When Your Loved One Relapses
6 ways for families to respond
A young heroin addict went to treatment and checked out early against medical advice. Meanwhile his family took the opposite route — embracing their own recovery and learning everything they could about how to manage their relationship with him.
When he ended up on the street aain, sick and miserable, he called his family for money. But from parents to siblings to aunts and uncles, no one would budge.
“That lasted about a day and a half, and he was back in treatment,” said family interventionist Wayne Raiter, MA, LICSW. “He did a lot better in recovery the second time. If the family stops supporting the addiction, it makes it much more difficult to sustain the behavior.”
Raiter is the creator of the Systemic Family Intervention Model and is Director of Family Programming for American Addiction Centers. He encourages families to embrace their power and not fall back into familiar patterns when a relapse occurs.
“Statistically, relapse is not an unusual part of the process of recovery,” Raiter said.
“Families need to understand that it’s typical, so that they don’t think once someone goes to treatment they never have to worry again. But ultimately, the relapse itself is less important than how you respond to it.”
Take Raiter’s advice to do what’s best for your loved one and yourself in the event of a relapse.
“Recovery is about progress, not perfection.”
— Michael Cartwright, Believable Hope
1. Plan your relapse response before you need it
At Oxford Treatment Center, the two-day Intensive Family Therapy Program serves to educate family members about the disease of addiction and equip them to support their loved one in recovery. Through the program, therapists also help families define and express the consequences their loved one will face if they ever use again.
Families shouldn’t wait to plan the specific steps they will take to bring those consequences to bear. Then, make sure everyone in the family understands the plan.
“I always teach families to have a plan for everything — including a relapse,” Raiter said. “You need to know: ‘If this happens, this is what we are going to do.’ That way, you don’t get caught in a reactive situation.”
2. Engage your loved one calmly and clearly
If you suspect your loved one is using again, ask. Then be prepared to follow through with your plan.
“Your loved one may lie to you, and you can’t control that,” Raiter said. “What you can do if you suspect they’re using is ask in a nonjudgmental way: ‘Here’s the behavior I’m seeing. It feels familiar to me. I’m not judging, but are you using? And if so, we need to solve that problem — not next week, but today.’”
3. Maintain your boundaries
It’s critical to stick by the consequences your family laid out during the Intensive Family Therapy Program. Otherwise, your loved one will get the idea there is room for negotiation.
“If I’m contemplating using again, there needs to be no confusion,” Raiter said. “This is what we’ve agreed to do, and this is what we’re going to do.”
At the same time, he said, be clear that in following through on the consequences you laid out, you are acting not against your loved one but against the addiction.
“Let them know: ‘It’s not about you; it’s about the disease,’” Raiter said. “‘We understand how difficult this is, but we have to follow through with this.’”
4. Stay in problem-solving mode
Relapse has the potential to trigger all the familiar old habits that previously fueled compensation systems that weren’t working in the family. Don’t fall prey to panic, or slip back into the hopelessness and helplessness you felt before your loved one went to treatment.
“Stay hopeful and empowered,” Raiter said, adding that focusing on executing your relapse plan will help keep waves of emotion from pulling you under.
“What families often do is respond to addiction with the emotional part of their brain, which has no problem-solving ability in it,” he said. “What occurs is a that you have a family that is competent but can’t access that competency.”
5. Tap your support system
If you’ve been through the Intensive Family Therapy Program, you know the encouragement it brings to face a loved one’s addiction with the support of therapists and other families who’ve shared your experience. A relapse is a time to reach out to the support system you have in place.
“You don’t want to get isolated,” Raiter said. “In support groups like Al-Anon, every group has someone who has faced a loved one’s relapse and can talk about that experience.
“It’s also important to communicate with someone who has expertise in dealing with addiction, like a therapist you worked with at the treatment center. You’ll benefit from their perspective, and they can help you stay in problem-solving mode.”
6. Isolate the addiction
When a loved one is in addiction, it can feel like the entire family is revolving in an orbit around that person.
“The reality is, the family is revolving around a chemical — an inanimate object,” Raiter said. “If we were to put a chair in the middle of the room, and have a family walk around it and bow to it, how would a therapist observe that scene? They’d think everyone was crazy.
“Families do feel crazy when faced with a loved one’s addiction, because everyone’s revolving around an inanimate object. Ultimately, the stance you take during a relapse is not a stance against your loved one. It’s about refusing to bring that inanimate object back into the family.”