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It can be scary and overwhelming when a loved one is experiencing a relapse, whether early or long into their recovery. Michelle Maloney, PhD, director of addiction programing at Rogers, notes that relapse is not a sign of failure. She offers some tips for how you can show support for someone who is experiencing a relapse.
According to Dr. Maloney, there are two schools of thought on how to help someone who has a substance use disorder and is currently using. The first is to focus on yourself and to set and follow boundaries.
“If you write an intervention letter, you’re telling a person that you care for them and want them to get well,” Dr. Maloney says. “But if they choose not to seek help, then you need to think about what you need to do in order to care for yourself.”
Addiction is a disease with an impact that spreads far beyond just the person who is using, and it can be especially difficult for family members who aren’t practicing self-care. Spouses should see their own therapist, start going to Al-Anon meetings, and set firm boundaries. If they’re focused solely on their loved one, it’s common to see their performance at work or school also declining as well as experiencing strained social relationships.
“They’re so focused on that person that they begin to mimic the same behaviors and suffer from the same consequences as the person who’s using,” Dr. Maloney adds.
If someone denies that they have an issue with substance use, then the second school of thought may be the answer. The back-door approach, as Dr. Maloney refers to it, involves suggesting that a loved one seek help for a separate mental health or medical issue. For instance, if someone also has a history of depression, Dr. Maloney suggests seeing if they’re willing to see a counselor with the hope that substance use will be brought up in the session. Many couples and families may also seek family therapy to address stress and communication.
Regardless of which method someone attempts, Dr. Maloney often offers a simple piece of advice.
“There’s a phrase: whatever it takes,” she says. “Either way, the person may be angry with you, and you have to be able to tolerate them being angry. Would you rather save the person’s life and have them be angry with you, or would you rather see them continue to spiral downward but without being angry with you?”
In many ways, the same approach should be taken to help someone who relapses after long-term recovery as someone relapsing early in treatment. Family members should still try to focus on their own health. However, because the person has been in long-term recovery, it’s possible that they have a connection to some of their own recovery tools and community-based groups that can be utilized.
“Many times, if someone has had long-term recovery, the family has become involved in 12-step meetings as well,” she says. “Reaching out to their sponsor or their own 12-step groups can be a way to help. Depending on the relapse and how long it’s been going on, they may want to do an intervention.”
Someone who maintained recovery for a long period of time will also have a lower tolerance to substances than they used to have. In addition to the dangers of legal, medical, family, and vocational ramifications of using, there is a greater risk of overdose.
There are certain pitfalls when someone is experiencing a relapse and those are just as crucial as the steps you do take. One of the most important ones is refraining from getting angry with them or yelling.
“It will just bring up everyone’s defenses,” Dr. Maloney says. “If the person has maintained long-term recovery before the relapse, underneath they’re probably feeling a lot of self-shame, guilt, and anger.”
At the same time, the situation shouldn’t be minimized. If someone was originally using heroin and alcohol but is now only using alcohol, it’s not uncommon for family and friends to brush off the alcohol use. Similar situations occur with someone who cuts down from a case of beer to drinking a six pack a day.
Learn more about Rogers’ addiction treatment, including our approach, levels of care, and successful clinical outcomes. To request a free, confidential screening or for specific inquiries call 800-767-4411 or request a free screening online.
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