June 12th, 2023
Recovering from alcohol can be such a difficult process and so even a minor relapse can feel like a major defeat. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Long-term recovery is a journey and like all journeys, there are often setbacks and obstacles to overcome. The important thing is to understand why relapses occur and not allow the voice of addiction to creep back in and undermine the incredible progress that has been made.
On this page, we will explain some of the common factors that lead to alcoholic relapse, tips for overcoming cravings and how to help a loved one whose recovery journey has temporarily gone off track.
What is alcoholic relapse?
Alcohol relapse is when a person who has been through alcohol addiction treatment returns to alcohol after a period of sobriety. It may be a one-time lapse or a more sustained return to drinking but it can seriously affect a person’s confidence or cause them to feel like they have failed. However, it is incredibly important to know that up to 90% of people in alcohol recovery relapse at least once before taking full control of their addiction and so alcohol relapse is nothing to be ashamed of. The important thing is to remind your loved one of the incredible progress they have made and to make sure they don’t let one minor blip undo everything they have achieved.
What causes alcohol relapse?
To help a loved one who has relapsed, it is important to remember everything you learned while they were undergoing alcohol treatment. Addiction is not simply a physical dependence – It is a multi-faceted condition with various underlying emotional and psychological causes and triggers. Alcohol relapses can and do happen and so being able to put yourself in their shoes is crucial to helping your loved one bounce back.
Many of us have a special something that we rely on to help us through difficult times. It may be a family photograph, a lucky trinket or simply a loved one that we can turn to when we need advice or a little reassurance. For many people with an addiction, alcohol becomes that special thing and they use it to cope with stress, historic trauma, or, as is often the case, the symptoms of an underlying mental health condition. Alcohol becomes a crutch that they come to depend on and when they make the decision to stop drinking, that crutch is taken away.
When a person gives up alcohol, each of their senses is adapting to new situations without the alcohol that they have relied on for so long and so the disorientation can be overwhelming. While in alcohol rehab, they were in an alcohol-free environment where they were shielded from their addictive triggers. The transition back to the world outside can come as a huge shock and so your support and understanding is vital, particularly when they need reassurance after an alcohol relapse.
Have you ever had that feeling where a certain fragrance suddenly takes you back to your childhood? It is a romantic notion but the actual reason this occurs is that smell is connected to the part of the brain that triggers memory. All too often, it is this kind of connection that opens the door for addiction to creep back in. Alcohol relapse doesn’t start with picking up a drink – it starts when something triggers an old memory or instinct which changes the person’s mindset. The trigger may be the scent of a certain type of alcohol, a moment of grief or stress that they would previously have dealt with by drinking or other burdens such as financial difficulties which led to their drinking in the first place.
One of our clients, Debbie, explains how she dealt with the situation:
“At the beginning, it was about avoiding anything that was associated with alcohol because I knew I would have a drink. That meant not going out socially with my old drinking friends or even going into the alcohol aisle in supermarkets.”
After your loved one leaves alcohol rehab, it is so important to understand that these triggers can rear their ugly heads at any moment. One of the best things you can do to avoid alcohol relapse is to create an environment that is conducive to sobriety. This means removing alcohol-related items from your home, encouraging them to try out new hobbies and activities and just being there to listen when they are experiencing alcohol cravings or difficult moments.
Spotting alcohol relapse in a loved one
There are certain warning signs that recovering alcoholics may exhibit when their thoughts toward alcohol begin to change. These behaviours are common and difficult to control, so they can occur at any point in the recovery process.
It is important to spot the signs of oncoming alcohol relapse in your loved one so you can intervene. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are they withdrawing themselves from social interactions?
- Are they sabotaging their alcohol recovery by making excuses?
- Are they experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms?
- Have they gone back into denial about their alcohol addiction?
- Are they experiencing mood swings or overreacting to situations?
- Have they begun to question the merits of recovery or sobriety?
By talking regularly to someone going through the alcohol recovery process you should be able to notice when these behaviours begin to kick in and work through them early. This is incredibly important because the earlier you are able to identify an issue, the better chance you will have of providing the support they need.
How to help
If you are reading this because you have a loved one who has had an alcoholic relapse, then don’t panic. Addiction relapse is often caused by stress or some unpleasant life situation, so the most important thing to do is create a calm, positive environment for them. Take a deep breath, speak to your loved one and offer them your love and support.
If they respond well then the next thing to do is to remove any alcohol from the home and encourage them to call their sponsor or therapists. It is crucial that you don’t come across as pushy or make them feel guilty as this will simply add to their stress and could cause them to continue drinking. Be supportive until they feel comfortable enough to regroup and seek the help they need. If they are in an uncontrollable state then get in touch with us and we can advise you on the best course of action.
How to have the conversation
Before you talk to your loved one who has experienced an alcohol relapse, try to put yourself in their shoes. Long-term sobriety is often a daily battle with the voice in your head telling you that one little drink won’t hurt.
We all have bad days, and where you may reach for a bar of chocolate (or even a glass of wine) to destress, the reality for a person with an alcohol addiction is far different. Sometimes the voice in their head becomes too difficult to control and they need extra support.
Empathise with that person, listen carefully to what they have to say, but don’t dismiss the problem. Addiction relapse is serious and although you need to be empathetic, you should not ignore the issue or resolve them of responsibility. Be firm, but be 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 about drinking then allow them to – it means they are more likely to seek help
If you have a loved one you are concerned about or who has recently relapsed, get in touch with us for professional advice and guidance.
Alcohol relapse is a part of the process
Alcohol relapse is a common part of the process of becoming sober and because alcohol is so prevalent in society the risk is always there. We understand how hard it can be to see someone you love relapse after all the progress they have made and at times it may seem as if it was all for nothing. Be mindful of how deeply ingrained their relationship with alcohol is and never forget how far they have come. The important thing is knowing that alcoholic relapse is not failure. Every day that they are sober is a battle won and while there may be defeats along the way, those setbacks are only bruises, not scars.