Relapse is difficult for both the individual and their loved ones. If someone you care about has relapsed, it might be unsettling and frustrating. Even with the best of intentions, people do falter. The chronic nature of the disease of addiction means that relapse is unfortunately common, but it also doesn’t mean your loved one has failed at making a long-term change.
When a relapse occurs, your loved one needs help from their support system as they attempt to recover from the relapse.
What can you do to make getting back on the path to recovery easier for your friend or family member? How can you extend a helping hand when they’re most vulnerable?
If your loved one has relapsed, here are six ways in which you can help.
It would be tempting to judge but what can be helpful is to listen to your loved one. Right now, the most important thing is that they’re willing to talk, and you’re willing to listen. Start by creating a safe space for them to share their feelings and version of the events. Display empathy and withhold judgment, or they might withdraw and stop sharing.
It can be challenging for anyone battling an alcohol or drug addiction, no matter where they are in their recovery journey. So even in their low points, such as a relapse, be positive and supportive. Remind them about the good days they can still have and tell them that you’re there for them.
2. Don’t make it about the individual
If you ask your loved one why they did it or express feelings of their failure, there’s a presumption of guilt. Avoid asking “why?” to minimize defensiveness and doubt of your intentions of help. Instead, talk about the events leading to the relapse, which will allow them to explain the situation. Maybe there were specific triggers they couldn’t control? Perhaps a place, name, or date reminded them of something, causing them to veer off course. An empathetic and open conversation can help identify negative pressures or triggers that your loved one and you can be aware of in the future.
Leslie Bierman, the Family Program Coordinator at Bradford, expanded on this topic, saying, “You will never shame an addict into submission, but continuing to love them and meeting them where they are will help their recovery process.” Your loved one needs love and care. With your support, they can overcome many obstacles that sit in the way of their recovery.
3. Offer all support
Remember that this is likely one of your loved one’s weakest moments. Your friend or family member may be too embarrassed to seek help or confide in someone else, so be mindful to offer support without judgment.
The fact that they shared that they relapsed means there is hope. With your help, they may be more willing to take the steps necessary to seek addiction treatment and return to their recovery community. While offering your support, make sure that you do not become a crutch or try to be too controlling. Your loved one needs to make their own choices in their recovery; it is not for you to decide. It may be hard to sit back, but ultimately, the choice is up to them.
4. Be thoughtful with your words
It is natural to feel disappointment when you hear of your loved one’s relapse, especially if it is not their first time. Though you might feel that you have every reason to be upset or hurt, try not to overly express this to your loved one. It is OK to share how you feel, but be mindful of how your words may come across.
Although it is important to share how you feel, you should never try to make decisions for your loved one. Try to stick to using “I” statements. Focusing on yourself will take away any possibility of your loved one feeling accused or blamed. For example, you can say “I am uncomfortable with [insert activity]” instead of “You need to stop [insert activity].”
Your loved one may already be blaming themselves for relapsing and do not need you to add any more guilt. Billy Vevle, LICSW, Director of Program Development at Bradford’s Warrior Lodge residential rehab facility, encourages family and friends to take a moment to reflect on themselves before making a statement.
“Look back at a time that you made a change in your life, whether it was going on a diet or starting an exercise routine,” Vevle advises. “Did you ever slide back to your old ways? Now, think about attempting to make a life change when you have a disorder that physically alters how you think.”
5. Set boundaries
Offering support and help doesn’t mean you have to provide a free pass. Your loved one should not be allowed to take advantage of your generosity.
Bierman shares, “Set and maintain boundaries around what behaviors you are willing and not willing to accept in your life.” The boundaries you set may not always be comfortable for your loved one, and that is OK. Proper boundaries help you heal and prevent your loved one from always leaning on you. Their sobriety is their responsibility. To take the next step in addiction treatment, your loved one will have to take ownership of their actions.
Setting boundaries is imperative. Your loved one should not develop the expectation that you will always “bail them out.” Vevle adds, “Allow the natural consequences of relapse to occur while remaining ready to act when they ask for help.”
Offer support as a good friend or family member, but clearly communicate that you can’t always take responsibility for their behaviors or outcomes.
6. Do not review their progress
While you are concerned for their health and welfare, your loved one’s progress, or lack of progress, in recovery is not your business. It understandably may be hard to avoid trying to help control or guide their recovery, as you have most likely tried to control their substance use in the past.
However, that does not mean you cannot help them. If they need support, be there. If they want to talk about their progress, listen. Recovery is a lifelong process that takes dedication and diligence. Appreciate how difficult it must be for them. Show pride in their progress and take the time to celebrate even small victories.
When someone relapses, it can be alarming and frustrating to their friends and family that love them. However, it is important to remember that relapse doesn’t mean failure. With help and support, your loved one can be encouraged to take steps to find their way back to recovery.