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How to Help Someone who has Relapsed on Drugs or Alcohol

Posted on October 6, 2021

How to Help Someone who has Relapsed on Drugs or Alcohol

If you’re close to someone who’s recently relapsed on drugs or alcohol, then you’re likely to be experiencing a whole house of emotions.

Upset, disappointment, frustration and a level of sympathy are likely to be many of the emotions you’ll be experiencing.

At this fork in the road, a loving friend or family member just wants to do the right thing. However, knowing the right thing to do at this point isn’t always easy.

What is a Relapse?

Relapse is commonly known as when a person suffering from alcohol addiction starts drinking again after staying sober for a period of time.

Believe it or not, a lot of people who suffer from addiction relapse at some stage in their journey. So, when your loved one or family member relapsed you shouldn’t be shocked, angry or ashamed.

What to Do After Someone Relapses

Below, we offer some helpful guidance to assist you in the event a loved one suffers a relapse:

1. Support Them

One of the best ways you can be there for your friend or loved one is to support them. You shouldn’t approach the situation in an angry way. Tell them that you still love and want to help them, and you’re there to help them get back on their feet.

2. Be Empathetic

Try to build positive empathy with your friend or loved one. You can do this by truly trying to understand their behaviours, emotions and thoughts.

3. Do Not Enable their Behaviour

Without even knowing it, you might be enabling their behaviour by trying to be supportive. Don’t allow them to make excuses, or make excuses for them. Don’t take the blame for their relapse, or tell them that they’re allowed to fall off the wagon every now and again.

4. Try to Find out What The Trigger Was

Most addictions have triggers, so do relapses. There was likely a triggering event that prompted the relapse. So try to identify what happened, what went wrong and how you can avoid the same thing happening again in the future. It could be a person, a place or a situation. Whatever it was, work with them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

5. Make an Emergency Plan

The best way to help your friend or loved one when they’ve relapsed is to be prepared and have a plan in place.

You should have some emergency contact details are written down for local GP’s, their doctor’s surgery or addiction support worker. By having all of these things in place, you’ll be able to get them the help and support much quicker if something bad were to happen.

6. Don’t Dismiss the Relapse

When someone close to you relapses, it’s important that you don’t dismiss the problem as a small one. It’s a very important point in their journey, and will probably dictate which way the rest of their life will go.

Make sure that they also know that this is a very important time and point in their recovery journey which should be taken seriously.

7. Be Strict & Firm

In order to maintain your own health and needs, you should be strict and firm with the individual. You need to set clear boundaries with them so that you’re not sacrificing your own health.

This is particularly hard to do, but it’s made even more difficult when someone relapses. You shouldn’t feel guilty for prioritising your own health, because if you’re not healthy then how are you able to get them healthy?

Make sure you’re eating, sleeping and exercising well. Take time to socialise with friends and family so that you don’t feel isolated.

8. Understand that Promises Probably Won’t Mean Promises

When someone is suffering from an addiction, they find it hard to maintain promises. When they relapse, they might promise you that it was the first time, that they don’t need any help or that it was just a one-off mistake that won’t be made again.

Whilst the individual might mean what they’re saying when they say it, it would be incredibly hard for the individual to live up to these promises without a form of treatment or support.

What to Say After a Relapse

One of the most important things to think about when someone is suffering from an addiction or a relapse is what you should say and how you should say it.

Sometimes, for individuals who haven’t dealt with an addict before, it’s incredibly hard to know what to do. So, a lot of people just don’t say anything.

Here are a few suggestions on what to say:

  • “Is there anything I can do to help you right now?”
  • “What is it you want to talk about?”
  • “No one’s perfect, you can learn from this.”
  • “You’re not alone in this. I’m here for you every step of the way.”
  • “You made it this far once, so you can do it again.”

Although you may need to personalise these phrases for your particular situation, they’re a great starting point for knowing what to say to someone who’s just relapsed.

Relapse Prevention Tools & Warning Signs

In order to help prevent a relapse, it’s important to understand that there are a number of prevention tools and warning signs that can help you identify if someone is likely to relapse before it happens.

1. Stages of Relapse

There are three main stages to a relapse; emotional, mental and physical. These stages all have their own warning signs to look out for.

Although preventing relapse isn’t always certain, by understanding and looking out for these warning signs, you’ll be in a much better place to help to prevent one.

2. Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse is an emotional one. Although individuals at this stage might not want to relapse, they might start to feel the need and pull on an emotional level.

The common warning signs of emotional relapse are;

  • Ignoring your mental and physical health
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family
  • Stopping attending meetings and counselling sessions

3. Mental Relapse

The next stage of a relapse is a mental one. At this stage, the person is actively thinking about using it again [1].

At this stage, they’re weighing up the positives and the negatives of taking the drug or consuming alcohol.

The longer the individual stages in this stage of a relapse, the harder it becomes.

Warning signs for a mental relapse may include;

  • Actively wanting to consume the alcohol or drug again
  • Idealising when they last took the drug or alcohol
  • Trying to find ways to relapse
  • Making excuses that would make it seem okay to ‘just have one.’

4. Physical Relapse

The last stage of relapse is when the individual physically relapses and consumes the drug or alcohol again.

They tend to start with just one drink or consumption, which then leads to a total binge and complete relapse [1].

It’ll be very obvious when an individual is experiencing a physical relapse, and you’ll notice a complete deterioration in their behaviour.

Advising for Further Treatment

If you don’t believe that you can help the individual anymore, then you can always suggest further, professional treatment.

It might be the case that the individual has tried treatment before and no longer has faith in the system.

However, it’s important to remember and communicate to the individual that just because they’ve relapsed after receiving treatment, that doesn’t mean further treatment further down the line won’t help.

Here are a few forms of treatment that you could suggest:

  • A programme specifically formed to tackle treating addiction. This could include a mixture of medication and therapy as advised by your local medical and healthcare professional.
  • Support groups for those suffering from an addiction. There are a number of groups such as the AA that have been proven to help those suffering from an addiction.
  • Online Support for those suffering from an addiction. There are a number of online forums, chatlines and help rooms for those suffering from an addiction.

Think about Joining A Support Group Like Al-Anon

There are lots of support groups out there for those supporting people with an addiction.

When someone you love or care about relapses, it can be extremely stressful and upsetting, placing you in an awkward and frustrating situation.

Therefore, it’s important that you look after yourself as much as you can, and this means making sure you’re supported.

Al-Anon is a well-known organisation that is dedicated to helping support those suffering from the effects of looking after a loved one with an addiction.

[1]. Melemis S. M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the Five rules of recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.

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