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How to help someone who has relapsed on drugs or alcohol

Within this blog, we will look at how to help someone who has relapsed so that you both have the opportunity to turn this often distressing blow into a useful experience to grow from. We will also outline the professional treatment that is available at Priory’s rehabilitation clinics to support you both at this time. 

Discovering that someone has relapsed on drugs or alcohol after treatment can be so disheartening. It isn’t the outcome that either of you were hoping for, but it also isn’t the end of the road. They can still get better.

Advice on helping someone who has relapsed

Don’t ignore, dismiss or enable the problem

If someone close to you has returned to drugs or alcohol, you will want to help them get better, even if you feel disappointed, angry or sad about what has happened. No doubt you’ll be feeling worn out too.

When it comes to helping someone who has relapsed, remember that you can support them, but it is important to do so in a way that doesn’t enable their behaviour and that doesn’t interfere with you recovering your own health and wellbeing.

Always remember the ‘three Cs’ from Al-Anon; “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it”:

  • You are not responsible and aren't to blame for someone who has relapsed
  • You can be supportive without taking on the responsibility for their relapse 
  • The person needs to be left with the opportunity to be responsible for their relapse

Also, be mindful not to enable their behaviour. Don’t phone in sick for them at work, don’t lend them money and don’t buy alcohol or drugs for them. When thinking about how to help someone who has relapsed, always remember that you shouldn’t be doing anything that makes it easy for them to continue with their destructive behaviour.

When helping someone who has relapsed, take good care of yourself 

Don’t be afraid to stand firm and stand back

When you’re helping someone who has relapsed, you may forget to look after yourself. You may feel selfish if you put your needs above the other person. But, if you’re not taking care of yourself, how can you be expected to have the energy to truly support anyone else?

When someone has returned to active addiction, remember that they are the one person who can get them well again. Don’t sacrifice your own health and wellbeing. And don’t exhaust yourself worrying about whether it is your fault or your responsibility.  

Instead, take the time to eat and sleep well. Also, don’t shut yourself off from others. Spend time with people other than the person who has relapsed. You won’t be able to help anyone, including yourself, if your batteries are depleted.

Look after your own health and wellbeing

Start to think about how you can change the way you react to the person’s addictive behaviours if they have relapsed, and spend time doing things to make yourself feel better:

  • Keep your own social appointments rather than adjusting your life around the person who has relapsed
  • Get into bed at your normal time, even if the person hasn’t returned home as promised. Even if you can’t sleep, this will give you time to shut your eyes and get some rest
  • You may want to phone an understanding friend or someone from a support group
  • Give yourself time for quiet reflection, and try to do this throughout your day
  • Take care of your mental health by booking in time for relaxation, maintaining hobbies and seeing friends
  • Look after your physical health, and maybe have a check-up with your GP

Think about joining Al-Anon or Nar-Anon

When someone close to you has relapsed, often it can be helpful to get an outsider’s point of view, especially from people who have their own experiences of addiction or relapse within the family.

Al-Anon and Nar-Anon provide support to people affected by someone else’s drinking or drug abuse. These can be particularly useful if you find it difficult to talk to your friends and family about the problem.

Addiction is something that has such a big impact on the people surrounding an addict, and these support networks allow you to be amongst people going through similar experiences. Along with discussing how to help someone who has relapsed, you also have a chance to air your concerns, worries and thoughts, and receive helpful advice and support from people who really do understand the situation you are going through.

Discuss your feelings with the person who has relapsed

When thinking about how to help someone who has relapsed, it is important to consider how you will sit down and talk to the person about your worries.  

We understand that this is a difficult conversation – and is one you’re probably dreading – but it is so important to have.  Here are some things to think about in preparation for the discussion:

  • Choose a place that is private and where you will both feel comfortable
  • Focus the conversation on your thoughts, feelings and observations by using phrases like “I’ve noticed…”, “I’m worried about…” or “I’m scared that…” By keeping the conversation on you rather than them, this can stop the person from becoming defensive or feeling as though you are attacking them. It can also help them to see how their relapse has been affecting you and others who care about them, which can sometimes help a person recognise the extent of their problem
  • When you talk to them, don’t try and reason with them, as the pull of their addiction will often be so much stronger than logical and rational thought
  • While it may be tough, try not to lose your temper. It’s perfectly understandable for you to feel angry and upset, but express these thoughts and feelings with others

If you talk to the person who has relapsed and they aren't ready to hear what you want to say, pause the conversation and have it at a different time.

Don’t accept promises

During these conversations, the person may promise to stop drinking or drug taking.

They may say that they don’t need treatment and that they can get better by themselves, or that they just slipped up and will be fine from now on. While the person will mean these things in the moment, their cravings will typically become more powerful than the promises they made. So, you are likely to find that they go broken.

Help someone who has relapsed by encouraging professional treatment

If the person has previously attended an Addiction Treatment Programme, encourage them to get back in contact with their team – also, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone yourself to speak to them.

Returning to addiction treatment can be incredibly helpful, whether that is returning to a previous treatment centre or undergoing a programme at a new facility. Doing so is also highly recommended, as it can help the person to learn from what has happened and receive a helping hand so that can get themselves back on the road to recovery once again.  

At Priory Group, we have supported people who have relapsed. As our programmes focus on healing, abstinence and long term sustainability of sobriety, our therapists work to teach people the skills they need for a sustained recovery.

At Priory, our Addiction Treatment Programmes run Family Support Groups, where family members can come along to reflect, get support and learn from others. These support groups can help to unload the burden of responsibility and be with others who understand. This can be validating and reassuring when you are close to someone in active addiction. Don’t try to handle it by yourself and don’t suffer in silence.

How to emphasise your encouragement

When someone experiences a relapse, they can feel embarrassed and ashamed. These feelings can stop the person from seeing a way out and in turn, reaching out for help.

Your support and encouragement can show that there is help and an opportunity to get back on track. Let them know that you are there for them as they seek support and will continue to help them in their recovery.

Emergency planning

Sometimes it’s difficult to think rationally in a crisis, so don’t sit in the fear of the worst happening. Instead, be prepared. For example, have a list of emergency telephone numbers including the person’s GP, local hospital, and social services.

Also, for your own wellbeing, have a list of a couple of friends who you know you can reach out to and agree times when you can call for support if and when it is needed.

 

Blog reviewed by Pamela Roberts (BSc (Hons), Fd Systemic/Family, Dip.Addictions Therapy, Dip.Sex Addiction, PG Dip.Group Facilitation, PG Dip.Trauma Therapy), Addictions Programme Manager at Priory Hospital Woking

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