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Since addiction is a chronic disease, relapse can be common among those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. But that doesn’t make it easy to know what you should say to someone who has relapsed, especially if they’re a close loved one. Many family members wonder what to say or do and worry after the fact that they may have only contributed to the problem.
Lead clinical therapist Scott Gallo has heard many of these sentiments from family members and friends affected by substance abuse: “I usually ask families how they’ve responded to relapse,” he said in a recent interview. “It varies from getting angry to shaming, minimizing, sending a message that it’s OK, or blaming themselves (for making their loved one angry, for example).”
Such reactions usually are not successful at convincing someone to get treatment. But Gallo is quick to empathize with how especially hard relapse can be for the people closest to a person in recovery. They want to help their loved one without enabling their addiction— they’re also the most emotionally invested in their loved one’s recovery. Those high emotional stakes can make it much harder to determine how and what they should say.
What’s clear from speaking with Gallo is that a supportive response (one that helps a person get into treatment) can involve “complex and subtle” considerations. As a therapist who often sees people immediately after a relapse, Gallo also has a unique perspective about what people might say to someone who has just relapsed. Those insights into what to say and what not to say follow….
What Not to Say When Someone You Love or Care About Relapses
A loving and supportive response starts with knowing what not to say. Gallo cautioned against dispensing advice because it’s “typically not productive.” Why? Because most people in recovery know what they’re supposed to do when a slip-up is about to occur or has already happened. For instance, they know from 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous that they should “go to a meeting” and “call their sponsor” (or mentor in recovery).
“Most people in recovery already know they should have done those things,” Gallo said. He noted that the problem for the person who relapses “isn’t knowing what they need to do— the problem is not doing it.” That’s because the nature of addiction is such that “you’re always finding different ways to talk yourself out of your need for recovery.”
“Consequently, this type of response [giving advice about what to do] can tend to put a person who has recently relapsed in a defensive posture,” Gallo said. Additionally, “language can be important, so ‘what kept you from reaching out to your sponsor?’ might be better received than ‘why didn’t you call your sponsor?'”
Blaming and accusing the person is also not helpful, especially when that person’s “first inclination is to be ashamed and to deny it happened … that’s obviously not helpful.” As it is, shame is a powerful deterrent from getting sober and healthy again, so the last thing someone needs after relapsing is to feel more guilty and ashamed.
People aren’t “going to be blamed or shamed into their recovery,” Gallo said. Instead, “it’s best to try to create dynamics in a relationship where a relapsed person will feel comfortable enough to be forthcoming about a relapse, while still understanding it will not be tolerated.”
What to Say to a Recovering Addict Who Has Just Relapsed
If the goal is to be approachable so that a recovering addict who has just relapsed feels more comfortable opening up, what things might you say to them? Gallo recommended “putting the responsibility on them.” How? By asking them “‘What do you want to do, and what are you going to do?’”
“What do you want to do and what are you going to do?”
In other words, matter-of-factly let the person know, “‘You are a grown-up and free to live your life in active addiction,’” and invite them to reflect on what they want and what their choices and actions will be moving forward.
“You’re free to do what you want, and what you do will have consequences.”
At the same time, they need to know that their choices and actions will have consequences: “Be clear that these are your options,” Gallo said, who noted that “empowering [the recovering addict] to take responsibility” for a relapse also involves clarifying matter-of-factly that “if you continue to do a, b, or c, then I will do x, y, or z.”
This part of the conversation can often be very hard for close family or friends:
It’s difficult because of enabling dynamics in families. We sometimes end up more distressed about someone’s addiction than the person who is addicted, and consequently, we end up trying to control it. The reason people have unproductive responses is typically because they are responding to it as if it is their responsibility to control. The hardest thing and the healthiest thing is detaching with love.
“How can I help?”
It’s fine to say, “‘I’m here to help you if you choose to get better and if you want to get better,’” Gallo said. The “landmine” when asking this question, however, is “differentiating between enabling addiction versus enabling recovery”— so “you need to be aware of what’s helpful and what’s not.”
Gallo shared this scenario: Say, for example, that the person who has just relapsed asks you to pay their bail and call their boss to vouch for them. This would be enabling, but what would be helpful to their recovery would be a system to get them into treatment, which may include helping with such issues if they are a barrier to getting help.
Other forms of help might include:
- providing emotional support
- helping the person find someone who they feel comfortable opening up to and who they will contact the next time they’re tempted to relapse
- getting support for yourself such as through a 12-step group like Alanon
- attending family therapy with the person who has relapsed
To what degree family therapy will be helpful “depends on the situation,” Gallo said:
Family therapy is always helpful so long as the person with the addiction understands that their recovery is on them as an individual. In an ideal situation, a therapist is helping a codependent family member sort through the boundaries and learn to help in a way that’s not going to be enabling.
How to React to a Confession of Relapse When You’re Not Close Family
Strikingly, an addict will often find it easier to confide in people who are not close loved ones. They may open up to a colleague because the relationship is not so “emotionally charged” and “there’s less history,” in Gallo’s words.
If a colleague comes to you to say they’ve relapsed, helping them be honest with the other people who are close to them is also helpful. For instance, Gallo suggested that you might ask them, “What can I do to support you in telling your wife?”
In these instances, “the same response is applicable: “What do you want to do and how can I help you do it?’” It’s a question that ultimately only the person who has relapsed can answer.
Are you wondering how to support someone who has confided in you about their addiction? Our counselors are here to give personalized advice. Call us day or night at 1-866-710-5895.