It’s heartbreaking when someone you love relapses into drug or alcohol use and all the hope and joy you felt upon believing they had conquered their addiction evaporates. The mental torture then begins: “I should have seen this coming,” “I feel so stupid” and “How could they choose this over me?” It’s a painful time and it calls for facing painful realities in order to promote healing for all involved. When someone you love has a relapse, remind yourself of these things.
Relapse only seems like a choice.
When addiction takes hold, it literally changes the brain, damaging the person’s ability to make good choices and control impulsivity, even in the face of overwhelmingly negative consequences. (Take a look inside the mechanisms of addiction.) Learning how to counteract that damage is a long, slow process, and the person will always retain a vulnerability to addiction. Little wonder then that an estimated 40% to 60% of people relapse on the way to recovery. While it can be hard not to take your loved one’s relapse personally, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that what seems like a choice is in reality an illness, one that they must learn to manage. It’s not a way of excusing behaviors but of understanding the complexity of what your loved one is dealing with and the hard work ahead.
You don’t have control, but you do have influence.
No matter how desperately you want it, no matter how much you plead, push, beg, or threaten, you can’t get sober for them, and that’s one of the hardest things to accept. So what do you do? Always picking up the pieces simply delays the work only they can do. And trying to control a situation you are ultimately powerless over brings such stress that it can make your own life unmanageable, and that does no one any good. You can’t fix them, but you can exert your influence by setting healthy limits. That means letting them know you will assist them in getting help, but you won’t enable their substance use. You can also get educated about addiction so that you can better understand what they’re going through — and help them understand it, too. Remember, you are almost certainly not the only one baffled and devastated by the relapse. Your loved one is likely to be feeling shame from the sudden lack of control and may react by denying the problem or pulling away from every helping hand. In such situations, an alcohol or drug intervention can be a way to send the message that others care and help is available. An invention doesn’t always result in the addicted person immediately agreeing to go into treatment, but it can plant the seed. Above all, you can refuse to paint the relapse as failure. Instead, you can help your loved one view it as a sign of the power of addiction and an indication that they need to reinstate treatment or get help making a course correction on their way to recovery.
Relapse hurts you, too.
In the midst of all the turmoil your loved one’s relapse can bring, never forget that your needs matter as well. Allow yourself to seek out happiness, and make time in your life for the things that will keep you mentally and physically strong — sleep, exercise, healthy eating, socializing. You should also prioritize connecting with others who understand your struggles. A mutual support group such as Al-Anon can provide a powerful boost to your peace of mind and help you learn healthy ways to deal with your situation. Importantly, the addict isn’t the only one affected by the addiction. If your loved one’s problems are making you feel consistently overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, don’t delay in reaching out for help from a mental health professional. The sooner you deal with your feelings, the less likely they’ll be to drag you down.
Relapse doesn’t mean you should give up hope.
After a relapse, you may berate yourself for ever daring to believe your loved one could change. But your hope isn’t just wishful thinking. A 2012 study put the number of U.S. adults who consider themselves in recovery from drug or alcohol use at an astonishing 23.5 million. And many of them got there after multiple relapses and despite seemingly insurmountable odds. (If you need proof, read musician Michael Shapiro’s story of his recovery.) When things look dark, remind yourself that all these millions did it, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe your loved one can’t one day join their numbers. By Kendal Patterson Follow Kendal at @kendalpatterson