Stop Feeling Helpless: Releasing the Burden of Guilt During a Loved One’s Addiction Recovery

You know the story all too well: A loved one with a history of addiction is on the road to recovery, and asks you for help to get to where he or she needs to be. Thinking and hoping that this could be a turning point not only in your friend or family member’s life but your own, you offer up your time, emotional support, and resources in order to help him or her become addiction free.

And then it happens. The word that we try to push out of our heads as people who care for those who struggle with addiction; the word that always remains on our tongues on the slim chance we will have to use it:


Maybe this is not the first time you’ve struggled with the ups and downs of that awful word, and it might not be your last. No matter what your experiences are in the world of addiction and addiction recovery, one thing is for certain: it is absolutely shattering when someone you care for falls victim to their vices again, especially after you’ve done everything in your power to help him or her live a healthy lifestyle. These emotional highs and lows can be just as painful for those associated with the addict as they are for the addict him/herself– and sometimes, they can completely control your life.

One of the most common and detrimental emotions that comes when dealing with addiction and a potential consequent relapse is one that we feel naturally, as living, breathing humans: guilt. We feel guilty for leaving our dogs home too long, or when we forget a dinner date with a friend– so it goes without saying that the type of guilt experienced when dealing with a seemingly helpless and hopeless situation can strangle the life out of you.

Did I not help in the right ways? Could I have done more? Does he/she know what I have sacrificed? Is this in any way, shape, or form my fault?

Asking these types of questions, while natural, only drives this complicated emotion, and can completely take over your life if you let it. Thankfully, there are ways to cope with the aftermath of relapse or a realized addiction, gain your sanity back, and accept the situation on your end in order to move forward.

1) Know, first and foremost, that your loved one’s addiction is in no way, shape, or form YOUR fault.

This is first on the list because it is absolutely the hardest for people to accept. When you care about someone, it is very easy to blame yourself for their actions in the name of addiction, but here is the bottom line: people are people. They make choices, good and bad, and they certainly make mistakes day in, day out. You are not to blame for the choices your addict makes, and you are certainly not the reason that they are acting in unhealthy ways. The only thing guilt will do is prevent you from being the best version of yourself, for not only the person you are trying to help, but most importantly, for yourself.

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2) Relapse is not a sign of your failure.

For me, personally, this is the hardest thing to swallow. People love helping other people, love giving to other people, so that they can feel good about themselves. Think about it– when you give a fantastic gift, or plan a surprise party, you’re most looking forward to that sense of personal joy you feel when the recipient is happy, thankful, and cognizant of what you’ve done. It is hardly a selfless act. In the same way, we keep giving to our addicts–love, support (both emotionally and financially), concern, worry–and we are so happy to have any sort of recognition for our efforts that we overlook warning signs. When relapse happens, we naturally feel empty, not having been “successful” in our attempts to keep him or her out of the clutches of addiction. Do not, I repeat: do not fill that emptiness with guilt. Allow yourself to grieve. Allow that space to be filled with all of the emotions that come naturally: extreme sadness, anger, resentment, acknowledgment–whatever emotions you’ve got–instead of pushing them away. You’ll be healthier for it when you come up for air on the other side.

3) Hope is always something you can hold on to–if you do it responsibly.

Addiction creates a vicious cycle of tender hope and crushing realizations for anyone involved. If you erase the hope from that equation, all you are left with are the emotional lows–and you don’t want to do that for yourself. Hope is the very special thing that can get and has gotten addicts out of the grasps of their addictions, and hope is also the thing that allows the residual sufferers to cope with their losses until that day potentially comes. It hurts to hope, because the chances of being let down seem so great after an initial relapse has taken place; it hurts more to live completely without it. Finding a balance between hope and reality, or learning how to let the two co-exist, is the most important thing you can do for yourself. You can love your addict and hope with all your might that the beauty of a sober lifestyle is on the horizon while still keeping a distance safe enough to protect your heart. This works in conjunction with allowing yourself to be honest enough internally to allow your jumbled feelings a chance to breathe– because if you bottle them up, the hope has no chance of floating.

Being a part of someone’s life as an addict is quite possibly one of the most painful things one can endure, and finding solace in other people’s experiences is one of the best things you can do for your emotional health. The only living, breathing human that you can control in your life is yourself, and guilt may compromise that–stay strong.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive residential treatment for drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.