How Can You Help a Loved One Stay in a Rehab Program?

Stressed parent talks on a phone

The young woman was petite, in her 20s and had long dark hair. She was exuberant, having just finished a drug rehab program. It took her two tries to complete the program, she told me, but now she had succeeded and she felt great.

“Why did it take two tries?” I asked. She told me the story about how she had convinced her dad to let her come home soon after she arrived the first time.

“I got on the phone with him and I promised to be so good,” she said. “I blamed him for neglecting me when I was growing up. I made him guilty for anything I could think of. He finally buckled and came and got me.”

“I blamed him for neglecting me when I was growing up. I made him guilty for anything I could think of. He finally buckled and came and got me.”

But as soon as she got home, she stole money from her father and bought drugs. Soon, she was fully immersed in her usual drug habits.

Fortunately, her father knew what to do. He helped get her back to the drug rehab program to finish what she had started. Now she was done. Now she was happy and finally free from drugs. And now she could see her error in abusing her father until he agreed to let her come home.

In truth, she had harmed herself more than anyone else by this action. All it would have taken was one particularly strong batch of drugs to end her life in that period after she left rehab. Lucky for her, she made it back to the rehab and finished the program.

A Common Problem for Most Families

It’s merciful to warn a family that this exact scenario could happen to them when a loved one first goes to rehab. Without this warning, they may believe everything their loved one says when actually, those tirades are intended to browbeat the families into coming to get them.

Young woman talks on a phone

I once walked down the hall of a drug rehab and listened to a woman talking on a payphone to her family. She was viciously lying about the rehab premises and staff. I knew what the place was like so I knew for certain that she was lying. I didn’t know then what I was seeing. It was the same action as the young woman above—she was just using a different tactic. She was telling every lie she could think up so she could escape this place that was trying to break her of her drug habit.

What might a person trying to escape rehab say to their family?

  • The staff are awful.
  • The staff are untrained and unprofessional.
  • The staff are abusive.
  • The premises are dirty and run down.
  • The food is terrible.
  • They feel sick and no one is taking care of them.
  • They understand now what they did wrong that landed them in rehab.
  • They miss their mom/dad/kids/spouse/ex-spouse/friends.
  • They promise to be nicer to everyone.
  • It’s really the fault of mom/dad/ex-spouse/etc. that they are so messed up.
  • The family is neglecting/rejecting them by sending them here.
  • They hate everyone now for sending them to rehab and are going to hate everyone forever if they aren't allowed to come home.

Obviously, this isn’t a complete list. Just tack on anything else a person could say that would make their family feel sympathetic or guilty.

The Addicted Become Master Manipulators

It’s almost magical that becoming manipulative goes hand in hand with being addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is incredibly consistent.

I once had a conversation with a meth-addicted acquaintance about a business he wanted to start. A fishing guide, he said. He wanted to start a business as a fishing guide. I knew that he had absolutely no money, he did not know the fishing situation in his area because he was from out of state, he had lost everything of value and could not hold a job.

I made the mistake of trying to point out to him the unlikelihood of successfully opening this business. He turned on me and accused me of trashing his dreams, of not being supportive. You name it, he threw it at me. I didn’t buy any of it but I was amazed to watch this person try to wreck my world so he could believe in his own delusion.

The manipulation occurs while drug use is happening in an effort to keep people from halting their ability to get and use drugs. There is a 99.99% chance the effort will continue after they get to rehab.

Yes, there’s the occasional person who really sees the need for rehab and goes right to work as soon as they arrive, never giving their family any grief. This is the exception.

What Can You Do About it?

Parent meets rehab staff

Here’s some tips for you:

  • It’s smart to be prepared for this phenomenon to occur. If it doesn’t, you’re truly blessed. But if and when it does, you won’t be thrown by it.
  • You should check the rehab out thoroughly before your loved one goes there. If possible, visit it yourself ahead of time. If that’s not possible, you might be able to talk to another family that sent their loved one there. The more you know, the more you will know when your loved one is lying and when they might be telling the truth.
  • As you are arranging for your loved one to arrive, select one or two people at the rehab that you feel comfortable with and that you can trust. You need someone you can tell about the stories your loved one is telling you.
  • Develop a relationship with the rehab staff, let them know what you are thinking and what your loved one is saying.

It’s not impossible for a complaint to be true. (It’s just not true much more often than it is true.) But if you’ve checked the rehab out well and you feel you can trust the staff, you can talk over a worrisome complaint with them.

There are some other actions you and your family can take to keep yourself strong throughout your loved one’s recovery.

  • Anyone who might be contacted by the person in rehab needs to be warned about this phenomenon ahead of time.
  • Those who might be easily swayed by pleas from the addict and those who may overly sympathetic to that person should probably not talk to the person in rehab until they are well into the program, are stable and are doing well. Helping the person get through the rehab program is a team effort between the family and the rehab staff. All family members, friends and close contacts need to be on the same page and be supportive of the individual sticking with it until they make it through. If they can’t do this, then it’s best to limit communication with them until after the program has been completed, or once they have made it through the rough spots.
  • Educate yourself and your family members on addiction. Knowledge is power and the more you know, the more confident you will feel in supporting your loved through rehab and once they return home.
  • It’s best if the family meets and discusses the possibility of an urgent call from rehab. It’s a good idea for everyone to agree to keep each other strong until the person in rehab completes the program.

In short, it’s not just the person in rehab who has a hard job ahead of them—learning to leave drugs behind so they can live a sober life. The whole family also has a job that may have its difficult moments. They have to listen to the complaints and pleas but still stay strong.

But honestly, if the program you have chosen is effective, the pleas will drop off as the program works. Your loved one will begin to get the idea that their problems come from within themselves, not from everyone else. You might even hear your loved one talk about amends they are going to make to those they have harmed or their plans to go back to work or school. This is when you can acknowledge your loved one’s progress and praise them for it.

Just remember to stay strong, stay in touch with the staff you trust and let the program do its work.

Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.