Yesterday a good friend in a nearby city, Edward, sober from alcohol and drugs for well over a decade, received a flurry of text messages about an acquaintance of his, a recovering addict in her early 40s, who’d just gone into the hospital. At first the cause of this hospitalization was somewhat unclear, but as the day wore on Edward learned that she’d relapsed on alcohol and possibly methamphetamine after several years clean, and she’d ended up at the hospital, deeply distraught and possibly suicidal, where she was immediately placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. Meanwhile, Edward tells me that her husband of 18 months, also in recovery, is alternately fearful and livid, as are several of the people in their inner circle of sobriety and healing.
Even though Edward has been sober a long time and did not feel that he was in danger of relapsing himself, he reached out to me, seeking counsel from an impartial observer who also happens to be an addiction treatment professional. “Everyone is turning to me for advice,” he said, “and I want to make sure I’m not steering them down the wrong path.” Then he asked what I recommend when a friend or loved one relapses. After giving my answer, I realized that even though I’ve been asked the same exact question many times by many people over the years, I’ve never written about the topic. So here goes…
- Accept and embrace your emotions. Watching a friend or loved one return to active addiction, especially if they’re suffering consequences as a result, can be an incredibly painful experience. It is OK for you to feel stressed out, angry, afraid, etc. In fact, this is a perfectly natural and normal response. If your feelings become overwhelming, reach out to empathetic friends for support, especially other friends and loved ones of the relapser (who are likely feeling much of what you’re experiencing). If you are in recovery yourself, now is a good time to double up on your meetings, schedule an extra visit with your therapist, etc.
- Understand that loving the relapser won’t get him/her sober. No matter how much you love someone, no matter how badly you want that person to be sober and happy, the choice is not yours to make. As the old saying goes: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink (or, in this case, not drink). If an addict wants to get well, that can happen. If not, there is nothing you can do about it. You are powerless over another person’s addiction. Sacrificing your own needs and self-care in an effort to get another person sober will not work; what it will do is make you miserable.
- Recognize that making excuses for the relapser is counterproductive. Saying things like, “My friend only picked up because…” just feeds that person’s denial. Even worse, if you are also a recovering addict it can feed your own denial, helping you justify you own relapse. You might also find that you are somewhat jealous, thinking, “My friend is getting to enjoy something that I’m not.” If you’re having a thought like that, tell someone about it right now. Romancing the drink/drug in this way is a very, very dangerous thing to do. The sooner you get a thought like that one out in the open, the better.
- Stay away from assuaging the relapser’s feelings of guilt, remorse, anxiety, fear, and depression about relapse. Quite frankly, addicts who’ve relapsed need to feel these uncomfortable emotions because these feelings, more than anything else, will motivate them to re-enter recovery and re-establish sobriety. (You should not, however, try to create these feelings if they don’t yet exist. That will simply push the relapser away.)
- Remind yourself (and the relapser) that slipping back into active addiction is not the end of the world, though staying in active addiction might be. Honestly, if getting sober and staying sober was easy, we wouldn’t have so many treatment centers, outpatient sobriety programs, and 12 step support groups. Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful, and the majority of people seeking recovery do relapse at some point. The important thing is to learn from one’s mistakes and to re-engage as quickly as possible with the process of healing.
- Pay attention to behaviors of yours that might enable the relapse. For starters, this means you should not put up with bad behavior by the addict – lateness, breaking commitments, lies, etc. If and when you see this type of addiction-related activity, make it clear that you love the addict but you are not willing to be his or her punching bag. Tell the addict that if he or she continues to treat you badly, you will need to detach. If the addict threatens to drink or use over this perceived rejection, that is his or her choice and an indication that he or she is actively looking for ways to justify continued addiction. In other words, the addict will find someone or something to blame no matter what, so you shouldn’t take this on as your responsibility. Nothing you say or do can make another person use.
- Stand firm on the need for sobriety if the relapser wants you in his or her life. This tactic mirrors an intervention strategy that is used to get addicts into treatment and recovery in the first place. Essentially, you make it clear that you love the addict but you are worried about his or her health and wellbeing. If possible, you should give specific examples of problems that you see. Then you tell the addict that although you love him/her, you will not support the addiction. If he or she wants to get sober and build a better life, you are there to support that. Otherwise, you will need to detach.
- Make yourself available to the relapser. At the very least, you can check in by phone with this person once or twice per week to see how he or she is doing. More actively, you can say things like, “Hey, I’m going to the 7 p.m. AA meeting today. Do you want to come along?” If the relapser is resistant to 12 step meetings, addiction-focused therapy, and the like, you can still invite him or her to dinner or a movie. Sometimes it’s easier for a person who has relapsed to re-approach sobriety through a healthy social situation than through a formalized effort at healing. Don’t, however, get upset if your entreaties are rebuffed because the pull of addiction is more powerful than the pull of your friendship. All you can do here is make the effort. If the other person chooses to stay in active addiction, that’s his or her choice and you should not take it personally.
- Be an example for healthy living. Eat right, get a full night’s sleep, exercise, and enjoy your life. If you have a hobby, don’t push it aside just because a friend or loved one has relapsed. Instead, invite that person to join you. Letting a relapser know that you still value his or her company in a healthy, sober setting is a powerful message. Again, you should not get upset if your invitation is refused. All you can do here is make the effort.
- Be careful about what/how you “give” to help the relapser. It is OK to be charitable with a relapser, but only give that which supports sobriety. For instance, money (either a gift or a loan) is usually a bad idea. However, if you want to make sure the addict keeps up with his or her health insurance so that he or she can see a doctor or go to a rehab, that’s probably a very nice thing to do. You can also offer rides to therapy sessions, 12 step meetings, and the like – but not to the liquor store.
It is never easy or fun when a recovering addict slips backward into active addiction. In fact, it often feels worse than before the addict initially sought sobriety. Because of this, you need to approach someone else’s relapse with a first-things-first approach, and that means you need to take care of yourself and your own needs before you throw yourself into helping the relapser. If you are safe and healthy, with good support, then you have a lot more to offer someone who is struggling.
Of note: If you are not in addiction recovery but feel as if you might benefit from external support in dealing with another person’s addiction, you may want to look into support groups like Al-Anon and/or CODA, where you will find others who are dealing with the difficulties of a loved one’s addiction.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. For more information please visit website at robertweissmsw.com.