It is difficult to comprehend how badly someone in recovery feels when they have relapsed. While those who love them struggle with feelings of disappointment, frustration, and sorrow, the person who relapsed is overcome with an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt.
Relapse is a reality for many in substance use recovery. Since relapses are so common, especially during the first year of recovery, it is important to avoid adding any fuel to the stigma that already exists. It is hard enough for the person who relapsed. They already feel as if they have failed both themselves and their loved ones. So, if or when someone you care about does relapse, take a pause before reacting. What they need most is compassion and support.
About Substance Use Stigma
There is an unspoken stigma that still persists around substance use. It is almost as if people want to push the topic into a dark corner and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. People are uncomfortable discussing substance use, either their own problem with a substance or a loved one’s—as if ignoring this serious disease will make it all just go away.
Stigma is the negative and judgmental attitude that is attached to someone who has struggled with, or is currently battling, a substance use disorder. Our society resists acknowledging how pervasive the problem is, often ignoring the elephant in their own living rooms. Sadly, all this denial only perpetuates the problem…and the stigma.
Signs of Relapse
A relapse rarely springs out of nowhere without warning. In most cases, the subtle signs relapse begin to show up weeks in advance. Some of the signs of an upcoming relapse include:
- Becoming less engaged in sobriety actions, such as attending meetings, working the Steps, or staying in contact with a sponsor.
- Starting to revert to poor lifestyle habits, such as giving up on a healthy diet or no longer getting regular exercise.
- Neglecting appearance or personal hygiene.
- Beginning to avoid friends and family members; isolating.
- No longer using recovery tools to manage stress.
- Romanticizing past substance use.
- Beginning to hang out with old acquaintances that use substances.
- Exhibiting secretive or deceptive behaviors.
When these warning signs become apparent, go ahead and ask your loved one how they are doing. They may not be ready to talk, but at least they will know you have noticed something is off. Always remind them that you are available to talk any time they need an ear.
3 Ways to Respond to a Loved One’s Relapse
How we respond to someone who has relapsed is critical. The negative consequences are already obvious to them. Instead of berating the person who has stumbled, why not assure them of their value as a human being who is deserving of support?
- Offer to join them at a meeting. It is very difficult for someone who has relapsed to return to the recovery community as a newcomer. Some individuals might welcome the offer to accompany them to a meeting or two as a show of support.
- Suggest they consider sober living. Sober living is an excellent option in early recovery to help sustain sobriety. Your loved one may enjoy many supportive benefits from staying in a sober living home for a period. A well-managed sober living home can act as a refuge where they can safely reside without being exposed to substances.
- Encourage them to persevere. Encourage your loved one to take the steps needed to reinforce sobriety. These steps include returning to outpatient therapy and group therapy, with peer support being especially important after a relapse. Help them by being a positive force in their life and encourage them to continue moving forward in recovery.
If a loved one experienced an extended relapse they may need to readmit to a treatment program. Guiding them back into treatment is the compassionate thing to do. If your loved one has relapsed, remind them that you continue to believe in them and reaffirm your ongoing support. The actions you take will be witnessed by others, and will begin to remove the stigma around the complex disease of addiction.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.