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Supporting those who keep going back out: how to maintain hope and effectively cope when a loved one just can't seem to stay sober.
I've always hated it when folks refer to themselves as a "chronic relapser." It's not just a statement about their past; it's also a prediction of their future. For as much as I seek to challenge the thinking of those active in addiction, I have sympathy for the overwhelmingly painful form of powerlessness experienced by those who love them.
After a sufficient number of crises, treatments, rehabs, and heartbreaks, many of us reach a point where continuing to have hope just feels like we're asking for disappointment. This is an easy place to get stuck emotionally.
Assuming that we're not enabling, how do we maintain hope and effectively cope when our loved ones just can't seem to stay sober?
Every period of sobriety matters. I've served countless folks who have a number they can't get past. It's a pattern that gets perpetuated by relapse at a relatively fixed benchmark. For some it's 30, 60 or 90 days. The most common interval I've seen is six months. There's only so far a person can go in recovery without meaningfully soliciting and accepting support.
For many of us, self destruction is what we do when we don't know what to do.
It's quick, efficient, and we do it very well. It's like hitting a reset button. I've gone as far as I'm confident going.
I'm left with the choice of going into unchartered waters or returning to my comfort zone.
The addict and affected other (those who love the addict) tend to take an extremely negative view of this cycle. The opportunity is to consider that something is gained in every period of abstinence and nothing that is learned, healed or implemented is ever more than temporarily lost. The question becomes:
What's Going to be Different This Time?
This must not be a rhetorical question. Breaking recurring patterns has to be done with careful planning and a high degree of accountability. Expecting that your loved one demonstrate responsibility is healthy. Demanding that they ensure a different outcome is not. None of us can offer guarantees.
At the same time, we are free to ask ourselves what we need to change:
This is the most overlooked aspect of the journey for most of the families I've served. Many seek professional support but fail to recognize the value of accessing Al-Anonand Nar-Anon.
It's Ok to Be Angry
In fact, whatever you feel is okay. A lot of us feel ashamed to find how upset we are with our friend . It's uncomfortable to resent someone you love. Many of us go to great lengths to hide it, which means resentments fester and pressure builds within us. This is not only a disservice to ourselves, it is also a very subtle form of enabling. Better to:
Communicate Clearly & Honestly
One of the best services we can provide for both active addicts and people in recovery is to simply be honest and direct. It's very healthy for us to share our experiences and hopes as long as we do so without expectations. This means no nagging, no coercion, and no pleading. I suggest giving straightforward feedback when asked, and asking permission to share in other circumstances.
Using "I statements" is often our best strategy. Counselors recommend these because they are the least likely to elicit a defensive response. When we say, "You need..." or"You always..." we can watch the walls of our loved ones go up. When we talk about what we want, feel, and need, defenses are not necessary (though sometimes they come up any way). The best we can do is control our delivery.
When You Just Want to Give Up
First and foremost, it's understandable. I encourage people in recovery and affected others alike to stay away from words like "always" and "never." Doing things once and for all is rarely a good idea. If we need to take some time for ourselves, that's very healthy and it's good to communicate that we will be unavailable for a time. We can offer either a fixed amount of time or simply indicate that we will be in contact when we are ready to communicate again. I urge folks to consider what needs to change so that we can feel safe in reaching out again.
Alas, there are times when we must "detach with love." We sometimes come to a point where the person we once knew is no longer at all present. The disease of addiction claims many long before death. Even here, my bias is not to give up. If we can offer any lifeline at all, this is preferable.
If your loved one has become violent, abusive, or otherwise unsafe, I urge you to wait for evidence that they are approachable. Sadly, this often means a call from jail, prison, hospital or psych ward. May your hopes and prayers be answered soon!