What To Do When An Alcoholic Relapses

Wen you have someone in recovery, there is a chance that they will relapse at some point. When this happens, it’s without warning. There might have been signs that relapse is looming but some of this are very subtle you might not catch them.

Most of us don’t know what to do when an alcoholic relapse or any addiction relapse happens. The emotions are so high from anger to frustrations, sadness and fear especially if the person was doing so well over a long time.


The Relapse

In addiction recovery, relapse is most likely going to happen; it might also not be an event, it’s going to be a part of the recovery process.

After much research, I have realized that it will not only happen, it has a 40-60% chance of happening more than once after a recovery treatment.

The statistics show that this will most likely happen within the first 6 months of treatment in an inpatient facility.

This came as a surprise to my family dealing with relapse. Make no mistake, no matter how vested you are to help someone in recovery, you will get angry, frustrated and feel completely inadequate.

All these emotions need to be taken care of and they maybe taken care of outside of the recovering person. This does not mean that you don’t hold them accountable but you will need to be very deliberate and grounded on what to do.

My goal with this post is that this does not come as a surprise to anyone who is struggling with a loved one trying to kick the habit and they don’t know what to do when an alcoholic relapse.

What you say is as powerful as what you don’t say. In this case, what you say is a verb as it is an action that will have some critical effect and power. Let’s start with what not to say

What Not To Say When a Person Relapses:

The first thing that come to your mind will be how on earth anyone would go back after a long period of doing so well.

Think it, but do not verbalize it to your loved one by asking them “Why would you do this after a long time of sobriety?

This will come out in different versions that directly points fault to the person who has relapsed.

As the sober person, remember that addiction is not a choice. Remove the common stigma about addiction that might shape your reaction. Understanding the true nature of addiction and looking at it the same way you would any other disease like Cancer or genetic heart issues will help shape what you say.

What comes out of your mouth is what is in your mind and your perspective of the addiction will inform this question.

No one is that keel that they won’t be angry or sad when a relapse happens. However, if you understand the nature of addiction, you will not have that anger or sadness misplaced. You may express your emotions to the person relapsing in a way that does not fault them or shame.

This of course should be done with a lot of caution to avoid speaking out in anger which will put them on defense and do no one any good.

Chances are, your loved one already feel the same anger and frustration. According to Dr. Brennan, “Piling on is not likely to be of much benefit [because] we know that people are not motivated by anger or resentment.”

You will only be adding to their own guilt and shame. Avoid statement like, I’m so angry at you right now! Or This is so frustrating, I’m so furious right now! He goes on to suggest talking to someone else other than the person or journaling it to vent it out.

There is nothing more annoying and misplaced as when you are going through something and friend or colleagues suggest the best treatment you need. In fact, when this happen to us, we quickly dismiss it and better still avoid telling this people anything we are going through.

This is not any different with someone in relapse. Don’t suggest what treatment they can or need to get. Treat it as much as you would like people to treat you if you have an ailment that need medical attention.

I don’t have a chronic disease but have a weight problem that is not feasible on the outside. I have heart problems because of it. The one thing I can’t stand is when people suggest what exercises I should do or what food to eat. I have already done all this and it didn’t work. This may look trivial but it’s the way much worse when people feel so comfortable providing treatment advice for recovery.

Avoid saying things like “you need to go to or go back to rehab”.Most people in rehabs are not there by choice. Some family members have decided that this is the best option while they have no interest. They might want to have an outpatient or online treatment option.

This is hard to avoid as we feel helpless when the relapse happens. Remember that in spite of the addiction, your addicted person still has their identity. Beneath the addiction, they might have some treatment they have in mind which might be so different from what you envision for them.

Like my weight loss process, there are many variations that will work for different people. My comfort in working out, iron deficiencies that will limit food choices, work schedules, other interests etc. informs my choices and most importantly the success of my choice. The same is true of recovery and relapse in recovery treatment.

According to Dr. Larissa Mooney, the Director of the UCLA Addiction Psychiatry Clinic and Chief of the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Substance Use Disorders Section “There’s a lot of variability in what treatment plan will work for a person,” she goes on to advice us “Respect their decision about the path that’s right for them.”

The way we address this three statements after a relapse maybe the determinant factor on the success of the recovery process. This does not mean that we need to do or say nothing after a relapse.

Now that we have an idea what not to say after a relapse, there are a few things we should say and do instead.

What You Can Say to Someone after Relapse

The first thing we may address is encouraging the person that the recovery is not offer after the relapse. We may want to say something like: “This is not a sign of failure, this only means you might need more help”.

It cannot be emphasized enough that relapse is part of recovery. According to the addiction experts, for most people relapse is the norm and it is very common in the path of recovery.

According to Dr. Brennan, reminding the recovering person that a lot of people relapse before accomplishing stable and ongoing sobriety may make them feel less alone.

Relapse is a sign that the current treatment may have been inadequate for the recovering person. Dr. Mooney suggest that bringing this up with the person in recovery may actually help get them on the path to more effective treatment.

One of the suggestions on what to say is “Maybe this treatment isn’t all that you need, and maybe this relapse is telling us that. Why don’t we consult your therapist/addiction counselor/other professional, and see what other treatment options might be available?”

This suggestion is from Dr. John Bachman, Ph.D., who specializes in addiction and substance use issues.

This of course will have the person be part of the solution seeking and also engaged in their treatment and not be told of a solution outside of themselves.

Be kind! Remember that even when you don’t express your anger or frustration, they already feel ashamed. Find a away to directly let them know that you don’t blame them

This is one area I was so inadequate, I struggled with this so long. This played out in that I didn’t portray any resentment, but I didn’t go out of my way to reassure them that I didn’t blame them. I was silent about the whole issue. After learning about addiction, I had to work on this.

Of course this does not mean that you are not holding them accountable for their actions or enabling bad behavior and acting as if they don’t need treatment, it only displays empathy that could mean the world to them at this time and also inform the smooth transition to the next recovery steps.

The fear and the isolation comes from the fact that you as their loved one and probably the few people that have stayed with them this long might throw in the towel as well. Find a way to express an unconditional love and support for them. The experts suggest saying something in the line of, “I’m with you on this and will stay to see this to the end”

Dr. Mooney says that this is powerful if they had lied to or hurt you when they were in the relapse because it can relieve them of the fear that they have eternally damaged the relationship with you. She goes on to say that “they may know that they’ve broken some trust. I think what people are often seeking is an opportunity to rebuild that trust,”

I find this particularly strong because it’s based on the fact that the actions were driven by the disease and not something they could have otherwise chosen to do in the right mind. This is hard part of the actions based on the extent of the hurt and also the investment you have made on their well-being.

There may be some real issues that you can not be able to handle at the moment and need to distance yourself with the person. This include things like you are the parent and there are other children in the home, or they hurt you so badly you need to set boundaries to protect yourself or heal. In this case, get professional coaching to do this in a constructive and compassionate way that will benefit everyone.

Its not prudent to pretend like the relapse dint happen. Find a way to discuss this with them in a well thought and compassionate way. This might help them talk through the learning from this experience, they might be able to recognize the triggers that led them there and other lessons that they observed about themselves.

A simple question as “did you learn something from this relapse” make sure you don’t ask this with any judgment. Depending on their demeanor or level of engagement, you may have the opportunity to encourage them to discuss this question with their therapist or addiction counselor or seek further professional help.

Don’t assume that you know what they are experiencing.

According to various experts, including Dr. Mooney and Dr. Brennan, it’s a good idea to ask what the person needs from you instead of assuming.

Find out from them “what’s the best way to support you in this period to get back to a secure place from sobriety”

Be prepared to follow and commit to this as this may come in many forms to range from emotional support like listening or practical needs.

Like everything else, it’s discouraging falling off the wagon over and over again. This may leave the person discouraged and into a negative place. The therapists suggest focusing thought to success in the past and potential success ahead. Something as simple as, you have done it before, I know you can do it again.

This affirmation is necessary as it reminds them how far they have come from and if they did it then, they can do it again and it will only get easier. The advice here is to Tap into their motivations for getting sober. Discuss those motivations and try to validate how those reasons are whatever the response

Remember, all you can do is positively support and be careful with what you say and do. The decision to seek recovery and reconnect with some treatment is out of your hands. The recovering person only can make this call.

Treat yourself as kindly as you treat them. Most people will blame themselves or others in the family for the person’s relapse. Don’t be blame yourself or feel guilty. You don’t have to be their sponsor, their therapist and their psychiatrist.

That support exists in any form you want it and around you. Whether you are in Africa, Asia, Europe US or anywhere in between.

Whatever you do, take care of yourself. This will not only help you stay in good shape, but also when the person see you take care of yourself by working out, getting counseling or coaching, they will want to do the same for themselves.

Don’t Isolate yourself, there is so much help to range from Alcoholic Anonymous, Al-Anon and online coaching and groups

If you have experience in relapse, please share your experience, would love to hear from you!

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  1. Probably the last thing an alcoholic needs after relapsing is someone to shout on them or make them feel guilty about doing what they did. No! The only thing they need at the moment is encouragement till they are able to finally overcome the situation. It took almost 2years before my hubby was able to finally leave alcohol truly. Every once a while during that period of quitting, he would relapse unknowingly and overtime, I kept encouraging him and visiting the therapist. Sometimes, he would cry like a baby just to express his frustration and remorse but I perfectly understood it and I stood by him all through. Now, he is okay without any alcohol. True, it takes time but with patience, success is the only guarantee

    • Thank you Shelly for sharing your experience. I’m so proud of you for standing by him and knowing that at this point, it takes support to get out of a deep place. Most People get through on their own when frustrated family members walk away when it gets too much. The recovery in the midst of relapse sometimes gets worse before it gets better but over time, it does get better.

  2. Hi Zikora, this is such a helpful and detailed look at our attitude to an alcoholic who has had a relapse. What stands out to me is your identifying how we should treat them by our communication with them. Most times such a person might know how we feel without us saying a word and they usually think the worst. It really takes a person with a loving courageous heart to step in the shoes of encourager, reassurer, and motivator. What is great about this advice you have given is that it is applicable to all additions, not just for alcoholics. Thank you very much.

  3. Only those that have been a victim of addiction know just how difficult it is to quit such a habit. I have faced several addictions and from someone with experience, I can tell you that it is no easy task to quit an addiction. There are times you would relapse and you would be so angry with yourself that you have failed yourself after doing so well for a long time. How you react at this particular moment is very important because if you react the wrong way you can end up falling back to your addiction ways. You need to be careful at this particular moment. This also applies to alcohol addicts that find that they have relapsed. You really need to be careful what you say to such a person. If you say the wrong thing it can actually make the person go back to their addiction.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s so irresponsible to say the wrong thing. The effect is way bigger than we imagine unless you have been there. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. Wow!  

    I had no idea that relapse was such a high re-occurence.  That’s some great info that even someone who’s not going through an addiction should know.

    Your post is a great guide on how one can help a loved one who’s going through addiction or going through a relapse.

    It’s also good that you mention that the same treatment will not work for everyone and that there are different treatments that can be used for different addiction cases and stages.  I’ve never looked at alcoholism as a disease before.  

    I learned something from reading your post.

    • Hi Margaret. Thanks for the comment. I never knew too until I had to deal with relapse from a family member. This is such a big issue globally, i wish more people knew to be more sensitive. 

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