Over 25 years in and out of treatment centers and programs, I’ve had a lot of friends relapse. Sometimes I think I handled it well. Other times I probably handled it badly.
I’ve relapsed a lot myself and I know what was helpful to me and what wasn’t. I hesitate to use the terms “right” or “wrong” because I think every situation is different, as well as every relationship. Tough love isn’t always the answer but sometimes it is. Again if we knew what worked we wouldn’t be in this addiction epidemic in the first place. So here are my thoughts (and I could absolutely be wrong).
What to do when a friend or family member relapses
1) Don’t give them money directly
If you’re going to pay their rent, pay the landlord directly. If you’re going to buy them gas, buy it for them at the gas station. If you’re going to buy them something to eat, go grocery shopping with them or order delivery yourself. I once gave my friend—who had been in a very long severe relapse on crystal meth—money for “gas” and then found out that my other friend had also given him money for “gas” within the same 20 minutes. So obviously it wasn’t for gas unless he was going on a goddamn road trip. I felt conned and angry and stupid.
2) Have and maintain boundaries
I once spent an hour and a half on the phone with a friend who had relapsed on booze, only to find out the next day that she remembered none of it. That felt like an enormous waste of time and energy. How helpful could you really be if they don’t remember anything? So … you can ask them to call you when they’re not high or drunk. People are not really able to listen when they’re blasted, and it can be triggering for you as a sober person to talk to somebody who’s loaded. Also, it’s pretty devastating to watch/hear somebody slowly kill themselves. So know that it’s okay to take space. Just make sure you take that space with kindness and give them a heads-up that you need a break but you’re not abandoning them.
3) Be loving and compassionate
Relapse is very isolating. The very root of addiction is loneliness. When I’ve relapsed, I’ve noticed that people scatter. Alcoholism and addiction are not contagious. Recently a friend relapsed and everybody in our circle stopped talking to him except for me. I knew he felt shame. I knew he was out of control. I also knew that somebody had to be that life preserver on a rope to pull him back to the shores of sobriety eventually. If we believe addiction is a disease, then why do we treat people who relapse with such disdain and judgment? Try to be the safe place your friend can come to when they’re ready for help.
4) Don’t force them into treatment
My parents did this to me and although it probably saved my life at the time, it never resulted in long-term sobriety. When my friend was in an amphetamine psychosis, I (aggressively) urged him to go into treatment. It was terrifying to see him sweating profusely, eyes like black saucers, paranoid, hearing music that wasn’t playing and voices of people that didn’t exist. I made multiple calls to find a place that took his insurance. I drove him there. He bailed two days later. I was so pissed and I also knew I’d done too much. But he’s still sober, so maybe it created some shift or jumpstarted his sobriety somehow? Maybe it’s just a coincidence. We’ll never know.
5) Protect your own sobriety
If you’re going to go over to the friend’s house to dump drugs, alcohol, and/or paraphernalia, consider bringing somebody with you for support. I didn’t do that recently and although I was fine, looking back, it was a risky move. You never know what could set you off. Seeing your drug of choice can be provocative at the least.
6) Don’t do the work for them
I had another friend who wanted to go into treatment and sober living. I called and set up appointments, and he never showed up to any of them. It’s fine to network and get them the names of some places and phone numbers but unless they’re severely impaired by their drug/alcohol use, they should do the calling. It shows an agency. It shows motivation. It shows they want it, and you aren’t left with resentment.
7) It’s okay to check on them
When friends have relapsed, sometimes I’ll just call and say, ”Hope you’re okay. I love you and I’m here for you when you’re ready.” Don’t expect them to pick up and don’t expect a call back. When I was in a relapse, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to sober people! But knowing that people cared and were thinking of me meant a lot when I was spinning out with a head that told me I was an epic failure, unloved, and would never get sober again.
8) Be prepared for denial
Even if you know they’ve relapsed, be prepared for them to deny it. It’s unfortunate that we do that but our natural fear of judgment and the shame around our loss of sobriety makes it super common. Do not push. Don’t argue that you know. It will just make them more defensive and drive them away more. You might just say, “There were just some things that made me concerned. If I overreacted, my bad.” And then just leave it. The key is to keep connected and make sure they feel safe to confess the truth when they’re ready.
In the end, unfortunately, you can’t really save anybody. But you can be a point of contact for sobriety when they’re ready. And that alone can be a game-changer.