In the process of getting sober, a person with an addiction to drugs or alcohol does not simply go from the acceptance of their addiction to recovery. This isn’t a straight-line point A to point B journey. There are many twists and turns, setbacks and rough spots — and relapse is a common example of these rocky moments. 

The struggle from the addicted individual’s point-of-view is well documented. Entire sections of library shelves are dedicated to such memoirs and novels as Ellen Hopkins’ Glass and Dry. by Augusten Burroughs. It’s a cliche at this point: good girl or boy gets swept up by drug or alcohol addiction, falls deeper and deeper into the depths of their addictions, and then eventually recovers from their self-destruction.

But in these books, the families and friends of those with substance use disorders are rarely mentioned, even though they also deal with the aftermath of addiction and relapse. 

In most cases, these friends and family members rarely take the lead. Not always, though. One of my favorite books that look at addiction from the loved one’s perspective is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Walls is the daughter of an alcoholic father, and the memoir details her life and experience, growing up and living with the effects of his addiction.

Books are fine and all, but when it comes down to practicality, how do you cope with a loved one’s relapse?

It’s important to start with this: Addiction and recovery (as well as getting past relapse) are ultimately up to the addicted person. There are things –– mental illness, trauma, etc., — that present unique barriers to sobriety and make it more difficult to recover. Still, whether an addicted individual takes charge of these is up to them, regardless of how supportive or involved loved ones or friends are.

It is equally important to mention that relapse is a common experience among those who are recovering from alcohol use disorder. Getting sober is a monumental task. When someone decides to try recovery, they are literally changing everything about the way they exist in the world. When we make life changes, relapse into old behavior is common. Probable even. And recovery is no exception. The shame and stigma that surround relapse just make it harder for someone in recovery.

When a loved one starts the process of recovery, it can feel hopeful. You might start to see positive changes and start hoping for the best for them. But a relapse can take all of those feelings away. Relapse is hard on everyone — the person suffering from substance use disorder and their loved ones. 

Set Healthy Boundaries 

The first step is to back up a bit, and assess the situation from an objective perspective. As with most serious and personal issues, being able to see the struggles of loved ones with an open mind is a battle of its own. But when we look at it from their side and get into their head (as far as how the addicted person is suffering, for example), we unlock new ways to heal ourselves.

Obviously, when a loved one is in the throes of addiction, they may not be receptive to help or advice. For your own well-being, distancing yourself without abandoning your friend or family member might be the right decision. But what does that look like? Distance often feels like abandoning. 

“I don’t confront people about their sobriety or lack of it,” says Robert Campa, who struggled with addiction to opioids for seventeen years. “I will say, ‘I care about you and want nothing bad to happen to you. If you need to talk I am here.’ And for better or worse that is the extent of my involvement.”

Distancing yourself “would be appropriate if the person with addiction is not respecting the boundaries that have been established,” adds Christina Rife, a Licensed Professional Counselor working as an independent contractor at Pittsburgh’s Counseling and Wellness Center.

If you’re at the point where distance seems like the only option to protect your own well-being, Campa adds, “I would suggest giving the addicted person a harsh but necessary ultimatum: ‘I will help you get help. But if you don’t get help then I cannot have you in my life, as much as I may care for you’.”

In my own experience, I’ve noticed how troubling my addiction can be for my friends and family. They have often tried to help me and accept the damage my substance use has caused, but I haven’t always been willing to see it. Losing friends is a common side effect of misusing drugs and alcohol. But I can’t blame them for the decision to abandon ship if this is what they believe needs to be done to protect themselves.

Take a Look at Codependent Behavior

The Oxford dictionary defines codependency as “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.” Codependency, especially when dealing with a loved one who suffers from substance misuse, shows up in many ways. It’s a parent giving an addicted child money for their habit, or a partner sticking with a loved one because they need that person, even though the addicted person’s decisions are negatively affecting the relationship. 

Codependence can feel like giving out love or support to our addicted loved ones. When someone you love relapses, you might feel inclined to help. Maybe you want to give them money, one more time because you believe it will help. Maybe you want to stay because you fear that without you, this person might make worse decisions or hurt themselves. 

Nonetheless, these actions might actually be more harmful than helpful when it comes to relapse and dealing with our loved ones who have substance use issues. 

Codependency is particularly common among loved ones of addicted folks, and Codependents Anonymous can be extremely helpful in times like these. 

Find Outside Support 

Finding a support group is another good idea when it comes to keeping yourself mentally and spiritually well. By seeking out these services, struggling folks can build a supportive community comprised of those going through similar situations. Al-Anon and Alateen are two well-known groups for anyone with people in their lives who have issues with alcohol.

Yet the 12-step model, so foundational to these groups (modeled after the ones found in Alcoholics Anonymous), doesn’t always work for some folks. The reliance on “God” or a “higher power” turns many (especially atheists) off.

There are recovery and support groups that don’t follow the same plan as AA and NA. The most well-known of these AA alternatives is probably SMART Recovery. “SMART” stands for “Self-Management and Recovery Training. The program was founded in 1994, and it differs from AA and other twelve-step programs by not encouraging members to admit powerlessness over their addictions or using the idea of a “Higher Power.” Instead, the focus is more on personal accountability than viewing it as a defect a sufferer is powerless over.

For Paige Converse, this is very much the case. “I do urge everyone to view their loved one’s substance abuse issue as a psychological problem or disturbance, never as a moral failing,” she suggests. “Doing this removes judgment from the picture and allows you to approach your loved one with compassion.”

“Addiction is a family disease,” Rife adds. “It is just as important that family and loved ones learn how to deal, and how they can be a support.”

This may be the most crucial truth to accept as they grapple with the struggles of their family and friends. By learning how to handle their loved ones’ substance abuse, the aim is for family members and friends to grow stronger in their own lives through self-empowerment. Counseling and support groups can be excellent resources for learning coping mechanisms and how to apply them to daily interactions.

“At the end of the day, it is the addict’s decision to change behavior,” Campa declares, adding: “If you don’t look out and care for your own well-being then you really will not be of any positive use to anyone else.”

It can be heart-wrenching to watch a loved one relapse into addiction and carry on hurting themselves and others. Addiction is a complicated, heartbreaking issue that affects not only the one with the addiction but also those close to them. If a person continues to relapse, it’s important to keep your own well-being in mind. As selfish as this may sound, it is critical to staying in good mental health. All you can do is hope for the best.