How To Help Someone Who Has Relapsed On Drugs Or Alcohol

Relapse is a normal and almost expected part of addiction recovery, with up to 91% of people with an opiate addiction relapsing before experiencing long-term sobriety and up to 70% of people with an alcohol addiction experiencing the same scenario. [1]

Despite the frequency of relapse, many people feel immense shame and guilt, believing that they will be trapped in the cycle of addiction forever and worrying that they have let their friends and family members down.

Instead, it’s important to remember that relapse is merely a bump in the road towards recovery instead of a dead end. [2]

This blog post will detail the many ways that you can help someone who has relapsed on drugs or alcohol, supporting them towards long-term recovery despite the inevitable struggles and hurdles that will be encountered along the way.

How to help someone who has relapsed

Although you are not able to physically prevent someone from relapsing, there are a number of steps that you can take after the event has occurred that can make your friend or family member feel supported, encouraged and determined to continue their recovery journey.

1. Have a conversation with them

If your friend or family member confides in you that you have relapsed, or you find out through other means, it is important not to ignore or dismiss the situation. A relapse is rarely a ‘one-off’ and will often lead to more in the future if not properly managed.

Arrange a time to have a conversation with the individual about what lead up to their relapse, any signs that may have indicated that it was about to happen and the steps they should take to avoid this situation from occurring again in the future.

This conversation should take place in a neutral and relatively private setting, with enough time for both parties to share their feelings and thoughts.

Make sure not to judge, criticise or blame as this may push the individual away and potentially make the situation worse.

2. Encourage them to seek additional support

It is extremely difficult to recover from an addiction without professional support, so it’s crucial to encourage your friend or family member to seek additional support while being careful not to insinuate that you don’t believe they are strong enough to recover from their addiction.

Attempting to reason with them will usually be ineffective, as the pull of addiction is usually a lot stronger than logic and factors.

Instead, encourage them to contact their sponsor, attend a support group or even consider a treatment programme if you believe them to be at high risk of future relapse.

3. Don’t enable them or make excuses for them

When you care about someone, it can be tempting to want to shield them from the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, enabling someone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol in such as way can end up making their problem worse in the long term.

If they feel guilty about their relapse, allow them to experience these emotions instead of attempting to reassure them.

If they are experiencing repercussions due to the relapse, do not offer to fix the problem for them.

When they face their problems and consequences head-on, they will eventually understand that only they are responsible for their actions and behaviours and this can go a long way in changing future decisions that they make.

4. Seek emergency help if necessary

In some cases, you may need to contact emergency services or the individual’s on-call therapist (if applicable) if you believe their physical and/or mental safety to be in danger. Some people may feel extremely depressed or even suicidal after a relapse, believing incorrectly that they have undone all their hard work and that they will be trapped in the cycle of addiction for the rest of their life.

If you are concerned about a friend or family member after a relapse, call 999 immediately and seek advice from medical professionals.

5. Don’t accept their promises

After a relapse, the individual will usually feel extremely remorseful and guilty. They may promise to never repeat the behaviour and that the relapse was simply a mistake that won’t happen again, attempting to reassure you that they do not need to seek additional support and treatment.

In most cases, they are not being dishonest. It is extremely likely that they mean these words at the moment.

However, addiction can skew their judgement and make them truly believe that they do not need help when in reality they would benefit immensely from additional support.

It may be difficult, but do your best to distance yourself from these promises as they will likely be broken in the future if the individual does not take steps to address the reasons for the relapse.

Warning signs that can indicate a potential relapse

There is much more to relapse than simply ingesting alcohol or other substances, and the process generally begins long before this action.

In many cases, there will be a number of warning signs that may indicate a potential relapse, and it is important to look out for these signs if you or someone you know is recovering from an addiction.

1. Making excuses and exceptions

An individual’s attitude towards their addiction and recovery is crucial to achieving long-term success after completing a treatment programme. Immediately after leaving the programme, many people are enthusiastic and motivated about continuing their recovery and vow to do whatever it takes to stay sober.

Over time, however, it is possible for this enthusiasm to wane and the individual may begin to come up with excuses and exceptions to the rule.

What started as, ‘I will attend a support group meeting once a week’ may become, ‘It’s been such a long time and I’m not really getting anything out of these meetings, so I’m going to stop attending.’

Once their attitude towards their recovery begins to slip, the risk of relapse is increased.

2. Becoming withdrawn and isolated

Similarly to the above point, when an individual begins to cut themselves off from others including no longer attending support meetings or regularly choosing to stay home alone instead of socialising with other like-minded people then this could be an indication of a potential relapse.

They may be struggling with stress, feeling uncomfortable around other people or believing that they no longer require help with their addiction.

No matter the reason, becoming withdrawn and socially isolated can be a dangerous step backwards during recovery.

3. Slipping back into denial

After going through the recovery process for a drug or alcohol addiction, the majority of people will continue to accept that they have a problem and are unable to ingest these substances due to the physical and psychological consequences.

However, it is possible for these individuals to deny the effect that stress and other potential triggers is having on their mental wellbeing.

They may refuse to change their environment or seek help for these triggers, believing that they are able to cope by themselves. As a result, they are at higher risk of relapse as the stress or other potential trigger may become too much for them to handle.

4. Additional withdrawal symptoms

In some cases, psychological withdrawal symptoms such as intense cravings and bouts of extreme anxiety can linger long after the detoxification process is complete. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and can last for up to two years.

PAWS is often triggered during times of stress, and the reappearance of any withdrawal symptoms can precede a relapse as the individual may attempt to self-medicate as a way to relieve these uncomfortable and often debilitating feelings.

5. Lack of routine

A healthy routine is crucial in recovering from a substance or behavioural addiction, as it can allow the individual to consciously replace detrimental or unhealthy behaviours with positive and uplifting habits. When this routine begins to slip, it could suggest a potential relapse.

If a person’s post-treatment routine involves waking up early to exercise, eating a healthy breakfast and then attending a support group meeting, these habits are likely contributing to their ability to resist cravings and continue with recovery.

Replacing these with sleeping late, eating an unhealthy breakfast or nothing at all and then staying at home alone can make it more difficult to feel motivated and they may be more likely to give in to temptation.

6. Making poor decisions

If you notice that your friend or family member is beginning to make irrational choices and seems to have trouble making decisions, this could be a sign that they are headed for a relapse.

They may find it difficult to take a step back from situations and make an informed, rational decision, instead opting for detrimental or unhealthy choices that seem to be based on impulse.

This can indicate that the individual feels overwhelmed and is having trouble managing their life and decisions, and they may become confused easily.

As a result, they are more likely to relapse if their cravings or trigger become to difficult to manage.

What can cause someone to relapse?

As the friend or family member of someone recovering from an addiction, it can be helpful to understand the varying factors that can cause a relapse.

This allows you to spot potential triggers and communicate effectively with the individual, helping them to modify their behaviours and mindset before a relapse occurs.

1. Stress

As the most common cause of relapse, stress can cause people to fall back into self-destructive habits due to a number of factors. If the individual struggles to cope with difficult and uncomfortable experiences, they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication.

Some studies show that stress may actually increase cravings for addictive substances, so it’s important for the individual to eliminate as much stress as possible from their life and learn healthy coping strategies for those times when they are unable to avoid it.

2. Emotions

Before recovery, many addicts coped with difficult emotions by using alcohol or drugs to mask them. They may have never learned how to work through problems and struggles in a healthy way, and once the crutch of substance abuse is removed they may find it hard to cope when they feel upset or angry.

This is one of the many reasons why therapy is important during recovery, as it teaches healthy coping strategies and methods that can replace drugs and alcohol.

3. Celebrations

When gathering together with friends and family to celebrate an event such as a birthday or wedding, it is common for people in recovery to believe that they have the self-control and willpower to partake in alcohol or drug consumption with others around them.

However, one of the hallmarks of addiction is the inability to know when to stop. One drink can easily become two, one line of cocaine may trigger a week-long binge.

Therefore, times of celebration can potentially prompt a relapse if the individual allows themselves to use addictive substances during this time.

4. Cravings

Intense cravings can be difficult to ignore, particularly if the individual is suffering from post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and experiences bouts of cravings over a number of years. [3]

Even just the sight of the addictive substance can trigger cravings, such as the smell of cannabis smoke or watching someone drink a pint of beer.

Spending time with friends in a bar, working closely with people who use drugs or frequently going out to clubs can make cravings more regular and intense.

It is recommended to avoid these places and associations to increase the chances of long-term recovery.

5. Reminders

After treatment, many people find that there are a number of people and places that remind them of their addiction and therefore the addictive substance that they used during that time.

This can trigger uncomfortable feelings and even cravings, both of which can lead to a relapse if not properly managed.

It can be helpful for people in recovery to avoid associating with people that they previously drank or used drugs with and avoid places like bars and clubs.

Sometimes it may be more difficult to avoid these factors, particularly if being around particular family members often triggers an emotional response.

In these cases, they should practice healthy coping strategies that can be learned during therapy or replace formerly detrimental activities with healthy ones.