelson explained: “Addiction surrenders later freedom to choose. Through chemical means, one can literally become disconnected from his or her own will!”2 Finding recovery would be a fight between her body and spirit for years to come.
After she had achieved six months of sobriety, I started to recognize my mom again—the one who used to dance in the car and write beautiful poetry and tell embarrassing jokes to all of my friends. It was as if someone behind the scenes suddenly switched back on the light in her eyes and was working overtime to keep it on. She hadn’t been sober for that long in years, and it felt good to have her back.
But it didn’t last. One night, before she had the chance to speak, my sister and I knew. Her glazed eyes and blushed cheeks said it all: after six months and four days, she had relapsed. For a moment, we considered walking out of the door, away from the worry and fear, but we knew that she wanted to change. We couldn’t do it for her, but we could support her as she walked the road to recovery.
Over the next few months, my sister and I looked for ways to help my mom keep pushing forward toward long-term sobriety. It wouldn’t be easy, but she had done it once, and we knew she could do it again.
Having witnessed my mom go through withdrawals before, we knew what to expect, so we gathered all of the liquor and wine bottles that we could find and dumped them down the drain. Then we stocked up on Gatorade at the grocery store and deep-cleaned the house; it was our best attempt to remove my mom from the environment that she was in when she relapsed.
After a few days, my mom was well enough to go back to work, but we knew the fight wasn’t over. Up until that point, the depth of her addiction was hidden from most of our family and friends. Over the years, it had become somewhat of a secret—a source of shame, something that social science researcher Brené Brown explains “derives its power from being unspeakable.”3 If we wanted her to stay sober, we needed to break the silence.
Deciding to open up to our family and some trusted friends was hard, but it was also liberating. Shame “corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better,”4 so the very act of talking about her addiction gave my mom (and me!) hope again. We weren’t alone, and for the first time in years, we started to picture a life unruled by her addiction.
I’m not going to try to sugarcoat it: maintaining hope isn’t always easy. For years I supported my mom as she tried to get sober, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t experience sadness, disappointment, and frustration along the way. Speaking of the difficult journey one faces to overcome addiction, President Nelson explained: “Each one who resolves to climb that steep road to recovery must gird up for the fight of a lifetime. But a lifetime is a prize well worth the price.”5
If you’ve ever loved someone who struggles with addiction, you know how hard it is to watch them self-destruct. But even in the wake of relapse, hope is never lost. Because of His atoning sacrifice, the Savior knows “how to succor [us] according to [our] infirmities” (Alma 7:12). “With healing in his wings” (3 Nephi 25:2), He picks us up when we feel too tired to keep going, “holding on to us and encouraging us, refusing to let us go until we are safely home.”6
So whether you’ve just taken your first step or traveled a thousand miles with someone on their journey to recovery, here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the years:
Help them avoid triggering situations.
Whether the person you’re supporting is a friend, spouse, family member, or peer, helping them avoid triggering situations is huge! Anytime my family goes out to eat with my mom, for example, we ask to sit at a table away from the bar. If a table isn’t available, we chat until one is.
Advocate for them in social situations.
Just because the person you’re supporting opened up to you about their addiction doesn’t mean they’re ready to tell the world. During the early stages of recovery, it can be extremely difficult to explain why someone is avoiding certain situations or making certain decisions, especially to strangers. In these situations, make life easier for them by helping them explain if things get awkward.
Help them find additional support resources.
No matter how involved you are in the recovery process, there’s no way you can do it all. Sometimes my mom just needs to talk to someone who’s been there, someone who gets it, and that’s OK! Professional resources and support groups (like the Church’s Addiction Recovery Program, recovery groups, addiction and behavioral specialists) quite literally change lives, so don’t hesitate to encourage the person you’re supporting to take advantage of these tools.
If they fall, help them get back up again.
If we lived in a perfect world, relapse wouldn’t exist, but this is mortality. If the person you’re supporting relapses, remind them how far they’ve come. Encourage them not to “give up after subsequent failures and consider [themselves] incapable of abandoning sins and overcoming addiction.”7 As Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles put it, “[They] cannot afford to stop trying”8 (and neither can you). Relapsing doesn’t put them back at the start. It doesn’t erase all the work and momentum they’ve gained. They always have another chance to get back on track, reach out to the Savior, and keep going.
Hold on to hope.
Watching someone you love struggle to overcome their addiction can sometimes make you wonder if they’ll ever fully recover. (Trust me, I know. I’ve been there more times than I’d like to admit.) Even Mormon asked: “And what is it that ye shall hope for?” But no matter how hard it gets, “hope through the atonement of Christ” is always within our reach (Moroni 7:41).
Throughout my life, my mom has fallen down more times than I can count, but I’m proud to say that it’s been six years since she took a drink. Though it has taken me years of learning and relearning how to best support her, watching her recover has taught me that no one is ever too far gone. No matter how many times the person you love relapses, keep going—keep trying to support them in whatever way you can. Recovery is a lifelong commitment—a journey filled with tears, victories, failures, and triumphs—and it’s worth fighting for.