How to help an alcoholic who has relapsed

This Page was last reviewed and changed on August 28th 2022

Relapse can be a daunting word. If you haven’t experienced relapse yourself, you may imagine it as suddenly losing control and waking up surrounded by empty bottles. But this is far from reality. Relapse is a complicated process that begins long before a recovering alcoholic picks up a drink.

What is a relapse?

Relapse is when an alcoholic returns to alcohol after a period of sobriety. You may be surprised to know that up to 90% of alcoholics relapse at least once before taking full control of their addiction, so it is nothing for you or them to be ashamed of. Even the strongest minds, such as famous artists Eminem and Macklemore, have been caught out by the strain.

Understanding alcoholism

Before you can help someone with their relapse, you need to understand their relationship with alcohol. Just as you may keep a trinket to make you feel safe when you are nervous, those addicted to alcohol are dependent on it to feel comfortable. And becoming sober means having their control taken away from them.

You may be aware that addiction is not simply a physical dependence. Alcoholics also have an emotional and mental relationship with alcohol, which means there are three types of addiction they have to control. This makes it three times more difficult to overcome.

If you imagine breaking up from a long-term relationship or suddenly finding yourself lost in a different country without a map, you will begin to understand the mindset of the person you want to help. Each of their senses is adapting to new situations without alcohol, which they have relied on for so long. So it’s a daunting process.

Overcoming temptation

Have you ever had that feeling where you smell something and it suddenly takes you back to your childhood? That’s because our mind has a trigger reaction. This is the window through which the addiction can kick it’s way back in. Relapse doesn’t start with picking up a drink – it starts with the alcoholic’s change in mindset. This can be triggered by smelling or handling alcohol, suffering grief, experiencing abuse, or other burdens, such as financial difficulty.

Even after rehabilitation, the temptation to drink is always there. The best thing you can do to help is to remove alcohol-related items from their environment and create an atmosphere that is fun and interesting without a drink, so they are not tempted by it.

Warning signs

There are certain warning signs that a recovering alcoholic will portray when their thoughts towards alcohol begin to change. These behaviours are common and difficult to control, so they can occur at any point in the recovery process.

These include:

  • Withdrawing themselves from social interactions
  • Having trouble making decisions
  • Making irrational choices
  • Sabotaging their recovery progression by making excuses
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms again, such as anxiety
  • Going back into denial about their thoughts towards alcohol
  • Experiencing mood swings or overreacting to situations
  • Deciding the recovery process is not for them, but not knowing why

By talking regularly to someone going through the recovery process you should be able to notice together when these behaviours begin to kick in and work through them early. But if you notice someone exhibiting these behaviours and they shy away from what is happening, they may be going through the emotional stage of relapse.

How to help

If you’re reading this because you are with someone who has relapsed then don’t panic. Relapse is often caused by stress, so the most important thing to do is create a calm atmosphere for them. Take a deep breath, go back to the person you are worried about, and offer them your attention. Use the tips in the ‘How to have the conversation’ section below to talk to them, letting them know you are there for support.

If the person is responding well then encourage them to call their sponsor and pour the alcohol away. But don’t be pushy or make them feel guilty, as this will simply add to their stress. Be supportive until they feel comfortable enough to take the responsibility themselves and seek help. If they are in an uncontrollable state then you can call our number at the top of the page to seek immediate advice.

If you are reading this because you know someone going through recovery from alcoholism and you want to understand more, then you have already taken the first step to doing the best thing you can. Understanding the journey of addiction is the best way that you can help someone through it.

How to have the conversation

Before you talk to the person going through a relapse, put yourself in their shoes. To stay sober, they are battling every day with the voice in their head that tells them another drink won’t hurt.

We all have bad days, and where you may reach for a bar of chocolate to destress, an addict is simply reaching for a drink. Sometimes the voice in their head becomes too difficult to control and they need support.

Empathise with that person, listening carefully to what they have to say, but don’t dismiss the problem. Relapse is serious and although you need to be empathetic, you should not ignore the issue or take responsibility away from them. So be firm, but supportive.

Here are some tips to make the conversation easier:

  • Have empathy and listen to what they have to say
  • Don’t accuse them or try to make them feel guilty
  • Give them your time – don’t start the conversation when you only have a spare 10 minutes
  • Remind them how well they’ve done before and how much support they have behind them
  • Don’t downplay the situation. If they feel guilty then allow them to – it means they are more likely to seek help

Life after rehabilitation

Relapse is a common part of the process of becoming sober and the risk is always there. We understand that it can feel terrible to see someone go through relapse after all their progress, and it can seem as if it was all for nothing. But remember the person’s relationship with alcohol and how well they are doing each day. Getting them back on track is a priority and relapsing does not mean the end of the journey. Every day that they are sober is a battle won.

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If you successfully complete our 90-day inpatient treatment programme but experience a relapse within 30 days of leaving, we will welcome you back for complimentary 30 days of treatment.*

* Click here to learn more or contact UKAT directly for rehab availability.

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