How to be supportive of relapsed loved one?



My sister is an alcoholic. She is actively using at the moment and her life is falling apart. Since our parents live out of state, for a long time they called me to step in. This has led to a lot of emotional damage on my part. A lot of moments I can unsee or forget. I finally told my parents enough was enough and for the most part, they do not ask me to step in anymore.

As of right now she has lost her relationship with her kids’ dad (an addict in recovery), lost her children (her ex is seeking custody after recent events), lost her job, and will soon lose her house without an income.

I know I cannot fix things for her. I know a lot of what she says is manipulation. But at the end of the day - she’s my sister. She’s my family. I love her and I hate to see her suffer.

Where do you draw the line? How do you support someone suffering without getting too roped in or emotionally hurt yourself? In the past I’ve tried ghosting her when she drinks but that makes me feel like I’m abandoning her. I’m interested to see if there are other approaches.


Welcome here @VF4108. Such an honest question. I can fully relate to this sentiment (for me, it’s my dad):

This is so hard - especially when it seems she’s losing everything else of value.

Want to first acknowledge you for setting boundaries with your parents. The best way to help someone is to first help yourself, and if stepping in in their place is hurting you emotionally, that’s a good line to draw!

I’ve had to take a big step back from my dad so that when I am engaging with him, it’s genuine connection & not forced. This has meant moving from 1-2 hour phone calls 2 or more times a week, to a 30 minute phone call every other week. I try to talk to him when I know he’ll be most lucid - so not late at night or early morning when I know he’ll be groggy from sleeping pills. I text him really simple things inbetween “Hey dad, I love you.” “Hope your weekend was good!” to make sure he knows that I’m still here and still care. I try to focus less on the addiction itself - because that can feel like beating a dead horse and probably isn’t going to change anything. Instead, we talk about what else is going on in his life.

Curious, is most of your time spent engaging with your sister done in-person or via phone/email/etc.? Some context might help others share their insight here, too.


So on board with @katie on this one. A huge part of the addiction recovery process is not about the addiction itself— it’s about the other things in your loved one’s life that make living worthwhile for them. While I’ve never gone through an addiction myself, from time to time, I have to remind myself of what it might like to be in my loved one’s shoes. I saw how my dad struggled with alcoholism. When his depression worsened, his daily speech became restricted to only verbally ruminating about his fears. I wanted so badly to just keep assuaging those fears he had (making the content of my responses about his fears) but I knew that this wouldn’t help; instead, I had to make an effort to listen to him but be sure to talk about topics I knew that would allow him to open up. Sometimes I would bring up his favorite movies or other things going on at work. I noticed the way even his tone of voice relaxed when I did this. Addiction and other mental illnesses can completely give you tunnel vision and make it hard to remember the other positive things in life. However, it is essential that we remind our loved ones that they are more than their addiction!


Thank you for your response!

Most of our time together is spent in person. When she was sober, our families were close and we’d hang out a lot on weekends.


For starter’s please know I can relate personally, as my loved one who struggled with addiction is my brother, so I get the sibling support dynamic.

What I hear you saying is:
You understand that your sister is struggling and want to be supportive, but also recognize how being supportive impacts you emotionally. There’s an attempt here to work on the spectrum of being a supportive sibling and totally detaching.

Where do you draw the line? How do you support someone suffering without getting too roped in or emotionally hurt yourself?

Our professional perspective is that we can help and look after ourselves and that knowing our personal limits can be game-changing for this. Since relapse is a part of the process, change takes time, and with support the brain can heal, it is really important that we do look after ourselves so we don’t burn out and can stay engaged in the long run towards recovery.

Knowing our limits helps, because while you can’t control another person’s behavior, you can learn to notice what’s coming, how you’re feeling about it, and take an action that is in your control before a situation gets messy or messier - and it increases your resilience to stay engaged and connected when you want to.

To apply it:

How to support: Reinforce positive behavior & listen for clues as to how to help

Some of the best supporting we can do is to rebuild joy and connection with our loved one outside of their harmful using behaviors - show them there’s life outside of it. Is there a shared activity you could plan with her that would get her out of her addictive habits? A comedy show, an exercise class, a possibility to get into nature? Try one and if it doesn’t work, listen for what might work for her, what she might be craving, and try another.

Where to draw the line: Limits
Understanding your limits gives you power to no longer live at the effect of someone else’s actions. You get to live by choices instead of reactions.

Here’s an example of reaction vs. choice:

Breaking point:

In the past I’ve tried ghosting her when she drinks but that makes me feel like I’m abandoning her.

Braking (like a car before a pot hole :slight_smile: ) point:

If I let her know during a sober conversation that (a) I won’t pick up my phone during these (X,Y,Z) hours (if there are typical drinking hours), or when she’s been drinking, or (b) that I can speak during a weekly scheduled call, then I won’t feel like I’m abandoning her.

Please let me know if this is helpful or if there’s something else I can focus on to support you with?
And if you’re liking the idea of setting limits I can share an exercise to help identify a few more!

A note from Village :love_letter: : Our Coaches are trained in the leading evidence-based methods. If you are interested in additional support comment on this thread and we can dive deeper - the more info we have the more we can help.