Supporting an Addict Who’s Relapsed

The path toward recovery from addiction often isn’t a straight line. It’s important that family and friends know what to do, and what not to do, at this critical time.

Seeing a loved one return to drugs or alcohol during or after addiction treatment can be devastating to family and friends. You may feel as though everything you and she have done about the addiction has been in vain. Naturally, you want to help support the family member or friend with the addiction so she can regain her health and get back to life as it once was. You may feel like you would do anything – including sacrificing your own needs and wants – to help your loved one get back on her feet. But experts say that’s not what’s best for addicts. Here are the important points to keep in mind, with guidelines for what to do and what not to do when a loved one relapses.

Addiction Relapse: It’s Not Your Problem
As hard as it may be, remembering that this is the addict’s battle will help you to cope with the situation – to truly get well, she needs to do it on her own.

DO stand firm: “Hold addicts accountable for their recovery from the relapse, just as it was important to hold them accountable for their addiction in the first place,” says Ray Isackila, a licensed chemical dependency counselor in the Department of Psychiatry addiction recovery services at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

DON’T dismiss the problem: “This means that you don’t make excuses for the addict,” Isackila adds. It’s also crucial that you don’t try to take on your loved one’s problems.

DO encourage your loved one: “Just redirect them to their original addiction treatment plan,” says Russell Goodwin, a licensed professional chemical dependency counselor with IMPACT Solutions in Beachwood, Ohio. This may include suggesting they talk to their counselor or sponsor or that they go to an addiction support group meeting.

DON’T push: Once you have urged your loved one to reconnect with the people who can guide him or her in the right direction, take a step back. “Remember that it’s not your mission to make them well again,” says Goodwin.

Addiction Relapse: Avoid the Blame Game
You want to neutralize emotions, not make your loved one feel guilty or absolve them of guilt.

DON’T try to take away the addict’s guilt or anxiety about the relapse: That’s also not your job. “If they’re feeling guilty, that’s probably a good thing because it means they will go and get the proper help,” says Isackila.

DON’T try to get a relapsed addict to feel guilty: If they don’t already, this will not be helpful. “Saying to an addict, ‘Look what you’ve done to me’ is not going to motivate them to seek treatment,” says Goodwin.

Addiction Relapse: How to Help
Still, you don’t have to stand idly by – you can offer support in your own ways, without letting yourself be pulled down by the situation.

DO¬†take care of yourself: That’s the best way to help an addict who has relapsed. Eat well, get enough sleep, be sure to exercise, and keep doing the things you like, such as hobbies, sports, crafts, – whatever it is you enjoy.

DO set an example for healthy living, suggests Goodwin: “If you’re on your way to the gym, you can invite your loved one to join you. Letting them know that you’d enjoy their company is very supportive. Just remember that you can’t force them to accept the invitation.”

DO be supportive: If the addiction is to alcohol, a very supportive measure is to avoid having any alcohol in the house. “Many times a caregiver doesn’t understand why they can’t have a drink at home,” Goodwin says. “I ask them why they would want to have alcohol in the house when it’s the very substance that’s killing their loved one.”

Addiction Relapse: Staying Positive
It’s important to have a positive outlook, for both your sake and the sake of your loved one.

DON’T be discouraged: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug addiction is, in many ways, like other chronic illnesses that often require more than one round of therapy. Just because addicts relapse and may need another course of treatment doesn’t mean that their treatment has been unsuccessful or that they won’t be able to stay “clean” in the long run.

DO be optimistic. Even though a relapse is not the outcome you were hoping for, a return to addiction treatment can be very helpful for your loved one who could, eventually, live a drug-free life.

By Jean Rothman
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

Randy Haveson

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Randy Haveson
Randy Haveson is the Founder & CEO of HERO House, a sober living, recovery residence program for college students in early sobriety from addictions. Learn More

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