Most people in early recovery are focused on staying away from drugs and alcohol. The first few months and even years are about preventing addiction relapse. It makes sense! Getting clean and sober is hard. For a lot of people, most of their time and energy during this period is spent creating new routines and habits to avoid returning to active addiction. But what happens when you successfully stay sober, and someone you love suffers an addiction relapse? It happens to many people, but there are effective and healthy ways to handle it.

Recognizing Addiction Relapse

A lot of effort is spent on creating relapse prevention plans for people in early recovery. Creating a network of sober friends and supports is a large part of that process. Some people in recovery also choose to date other clean and sober people. In the best-case scenario, you wouldn’t have to worry about addiction relapse happening to one of these people. But the reality is that sometimes it happens. Recognizing the signs of addiction relapse in a loved one is the first step to handling it correctly. Some signs that a member of your network has relapsed include:

  • extreme mood shifts that can’t be explained by an underlying condition
  • missing meetings, commitments, or usual routines
  • lying about small issues (this can indicate a pattern of dishonesty)
  • appearing drunk or high
  • ducking calls and withdrawing from the social group suddenly
  • borrowing money constantly, with no explanation
  • “going off the grid” or disappearing with no contact for hours or even days at a time
  • finding drugs or paraphernalia (such as empty beer bottles or syringes) in their home or car

Not all these signs mean that someone is experiencing an addiction relapse. But if you notice any of these things going on in a friend or partner’s life, it may be worth exploring more. It could be a sign that they need help.

How to Handle Addiction Relapse in a Loved One

When someone you love suffers an addiction relapse, it can be heartbreaking. Depending on how close you are, you could feel anger, fear, sadness, or a mixture of feelings. Fortunately, there are ways to navigate these situations in a healthy and positive way. The first step to handling relapse in a loved one is to make sure you put your recovery first. This is a good time to step up your meeting attendance, reach out to your sponsor and sober supports, or use resources like therapy and spiritual practices. Making sure that you don’t follow the path to drinking and using is vital.

Support, Enabling, and Everything in Between

After making sure that you’re protecting your sobriety, there are a few steps you can take to support and help someone in an addiction relapse and avoid enabling their drug or alcohol use:

  • Don’t sweep it under the rug. It might be uncomfortable to deal with but ignoring it doesn’t help.
  • Offer support in a safe manner. Don’t drive them around to bars or spend time around drugs, but you can offer to take them to a meeting, to sit with them while they call their sponsor, parents, or a friend, or make it clear that you support their recovery.
  • Set boundaries. There is a fine line between enabling and support. Make it clear that you won’t help them avoid consequences, but you will support them if they need help to get sober.
  • Take time for yourself. You may need to decide if you need to take a step back from the relationship, or you might just need time to decompress and process. You can’t help if you’re running on fumes.
  • Be honest. It’s ok to ask for help and it’s ok to tell your loved one how you feel. Being upfront about how their behavior has impacted you could motivate them to do something about their drug use.
  • Remember it isn’t your fault! You aren’t responsible for someone else’s recovery. Be gentle with yourself and take care of your own needs.

Someone in an addiction relapse may need professional treatment. Until they are ready to accept help, the most effective thing you can do is make sure that you are taking care of yourself. Offering support is great but remember that it’s ok to take time and to process your own feelings. Addiction relapse is an unfortunate reality for many, but by reaching out to your supports and putting your sobriety first, you can get through any challenge in your recovery.

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