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Where Do We Draw The Line?

Woman Sitting on Bed Silhouette

aconway65 doesn’t know how to address her Loved One’s relapse. She had been doing so well, but a recent breakup brought old habits back to the surface. She’ll need help from her family, but where should they draw the line?

My 21 year old daughter has started drinking again after 1 and 1/2 years abstinence. We pay for 1/2 of her rent college and car insurance. She just ended a relationship with a 32 yo who relapsed to heroin. They were living together and she called us for help to get out of their apartment. She now thinks that she was drinking because she wasn’t medicated for her bipolar and now that she is she does not think she is an alcoholic. She finished her year of college strong is working and taking a summer class. I am devastated. Me and her dad are meeting with her tomorrow to hear her state her case. What type of boundaries make sense at this point. Do we have to just wait for her fall? She has been in mental health and residential treatment. I know relapse is part of the course but any words of wisdom on how and what to communicate to her would be appreciated.

It is devastating to see your daughter relapse after any amount of time sober, but 18 months sober probably lulled you into thinking the problem was solved…  Now it feels like a kick in the stomach.

She had a setback after a very strong stretch of abstinence. This probably happened due to a variety of factors. But what’s in the past can’t be helped. She realizes the problem and, by the time you read this, she will have presented to you and her dad her a plan for going forward.

Untreated bipolar disease can certainly make sobriety shaky. So can living with someone actively addicted to heroin. Yet, she finished her semester strong and is holding down a job.

Does her plan include sufficient relapse prevention? To sufficiently address it, she’d need to 1) treat the bipolar disease 2) have a safe sober place to live 3) perhaps employ naltrexone as a way to help reduce the pull of drinking 4) connect to other recovery activities.

Relapses come in many shapes and sizes. Your daughter’s relapse does not signal the end to sober life for her. She knows what sober living looks like and is motivated to continue school and work. These are good signs.

Don’t argue with her about whether the bipolar disease was the only reason she drank excessively. Explain that going forward your help is contingent upon the above prevention activities. If she is right, then the treatment of her bipolar disease should stop her drinking (I doubt this will fully address the issue, but it should help… so for now work with where she is at in her thinking).

So, let’s get her back up on the beam. Ask her what she needs to get there. Include a list of providers that can help with items 1-4 above. She is likely to need your help with the living situation. Is there a sober dorm on campus? What else does the university offer? See our posts on paying for college and contracting in the tab to the right marked “college.”

She has been to enough treatment to know that alcoholism doesn’t just vanish. It is something that follows you for a lifetime and will always take vigilance. Just ignore her defense of not being an alcoholic. Going forward you need to hear from her that she is actively preventing/addressing her drinking. Period.

At the very least, she should be willing to consider naltrexone. Here is a link to a few articles that describe the Sinclair method, which uses naltrexone.

The Sinclair method encourages the person to take naltrexone AND then drink. The drug takes away the euphoria of the alcohol which “naturally” helps diminish the desire to continue drinking. This may the right thing for her.

Whatever help you provide with housing and college, give it a time deadline. You can help for 1-2 months or something along those lines. If she is not improving, then you provide her with options for more intensive treatment (perhaps back to the places she has already been to). You’ll see in our other posts on College that we encourage families to involve the institution and set up accountability for the LO through regular check ins.

You don’t have a lot of control in this situation. You do hold the purse strings though. Tie the continued financial help to some incremental measures of “good behavior.” Perhaps she drinks moderately… it may be possible that she can, but this is a big unknown. You need a framework that addresses the drinking as a problem. Period. Let her try to moderate if she insists. If you are right and the drinking has passed a line into alcoholism, she will come to see that boyfriend/mental illness were not the reason she drank irresponsibly. This lesson is hers to learn.

Your daughter is in pretty good shape at 21. Much further along than many at her age. She has challenges no doubt, but she also has ambition and resiliency to keeping the course. As her parents, do your best to see this as a blip and not the end of the world.

Manage your own emotions as best you can, not all is lost by far. Calmly set up again, provide her the framework, and settle your own extreme emotions that are coming with your daughter’s relapse. This is the work you can do on your end. It’s not easy, but she needs your level-headed support, positivity and compassion. Together, you can find a way to work in partnership and keep her on the right track.

You’re doing the right thing to seek support here. Rewatch a few Learning Modules, spend some time in our Sanctuary; write in your journal to help get some thoughts and feelings off your chest. You deserve to take care of yourself through this, and to take the time to find what ways of doing so are most resonant and effective for you.

Thank you for writing in. We know how distressing this is… But you're in the right place. And there are some parts of her story that are very encouraging. There is good that can come of this. She is lucky to have you. Let us know how it goes.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)