Once a loved one has successfully completed treatment and is living in recovery, we often feel relief, jubilation, and pride. There is always an underlying fear, however, that he or she has relapsed and returned to drugs or alcohol. On one hand, we want to be sources of support, love, and faith, so that they can maintain their recovery. On the other, we want to ensure past mistakes are not repeated and sobriety is not compromised. So, what should you do when you suspect your loved one has suffered a relapse?
Be Supportive When Suspecting Relapse
First, reflect upon their behavior and place their actions in context. All of us have bad days, even bad weeks; yes, that is when someone is most susceptible to relapse. However, it is difficult to keep a positive attitude about recovery when someone constantly suspects relapse. If your loved one is having a bad day, do not automatically jump to the conclusion he or she has relapsed. Think about what is going on in your loved one’s life, and if there is a good reason for changes in temperament. Regardless of what you conclude, check in with your loved one and ask if there is anything you can do.
Do not lead with questions about substance abuse, but instead focus on your loved one’s life without alcohol or drugs. That will be the most meaningful and telling part of the conversation. Ask if whatever is occurring in your loved one’s life is making recovery hard, and if he or she is worried about a relapse. It is important to keep this conversation as non-judgmental and honest as possible. If our loved ones feel like they are being criticized, they are less likely to be open and honest about whether they are on the verge of relapse or have already succumbed to it. Also, remember that regularly asking how someone is doing, whether things seem to be going well or not, will make these conversations easier and less like you are questioning your loved one’s recovery or accusing someone of something.
If your loved one has assured you that he or she is in recovery, but you still have your doubts, compare your loved one’s pre-treatment behavior with his or her current actions and demeanor. We know what our loved ones look like when they are under the influence and supporting an alcohol or drug habit. In some instances, people may relapse by abusing a different substance, which would alter their personality and appearance differently, but some behaviors are common to all addictions.
The most telltale sign is unexplained financial difficulties. Obviously, if we lose our jobs or incur added expenses, our financial situation changes. But if it seems that everything has remained constant, but finances inexplicably have become an issue, it could be because they are supporting a drug or alcohol addiction. Regardless of the specific substance problem, it costs money to fuel those habits.
Missing Work, School, Meetings, or other Events
Likewise, if someone cannot account for his or her time or is suddenly failing to meet commitments to others, these are strong indicators something has changed. Any drastic changes that you do not understand or cannot be explained are a red flag. This does not mean 100% someone has relapsed, but your suspicions of relapse are reasonable.
Unless your loved one admits to a relapse or is caught in the act, you will need to have another conversation, which is specifically focused on your concerns that relapse has occurred, and where to go from there. This is not an easy discussion to have, and you cannot predict how your loved one might respond. Be prepared for defensiveness, anger, contempt, and manipulation. The only way for your loved one to prove he or she has remained in recovery is a drug test. Regardless of whether someone has relapsed or not, your loved one may balk at this suggestion. Ask your loved one to do it for your peace of mind while acknowledging your fears may be unfounded. If he or she has not relapsed, there is no reason not to take the test, even if it is done begrudgingly. If your loved one absolutely refuses and will not budge, however, it is almost certain a relapse has occurred.
What To Do if Your Loved One has Relapsed
If you are fairly certain your loved one has relapsed, you should revert to the plan you developed if your loved one did not successfully complete treatment. That may mean withdrawing financial support, other types of help, or ceasing contact altogether. These are all difficult things to do, but at the end of the day, you asked your loved one to take a test out of concern for them and to set your mind at ease. Anyone in recovery should understand that and, even if it is frustrating, recognize that it is not that big of a deal. Someone who has relapsed and is willing to fight for his or her recovery may seek further treatment after experiencing consequences. Others, while not lost causes by any means, may take a while longer before seeking help.
Suspecting a loved one has relapsed is very different than knowing for sure. Determining the truth is a complicated task that requires careful consideration, honesty, nonjudgmental conversations, and courage. Addiction professionals can help you navigate this emotional minefield. It is important to note that whether your loved one relapses or not is their decision and out of your control. However, the support group Al-Anon can help you get the support and encouragement you need regardless of the decision your loved one makes.