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Navigating A Loved One’s Relapse

The reality of watching a loved one relapse, especially if it is a repeated occurrence, can challenge the resolve of even the most devoted of support systems. Anger, frustration, disappointment, hopelessness, fear, and sadness are all emotions that may arise at the news that a loved one has relapsed. These are all valid responses to this event; watching someone go through the trials of addiction is gutting, but in order to provide appropriate support, you have to look after yourself as well.

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Reality Of Relapse

To avoid falling into the pitfalls of compassion fatigue or apathy, understanding the nature of addiction is crucial to understanding why relapse, or a return to drug use after an attempt to stop, happens. Substances, like Cocaine or alcohol, can alter important brain areas necessary for life-sustaining functions and drive the compulsive substance use that marks addiction. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, and much like other chronic illnesses like asthma or hypertension, if one stops their medical treatment plan, relapse is possible. It has nothing to do with morals and willpower and everything to do with brain chemistry.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 85% of individuals will relapse within a year of treatment. This statistic does not suggest that treatment is futile but that relapse is simply a part of the recovery process. Relapse serves as a sign for resumed, modified, or new treatment, not for failure. This idea does not make it any easier to witness. Still, it can destigmatize the event, thus making it easier for you to find pragmatic solutions for yourself and the individual.

Talk Treatment After Relapse

One of these pragmatic solutions can involve reevaluating treatment options. Treatment can be a delicate topic to bring up after a loved one has relapsed, but it is necessary. Having this conversation can help the individual understand that receiving help is essential for their well-being and your own. Wearing the hat of a support member and pseudo-therapist can exhaust anyone, so directing a loved one toward the appropriate treatment will connect them with the counselors and physicians they need. Treatment can include a 12-step program, inpatient or outpatient rehab, therapy, medication, or a combination.

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Handling An Emergency Or Overdose

If a loved one overdoses, having Naloxone on hand can reverse an overdose involving Opioids, even if Fentanyl is involved. Naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, can be found at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens and it is available in all 50 states. Additionally, if you can get your hands on Fentanyl testing strips, they can aid in avoiding accidental overdoses by testing drugs before they are used. Above all, do not wait to call 911 if you believe a loved one has overdosed.

Take Care Of Yourself

Beyond taking care of a loved one going through addiction, it is essential to look after yourself in the process. One can partake in topical self-care activities, like bubble baths and face masks, and while these are relaxing activities, proper self-care consists of more meaningful and intentional practices. Intentional self-care involves developing a routine that makes each day predictable, thus regulating one’s nervous system and emotions. In the world of addiction, predictability can be rare, so establishing a predictable routine can help bring back a sense of control over situations that feel anything but. Psychologist Amy Williams, Ph.D., of the Henry Ford Health System, created a list of the “big 5” of self-care. The big 5 list consists of adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, physical activity, relaxation, and socializing.

Adequate Sleep

Getting enough sleep may not seem like a priority in the grand scheme of things, but physical and psychological side effects can develop quickly from a lack of quality sleep.

Healthy Nutrition

When we are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, upset, etc., our minds may not instantly think of the most nutritious meal for us to eat. And while a sweet treat is perfectly acceptable for a snack, feeding your body with a balanced meal will not only make your body feel better, it keeps your brain healthy.

Physical Activity

Exercising a little bit every day, or once every couple of days a week, not only positively impacts your body, it can help regulate and stabilize emotions. Witnessing someone go through a relapse can leave one feeling helpless and overwhelmed, but taking some time to reconnect with your body can help clear your mind and evaluate the situation.


Meditating, journaling, sketching, and reading a book are all activities to relax. Relaxing is not often celebrated in the world of “go, go, go,” but especially in situations of high emotion and stress, taking time to decompress is as essential as eating dinner and getting enough sleep. Unchecked stress levels can be detrimental to the body, so it is vital to find time to relax as much as one can, even if it’s only for 5 minutes.


Having a support group is integral to regulating our internal worlds: our stresses, fears, joys, and disappointments. Supporting a loved one through recovery is no easy feat, and it is crucial to be able to rely on others for your support. Beyond friends and family, support groups are also available for additional care and support. Groups like Al-Anon can provide background information that can help you better understand what a loved one is experiencing.

It is not selfish to take care of yourself in the face of a loved one relapsing. As the saying goes, “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” As much as you would like to help your loved one, your help will not be useful if you are physically drained and emotionally unavailable. It is not a test of compassion to allow others to take advantage of your well-being; boundaries need to occur to protect and honor yourself. Establishing healthy boundaries allows one to step back from the situation at hand and “take stock.”

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Relapsing Is Not The End

As mentioned before, relapse is not a sign of failure; it is a call for readjustment in treatment and recovery regulation. Addiction touches so many lives, and it is important to include yourself in the conversation of healing and support when you are helping others. Contact a treatment provider today if you or a loved one needs treatment or a support options.

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