It’s Difficult–For Everyone
Watching someone you care about struggle with substance abuse is extremely difficult. When they have gotten help and started down the path to recovery, everyone hopes it will be a forever solution.
A loved one’s sobriety, however, can feel like a double-edged sword for the family and friends. On one hand, you want to trust that your loved one’s treatment was a complete success. On the other hand, you may have already had your trust broken so many times and been hurt so much that it’s hard to move on.
It’s easy to be cynical about a loved one’s recovery. And the cold reality is that substance use disorder is a disease with a chance for relapse as likely as that of other chronic medical illnesses, like diabetes or asthma, all of which require a lifetime of hard work to control.
Being part of a support system for someone in recovery requires striking a difficult balance. You want to help but not enable. You want to look on the bright side of everything, but you also need to know the warning signs of a relapse and not turn a blind eye when you start to notice them.
Reconnecting to That Past Life
It can be lonely when you move to a different town where you know just a few people. You have to find a new hangout, possibly a new job, new places to eat, etc. Being in recovery is like moving to a different town.
Instead of hanging out at their “usual” bar or with their “usual” crowd, partaking in their “usual” substance use, recovering addicts have to find replacement places, friends, and activities that do not involve substance use.
It can be tempting to want to see familiar faces and places, but that can lead to familiar activities involving substances. It can be tempting for someone who has successfully completed a recovery treatment program to feel as though they are now capable of partaking in their substance of choice without risk of re-addiction. This is a dangerous thought process!
If your loved one is beginning to reconnect with and spend extended time with people from their substance use days, it is best to keep an eye out for other relapse signs. While it’s admirable to want to be a good role model for others struggling, reaching out without a sober support person is a recipe for disaster. If your loved one wants to help their former friend(s), don’t let them do it alone.
Changes in Attitude or Behavior
Everyone has good days and bad days. However, a pattern of negativity can signal a problem. Being aware of attitude shifts can help you catch relapses or mental health issues like depression early, before they can create other problems.
Losing faith in themselves/the recovery process, slacking on responsibilities, and loss of interest in activities or hobbies can all be warning signs that a relapse could be on the horizon. Keeping the lines of communication open and honest is a great relapse prevention.
Seeking help for a relapse–or for the depression that could trigger relapse–is not an admission of failure but a sign of strength and desire to lead one’s best life. No one should have to walk the recovery path alone.
Breakdown of Social Life and/or Relationships
Just as relationship problems can be a sign of initial substance use problems, they can also be a major sign of relapse. If your loved one is having difficulty getting along with everyone around them, they might be in danger of relapse.
That said, if you live in close daily contact with your loved one, sometimes it’s hard to tell if their behavior is changing. You don’t see the pattern of a maze when you’re inside it–only when you’re looking at it from a distance or a different angle. The same goes for a relationship. Those inside don’t always see everything as clearly as the people outside looking in.
Again, open and honest communication is key. Ask questions, show your support, offer to help them find the help they need.
Withdrawal Symptoms Revisited
Obviously, if your loved one is having even mild withdrawal symptoms, it’s likely that they have started using again. Their use could have been a temporary lapse of judgment, an honest mistake (an alcoholic picking up the wrong cup at a party), or the result of peer pressure.
Regardless of the circumstances, that person has slipped. If they slipped on an icy sidewalk, the kind thing to do would be to help them back onto their feet. Likewise, when someone slips off the path of recovery, it’s the job of the support system – family, friends, and loved ones – to help the person recover their footing.
It is always a “better safe than sorry” moment. Never feel bad about reaching out to professionals for help in these types of situations. The staff at St. Gregory are always willing to help those in recovery as well as their loved ones to move on after a relapse.
Being Defensive and Secretive
This is a very self-explanatory red flag moment. Being defensive when asked about their whereabouts or the odors you smell on them/their clothing can be a knee-jerk reaction to avoid taking responsibility for their potential slip.
It shows that they are aware of their relapse and are likely feeling overwhelmed or guilty. As a support system, you need to remain positive and caring when approaching these signs of relapse. Reminding them that you care no matter what and that you want what’s best for them is key to making the conversation (or potential intervention) as non-threatening as possible.
Relapse is NOT a “Failure”
When a relapse is happening or near, the person in recovery can often see these signs in themselves. They feel their own weaknesses, are acutely aware of their own triggers, and live with their own emotions.
Sometimes they can seek out the help they need or battle the triggers with techniques learned during treatment. Sometimes despite their best efforts, the relapse happens anyway. In the wake of this situation, a person can feel completely helpless, guilty, and depressed. They likely feel they have let you and others down. Helping them remember that relapse isn’t the end of the world and that you’ll still be there to walk with them the rest of the way is more beneficial than you realize.
Helping your loved one overcome their stumble is difficult but necessary. Remember that there are resources available to help you in these situations. St. Gregory Recovery Center’s family program helps the entire family learn how to manage the changes that sobriety and continued recovery require.