Why Your Loved One Using Again Is Not the End of the Road (And What You Can Do)


Recovering from a substance use disorder is a long and often arduous journey. Sadly, for many, this can mean returning to their substance of choice after a period of abstinence – sometimes on multiple occasions. While this situation is commonly referred to as a “relapse,” this is not the appropriate term to use. “Relapse” implies an intrinsic moral failure, and that it was the person’s choice to become addicted.

A more fitting word is “reoccurrence” because it paints a better picture of what the person is going through without stigmatizing them. To some, this may seem like semantics, but it is much more than that. Substance use disorder is a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease. It is not a problem of willpower or about just saying no. It is a consequence of a commanding and devastating illness that has impacted millions of Americans, from the individuals struggling with addiction to their loved ones.

Processing Your Loved One’s Reoccurrence

For the spouses, partners, parents, and other family members, or friends of those battling addiction, it can be disheartening or downright devastating to have their loved one experience a reoccurrence or multiple reoccurrences. While it is a serious event, reoccurrence is not necessarily the end of the road. For many in recovery, this is a necessary learning experience on their path to living a happy, independent, and substance-free life.

While being educated on the nature of substance use disorder is helpful to loved ones of those in recovery, the emotional roller coaster can leave them feeling drained and overwhelmed. That is why it is important to seek help, such as by participating in a support group. Connecting with people who can empathize with what you have gone through is a positive and proven coping strategy. It helps heal and builds warmth and connection in what can otherwise seem like a lonely and emotionally taxing experience. As a co-facilitator of the new Spouses and Partners online meetings at Mountainside, I continually see the relief on participants’ faces when they hear that others experience similar challenges. The love and support offered to them by their fellow group participants is truly heartwarming.

Practicing Self-Care During Your Loved One’s Struggle with Addiction

Before take-off, flight attendants advise that in the case of an emergency and when oxygen masks deploy, passengers are to put their masks on first before helping others. The same advice can be given to the loved ones of those struggling in their recoveries.

Managing stress levels in normal times can be challenging. It is even more difficult to do so in a pandemic, especially when a family member’s substance use is causing chaos in the household. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and maintaining a positive spiritual presence will help reduce stress levels. It also allows one to make rational and productive decisions in an otherwise irrational and erratic environment. When these forms of self-care are not enough, many family members discover that they need help beyond support groups and seek therapy for themselves.

Understanding that you are not responsible for another’s wellness is helpful, and the Serenity Prayer offers us wise advice:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Trying to control the uncontrollable only creates frustration, friction, and futility. Remembering that your role is one of love and support will have the greatest positive impact on you and your loved one. Keep in mind, too, the “3-C’s” for family members of those with substance use disorder: you did not cause it; you cannot control it, and you cannot cure it.

Showing Compassion During this Difficult Time

Once someone experiences a reoccurrence, the goal is to get them back on their recovery plan as soon as possible. This may include attending regular peer-to-peer support groups, connecting with others in recovery, or returning to treatment or a higher level of care. Family members can help make that happen by offering nonjudgmental support and encouraging honest communication. Asking questions such as, “What’s the best way I can support you now?” will help mitigate your loved one’s guilt and shame. Asking probing questions such as, “What did you learn from this reoccurrence?” or “Was this a sign that you need more help?” helps the person in recovery think about their behavior before the reoccurrence and take concrete steps to move forward.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden maintained that a team’s development is never in stasis. “It’s either getting better or it is in decline,” he said. The same can be said of our recoveries – the recoveries of both individuals with substance use disorder and the people who love them. The same psychosocial supports that the individual battling alcohol or drug addiction utilizes to recover are just as successful for family members: peer support, prioritizing self-care, and seeking professional help when necessary.

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