How to Help a Friend After They Relapse
Although the majority of recovering addicts experience at least one relapse, the person who does give in is usually left struggling with thoughts of “I always screw up things others have no trouble with.” Just as someone in the throes of self-pity sees everyone else as having all the good luck and none of the problems, a person overwhelmed by guilt is prone to believing (emotionally at least) that he or she is the only one who was ever even tempted.
Just as it hurts to see a loved one in the grip of addiction, it hurts to see them suffer a relapse and its aftereffects. Depending on your relationship and your interactions during the earlier drug-abuse history, you may also experience any of the following negative emotions:
- Anger: “I thought he’d learned better than that.”
- Fear: “Is she going to go back to square one and put us all through that again? Or what if she never does quit a second time, and keeps using until she kills herself?”
- Guilt: “It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been with him/if I hadn’t pushed his buttons/if I’d paid attention to how he was feeling.”
If you yourself have had a drug problem and managed to stay clean without relapse, there may even be a reaction of condescending pride: “I’m glad I’m not weak like her.”
Regardless of how it happened, regardless of how it might have been avoided, regardless of how your friend and you feel about the situation—your friend needs your help and encouragement to get back on track with sobriety. This article will present a variety of ideas on how to help a friend after they relapse. Many of these ideas will also provide insight on how to help a drug addict stay clean in the first place, and how to help an addict recover from other setbacks.
Never Reinforce Guilt
People who seek expert advice on how to help a friend in depression are usually told first what not to say. Relapse is certainly a depressing experience, and many of the “no-no’s” for talking to people struggling with clinical depression also apply here.
Do not say:
- “I thought you were stronger than that.”
- “Why don’t you just grow up?”
- “Why can’t you just be normal?”
- “You just have to try harder.”
- “You can do anything you really want to do.”
- “You’re just looking for attention.”
- “Quit whining and pull yourself together.”
Even if it’s arguably true, it’s not helpful. Anything that pushes someone toward self-pity, self-condemnation or the feeling nobody understands is a potential trigger for a retreat back into full addiction.
As for what to say..
Be Candid about Your Own Lapses
“Nobody’s perfect” is heard so often as to constitute a cliché, and most people are entirely willing to use it when excusing others’ little mistakes—or their own mistakes when they don’t feel like apologizing. Yet when it comes down to the frustrations and struggles of everyday life, human nature feels compelled to prove flawless. Have you ever:
- dreamed of a time when all your problems would disappear after you finally learned to do everything “right”?
- berated yourself for some mistake that was really insignificant?
- deliberately kept your mouth shut about your mistakes—or gone out of your way to keep others from finding out about them?
If you said “yes” to the last point in particular, the time to open up is now. Especially if you have ever relapsed yourself, your friend needs the encouragement of hearing “I survived, I returned to sobriety, and so can you.”
Even if none of your own mistakes were as “big” as falling into addiction, you have one or two stubborn habits you’d like to get rid of and that you find a struggle to change. Share your “relapses” in those areas, and invite your friend to encourage you if you start to feel hopeless. (Giving someone else a hand cheers a person up immensely.)
Remind Your Friend of Past Victories
Just making the decision to seek treatment for drug addiction shows strength of character. Completing the treatment is another reason to celebrate. Staying sober for the first week, the first month or the first year is. If your friend has done any of the above, he or she has something to be proud of—and reason to believe “I’ve beaten obstacles before and I can beat them again!”
Encourage your friend to remember those past victories and how good it felt to achieve them. If you were part of the process, reminisce together and let your friend know how proud you are of them. Paying attention to what was done right encourages more victories.
Help Them Plan for the Future
As far as possible, keep the relapse itself out of the conversation—except in the context of “How can we ensure it doesn’t happen again?” There’s a subtle but powerful difference between “What went wrong?” and “How can we keep the same thing from going wrong in the future?”—the first implies “I was [and probably will always be] a victim,” the second says, “I hold the real power.”
Help your friend review their relapse-prevention plan and their goals, noting any areas that need renewed attention. Encourage your friend to set official “appointments” with themselves to take action in these areas.
Assure Them You’re Always There for Them
Your friend likely has a support group and continuing-care program: if he or she is reluctant to go back and admit the relapse (especially if a long period of neglected participation was involved), assure them, “I don’t think any less of you, and neither will they.” Offer unconditional forgiveness for any pain the relapse caused you. Assure your friend they can call you at any time, and you’ll always believe in them no matter what.
Whatever help they ask for (or don’t ask for), let them lead the conversation. Some people regain their footing quickly after a relapse. Others need weeks of encouragement—even professional treatment—to keep from returning to the full addiction lifestyle. But all need to be respected and treated as individuals. Build on what you know of your friend’s temperament, weaknesses and strengths.
The number-one thing to remember about helping a friend after they relapse: focus on helping them rediscover their sense of self-worth.
Kunst, Jennifer, Ph.D. “Nobody Is Perfect.” PsychologyToday. com, July 9, 2014. Accessed March 28, 2017.
Meadows, Brittany. “One of the Top Causes for Addiction Relapse.” AddictionCampuses.com, February 28, 2015. Accessed March 28, 2017.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Is Relapse?” Accessed March 28, 2017.