Loving someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is hard — in fact, it may be the hardest thing you ever deal with. It can be heart-wrenching to watch a person you love continue to harm themselves and others through a continuing addiction, so the day they enter rehab may seem like the happiest day of your life. But as many friends and relatives of addicted loved ones know, the addiction doesn’t end when recovery begins.
If you have a loved one who is struggling to recover from addiction, you probably experience a range of emotions — from helplessness and sadness to anger and resentment — especially if your loved one seems to keep relapsing. It can leave you feeling stuck, watching them try and fail to stay clean.
So what should you do if your loved one keeps relapsing? Is it ever time to give up on them?
To answer these questions, it’s important to understand the nature of addiction and recovery. Just like chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, addiction is a lifelong diagnosis that needs constant management and vigilance. Recovery is the first step on a long journey your loved one will be on for the rest of their life, and it won’t always be a smooth one.
Should You Be Worried If Your Loved One Relapses?
It’s important to put relapse in context. Studies suggest that approximately half of all people who try to get sober return to drug use, and 70-90% have at least one moderate slip.1 Removing the drug is often the easiest part of recovery; changing ingrained habits and behavior is the true feat in the journey to getting and staying clean.
Addiction actually changes the makeup of a person’s brain, overstimulating the reward centers and altering functions involved with memory, impulsivity, and decision-making.1 Drug use hardwires memories associated with drugs into the brain, forming triggers out of familiar emotions, people, places, and things.
Once your loved one is out of recovery, these triggers will be a constant reminder of past use and therefore be a constant struggle they face. Treatment will teach them how to deal with triggers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee success, and relapse is always close at hand. For many, relapse is just part of the process of getting clean.
Common Relapse Triggers:
Knowing how to recognize these relapse triggers may help you and your loved one prevent relapse before it starts:
- Emotions like fear, resentment, boredom, and unrealistic expectations
- Stress, exhaustion, loneliness, depression, and anxiety
- Revisiting people, places, or things that used to lead to drug use
How Can You Help Your Loved One When They Relapse?
If your loved one relapses, you may feel helpless, but, according to an article in Everyday Health,2 there are important things you can do to help them.
First of all, remember that this addiction is your loved one’s battle, not yours. This is a fight they must fight on their own, for better or worse. Your job is to be supportive in the best ways you know how to be and to take care of yourself in the meantime.
With that in mind, hold your loved one accountable for their recovery from relapse. Be encouraging — redirect them back to their treatment program, suggest a counselor, remind them of the importance of their recovery efforts. Be supportive by helping your loved one avoid triggers — those emotions, people, places, and things that leave them vulnerable to further relapse.
Everyday Health reports that, while you shouldn’t try to make your loved one feel guilty for relapse, it’s important not to dismiss it or make excuses for them. If they already feel guilty, don’t try to take that feeling away, as it can be an important impetus to get them back on track.
You’ll want to be sure you aren’t enabling your loved one — implicitly accepting the abuse and allowing it to continue without consequences. This can hinder recovery for them, while creating resentment in you.
Set Boundaries for Yourself
One of the best ways to encourage a family member in recovery without enabling them is to set healthy boundaries. These are not rules for your loved one, but lines you draw for yourself. Don’t be surprised when an addicted individual crosses these lines; this is part of the disease. It’s your job to decide what you will do when boundaries are crossed.
Remember, you can’t control what your loved one does, so you need to focus on what you can control: yourself and your health. Decide what boundaries your loved one cannot cross without consequences, tell your loved one about them and stick to them.
For instance, you may decide you won’t allow drugs or drug use in your home. If your loved one crosses this boundary, the consequence may be that they can no longer live with you. This may seem harsh, but often it’s necessary.
Following through on consequences is not giving up on your loved one, and in fact, such consequences may be the only thing that compels them to keep seeking sobriety. Setting healthy boundaries is one of the best ways to love someone struggling with addiction.
Don’t Give Up
Most importantly, don’t be discouraged. Relapse doesn’t mean treatment was unsuccessful or that your loved one won’t be able to stay clean in the long run. It can even be helpful in teaching them what certain triggers are and how to avoid them in the future. It’s never too late for your loved one; don’t give up.
1 Sack, David. “Why Relapse Isn’t a Sign of Failure.” Psychology Today, October 19, 2012.
2 Rothman, Jean. “Supporting an Addict Who’s Relapsed.” Everyday Health, March 18, 2016.
3 Bennett, Carole, MA. “6 SIgns Your Alcoholic Loved One May Be Relapsing.” HuffPost, November 17, 2011.
By Wesley Gallagher