When A Family Member Relapses: The important role of Acceptance
Some of us see it coming, some of us don’t. Even if we saw the telltale signs, it doesn’t lessen the blow. Relapse is devastating for both the substance users and those who love them.
Our first question is usually "why?" Followed closely by "how?" After that, a long list of other inquiries form as our minds are assaulted with scenarios and fueled by heartache, fear, anger
Even if we saw it coming, we hoped it was our imagination or that it would right itself in the end.
Ironically, hope often springs eternal for us who love a substance abuser because the alternative is too painful to conceptualize and to hard to bear. However, when we are confronted with the truth and our hopes are dashed—either for the first time or yet again—what to do when someone relapses? How do we move forward, again?
The Power Of Acceptance
I was recently the guest on a local radio station. One of the questions I was asked by the host went something like this, “What has made the greatest impact on your ability to move forward despite your daughter being an active substance abuser? My answer was ACCEPTANCE.
As the mother of a heroin addict, I’ve learned over time that the first thing I need to do when dealing with recovery and relapse is ACCEPT it. I have spent years watching my daughter gain sobriety only to lose it again—sometimes within days; other times in weeks or months. For years I fought against her multiple relapses by denying their reality. The evidence was there. The circumstances, situations and telltale signs were clear, but yet I was compelled to pass them off as something other than the obvious. Other times, I pretended that I possessed the power to undo my daughter’s choice. Either way, I didn’t want to believe or ACCEPT that my daughter had relapsed—again. It was too painful. So, I acted in ways that denied, distorted or rejected the reality of the painful truth. I rationalized and justified my thoughts and actions because they kept me from facing the harsh reality of recovery and relapse and all that comes with it.
ACCEPTANCE has been a critical tool for me in dealing with my daughter’s repeated relapses. My well-being and ability to live honestly and in reality is dependent on my ability to accept the unacceptable. Acceptance enables me to move beyond the fear, anger, confusion and heartache of relapse. It moves me to a place where I can navigate reality without a need to change it—to make it more palatable or comfortable. I’m not compelled to blame, shame, ridicule or coddle my daughter when I practice acceptance. I just accept what it is—another relapse. It’s not worse, better, necessary or unnecessary. It’s not personal, weak-willed or a lack of effort. It just is.
Accepting Other Family Member’s Feelings
Another thing I do is ALLOW OTHER FAMILY MEMBERS TO HAVE THEIR OWN FEELINGS around the relapse. I have had to learn to ACCEPT that I am not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, nor do I have the right to demand that they feel the way that I do or want them to. Until I learned how to put this principle into practice, I tried to manage my daughter’s feelings around her relapses—as well as those of my husband, my daughter’s father and my parents. Before I learned acceptance, I thought their feelings and reactions to her relapse were directly proportional to her ability to find sobriety again. In addition, I tried to manage their emotions because how family members felt, behaved and responded either fed my fear or helped to soothe me. Either way, it was ultimately about me. I used their feelings to regulate my own—not a sane, healthy or productive way to process emotions. This dependence on others for my emotional regulation left me in a cycle of chaos, uncertainty and confusion.
Carrying around my emotions and those of my family members was exhausting and burdensome. I often couldn’t separate my feelings from those of my loved ones. They all felt painful, often debilitating. I tried to off-load them onto others, and whatever emotions I had regarding my daughter’s relapse I carried into my interactions with others—projecting the fear, worry, anger, confusion and frustration of her relapse onto them.
I recently had a chance to witness this type of emotional off-loading while talking to my daughter’s father about her most recent relapse. During our conversation, his fear and anguish over her relapse was poured onto me through an implication that my parenting—or lack thereof—was at the root of her inability to maintain sobriety. I’m not sure he was aware of his implication or the pain that his insinuation created. Either way, I was able to identify it for what it was: untreated and un-dealt with pain; a need to rationalize; a need to blame; a need to explain why she can’t stay sober. It’s what so many of us do when we cannot ACCEPT the pain and reality of (yet another) relapse.
Today, I know that how the people around me choose to deal with my daughter’s relapse is their responsibility. Acceptance diminishes my drive to figure it out—my need to know, understand or gain clarity or certitude. It does away with the need for a “fix-it” formula or a reason as to “why.” Acceptance helps me remain in present reality without a compulsion to escape to it.
There are a multitude of pop psychology concepts that offer theories about relapse, but, in truth, we can’t scientifically qualify why some people who suffer from substance abuse are more prone to relapse. According to an online article published on September 27, 2017 in Neuron, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) produced research that might help us get closer to understanding why some people are so susceptible to relapse. The study shows how epigenetic factors—enzymes in the brain that alter the packaging and accessibility of genes without changing the genes themselves—influence the process of relapse.
Since I cannot know why my daughter relapsed again, I cannot assume it was avoidable. I cannot perceive it as personal. I cannot think it indicative of or a result of weak moral character. Nor can I blame it on a lack of effort. But, there was a time when I made all these assumptions and would invariably respond with shame, anger and distain. I used the “if you loved me” approach, the “how dare you” approach, the “after all I’ve done for you” approach and the “what the hell is wrong with you” approach.
Today, I know that when I engage my daughter from these places of fear, anger and shame I am doomed to engage her in ways that lack acceptance, love, kindness, tolerance and dignity. I have learned that I cannot demand that her behavior be what I wish it to be, imagine it should be or want it to be.
What I’ve Learned In My Recovery And As A Family Recovery Coach
The truth is that our loved one’s relapses impact us. It is natural that we want them to stop using out of love for them—as well as for ourselves as the impact we suffer is never positive, uplifting or life giving. Rather, each relapse brings sadness, fear and uncertainty—three things no one wishes to be burdened with—three things we work hard to avoid. No matter how hard we might try, we cannot change or avoid the sadness, fear and uncertainty that comes with relapse. Accepting that those are normal and natural emotions meant to be experienced—not avoided or denied—creates a way through the chaos. In the space of acceptance, we can begin to feel our feelings, allow others their feelings, avoid personalizing and create the space we need to love our loved ones in the way their humanity deserves. It allows us to remember that they are navigating a progressive, chronic and deadly disorder—not misbehaving or trying to ruin own lives or their own.
The practice of acceptance also enables us to set clear, healthy and loving boundaries rather than restrictions that serve to control, manipulate or punish our loved ones. Healthy boundaries are clear indicators of acceptance. They serve as a way to protect and care for ourselves as we navigate the treacherous waters of recovery and relapse and the impact it has on our family system.
ACCEPTANCE creates space for us to feel the feelings induced by our loved one’s relapse without being held hostage by the relapse, our feelings or the feelings of others. With education on the disorder, awareness and acceptance, we can learn to respond to relapse in an informed, healthy, realistic and loving way.