woman supporting her loved one who is confronting a relapse.

When a Loved One Relapses: How to Deal with this Difficult Step on the Recovery Journey

For addicts and their loved ones, a relapse is a frightening experience. Learning how to view it as a normal part of recovery, and a temporary obstacle on the path to better health, can help you support your loved one during this challenging time.

If you’ve loved someone who has struggled with addiction, you’ve likely seen different chapters of their story. You have most probably tried to help them since the beginning, and encouraged them as they began their journey towards recovery.

But now, you are beginning to feel uneasy. Maybe they are not calling as much, or maybe it just seems like they’re not telling you everything. Whatever the signs, you know that your loved one is no longer sober.

A relapse is a scary part of the addiction story, but it doesn’t have to determine its ending. Understanding why relapses happen and how to handle them is essential in helping transition a relapse into an ongoing and ultimately successful process of recovery.

Defining a Relapse

If you are family or a friend of a person in recovery, it might be difficult for you to determine if someone has relapsed. What if your friend has had one beer, but then stops herself from having another? Or your brother admits to buying drugs, but then flushes them down the toilet before taking them? Is this a relapse, or just a close call?

A relapse is typically understood to have occurred when a person uses drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety. A “traditional relapse” is when a person makes a conscious decision to have a drink or take drugs, and a “freelapse” is when a person unintentionally uses drugs or alcohol, such as by drinking a spiked punch. Either type of relapse can trigger an underlying addiction, and begin a cycle of substance misuse.

How Common are Relapses?

Relapses are a common occurrence among people learning to manage an addiction. It is estimated that approximately 40-60% of those struggling with addiction will relapse at least once. The changes in the neural pathways of the brain caused by addiction are largely responsible for the high incidence of relapse.

Your loved one is in the process of understanding how to live with their addiction, particularly how to avoid or deal with triggers in order to maintain sobriety. Building effective coping skills and removing oneself from triggering environments takes time, and it is not unusual for a relapse to happen during this process.

What are Triggers for Relapse?

There are many factors that can play into a relapse, but some of the most common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Negative feelings or emotional state
  • Coming into contact with old places or friends that are associated with the addiction
  • Celebrations or parties
  • Seeing or sensing the object of addiction
  • Boredom

Some of these triggers are also normal parts of everyday life. The key for people in recovery is not necessarily to avoid them, but to learn how to cope with these situations or factors when they arise. You can support a loved one by checking in, listening, and if needed, connecting them with other resources that can help them further develop strong coping skills.

Warning Signs of a Relapse

When someone does experience a relapse, it usually happens in stages. Experts have identified three stages of relapse – emotional, mental, and physical. Knowing the signs present in each of these stages can help catch a relapse early on, and redirect a person into treatment. Emotional signs of relapse can include:

  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Hiding feelings
  • Not attending support group meetings or not participating in them
  • Not maintaining personal hygiene or appearance
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits

As the person’s emotional state declines and their ability to take care of themselves diminishes, this leads into the mental stage of a relapse, where their thoughts become increasingly consumed with the idea of turning to drugs or alcohol again. This may involve some sort of self-bargaining, where a loved one will promise themselves they’ll just have one drink to take the edge off, or they will only use in a social situation.

Thoughts like these are very common for people in recovery, but it is important to recognise the potential harm of these impulses and to talk them out with a therapist or support group. If not, these thoughts could lead to the physical stage of a relapse, where the person begins using again.

What NOT to Do When Someone You Love Relapses

A relapse can feel devastating – both to the person in recovery and to the close friends and family who care about them. While a relapse may trigger a range of intense emotions, it is important not to let those prevent a constructive response that can help your loved one move back on the path to recovery. Here are a few things not to do when your loved one relapses:

  • Don’t despair – Relapses are a common part of recovery, and many people move past them and attain sobriety again.
  • Don’t attack – Blaming or placing guilt on your loved one won’t help them move back into treatment.
  • Don’t make excuses – On the other hand, when a loved one does experience guilt or anxiety about relapsing, remember that it is not your job to alleviate these emotions. These feelings can be powerful motivators for a person to get back into treatment.
  • Don’t push – You can urge your loved one to seek further treatment, and then step back. Remember that it is the person experiencing the relapse who must make these decisions about how to proceed with their recovery.

How to Help Someone Move Back into Recovery

When facing a loved one’s relapse, you may feel an overwhelming urge to “take control” of the situation. While it is okay to acknowledge that this feeling comes from a place of love and concern, it is important to recognise that ultimately your loved one is accountable and responsible for their recovery. If they are to truly recover from an addiction, they must do it on their own.

However, you can still play a significant role in actively listening and supporting your loved one’s good decisions for their future. Taking care of yourself and offering your loved one opportunities to join you in healthy behaviour, such as exercise or getting outside, also provides an open door for them to reintegrate into a healthy lifestyle.

Finally, encouraging them to seek professional help, whether it is attending a support group or engaging with an individual counsellor, can also assist them in linking with the resources they need to get their recovery back on track.

Reclaiming Recovery at The Dawn

The Dawn Rehab Thailand has an effective treatment designed by Western-trained team.

Knowing that the person you love has experienced, compassionate professionals working side-by-side with them to help them overcome their addiction provides an immeasurable sense of relief, and a solid start to renewed recovery. At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand, our treatment programme is specially designed to meet the needs of each individual client, and delivered by a Western-trained team of counsellors and psychologists led by the internationally renowned addiction specialist David Smallwood.

Our unique “Twin Pillars” approach to treatment involves combining the most effective Western psychotherapeutic techniques with proven Eastern wellness practices to treat all parts of an addiction. To help ensure the safety and comfort of our clients, we also offer 24 hour medical services, and provide on-site medically-assisted detox.

Why Choose Alcohol or Drug Rehab in Thailand?

Located on the lush riverbanks just outside the city of Chiang Mai, our serene, beautiful facility is just an hour’s flight away from the capital city of Bangkok. Our clients find themselves in a cosy, welcoming environment a world away from the triggers of home, and are able to fully immerse themselves in their recovery.

Call us today to learn more about how we can help your loved one successfully navigate a relapse and experience the joy and clarity of recovery.