What to Do When an Alcoholic Relapses
How Common Is Relapse for Alcoholics?
For many with alcohol use disorder (AUD), relapse is part of their recovery journey. It doesn’t mean that they’ll never get sober, but if your loved one (or you yourself) takes another drink, it’s helpful to know what to do when an alcoholic relapses. Berating, begging, and shaming don’t work, as you might already have seen for yourself. But you may be wondering what does work and how you can best support a relapsed drinker to get back on the path to sobriety.
Alcohol use disorder is pretty common in the US and millions of Americans suffer from it. Brains that have developed a tolerance for alcohol, and in many cases, a chemical dependence, can be pretty tricky about getting the next drink, even if the person knows on some level that they need to quit drinking. Anyone can relapse on alcohol, even someone who stopped before they became too dependent on it.
Relapse, or drinking again after a period of sobriety, doesn’t mean that the drinker is weak or bad. It mostly just means that whatever they did to get into recovery and stay there didn’t work, so they need to change their plan. It’s estimated that about half – between 40% and 60% – of people with substance use disorders will relapse at some point.
It also doesn’t necessarily matter if the alcoholic went to rehab or attended group meetings or not. Some people go to treatment but don’t learn everything they need to stay sober. They may be attending 12-step (or similar) recovery meetings and still slip up. You can’t make any assumptions about who might relapse based on treatment history.
There are various reasons why someone sober for a while might relapse including:
Never developed good coping skills
People with AUD often drink to self-medicate because they don’t have other ways to cope with stressful or difficult situations in life. Drinking is the symptom, not the disease. If they didn’t learn alternative coping skills, they don’t know what else to do when life seems too much for them to handle.
Exposed to triggers
Sometimes a person in sobriety ends up with the people, places, or things that contributed to their drinking. It may be accidental, but sometimes a recovering alcoholic may purposefully do something like go to the bar because they believe that they can handle it.
You may suddenly find yourself craving a drink even after getting clean and sober. Knowing what to do when a craving arrives is part of successful recovery. Yet you could be surprised and thrown off guard by craving and end up with a drink in your hand.
Low confidence in sobriety
Anyone who’s not sure that they can get or stay sober is at a higher risk for relapse. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
It’s common for bad moods to trigger a relapse. Many recovery groups talk about staying away from HALT (hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness) to stay sober.
If the people in your life want you to keep drinking for reasons of their own (that they may not even be aware of), your sobriety causes conflict. You might also feel pressured in social situations to take a drink.
Nostalgia for the “good times” of drinking
Those who remember the bad things that happened while drinking are less likely to relapse. Feeling nostalgic for “the good old days” is more likely to lead to a slip.
9 Warning Signs of Relapse in Recovering Alcoholics
If your loved one has AUD, understand that you can’t keep them sober. Only the alcoholic themselves has that power. Knowing what to do when an alcoholic relapse allows you to assist them after the fact, but you can’t prevent their relapse.
Whether it’s your loved one or you yourself, there are some warning signs that you’re about to relapse. Some are also signs that a recovering addict has already relapsed.
1. Cravings or thoughts of drinking increase
The occasional craving or desire to pick up happens in sobriety from time to time. But when they persist and don’t go away, that could mean a relapse is imminent.
2. More agitation, anger, stress, or feelings of overwhelm
Anyone with difficulty with proper coping skills will have difficulty when these feelings and moods arise. It’s usually a sign that something’s wrong, most likely because the underlying cause of the AUD hasn’t been addressed. It’s also a sign that a recovering alcoholic has already relapsed. In general, if you stop drinking and start again, you start where you left off (instead of resetting back to when you originally started drinking.) These emotional states are probably where you were when you got sober.
3. Stop going to recovery meetings or therapy
Recovery meetings and therapy (where necessary) are key to the sobriety journey. Losing touch with the sober community is a stepping stone to relapse. Alternatively, this may signify that the alcoholic has started drinking again.
4. Stop healthy habits and routines
Similarly, healthy habits and routines are important components of a sober life. They’re part of taking care of yourself, just as not drinking is. If you let go of these healthy traits, you’re more likely to relapse. Or you’ve already relapsed and have stopped self-care practices.
5. Sleeping and eating habits become erratic
Along the same lines, not keeping up with healthy sleep and nourishment habits is also a signal of current or impending relapse. Sleep and healthy food help manage stress and the problems that life brings.
6. Feeling bored or socially isolated
You may be more likely to relapse when you don’t feel like you have support or don’t know what to do. Recovering alcoholics who are started drinking again will often isolate themselves as they spend more time drinking. They may also feel ashamed of the relapse and not want people to see them drinking again.
7. Mental health problems like depression or anxiety appear
Co-occurring mental health disorders are extremely common among alcoholics whether they’re recovering or not. The onset of these symptoms could be too much for a recovering drinker to deal with or appear due to a lack of self-care. Either way, it could be a recipe for relapse if not treated.
8. Demonstrate other poor coping skills like binge eating or shopping
Ideally, someone who gets treated for their alcohol use disorder would learn good coping skills like breathing techniques or ways to mentally reframe their situation so they can handle whatever the problem is. But people who don’t eat, gamble, or shop too much instead are at risk of falling back into old behavior.
9. Willingly going to bars and other triggering places and events
Staying away from triggers is a healing habit. Exposing yourself to them could cause a relapse or may be a sign that the relapse has already happened.
When to Seek Help After a Relapse
Once the alcoholic in recovery relapses, whether that’s you or a loved one, there are several ways that you can help them and show your support. Getting help through rehab and alcohol detox right away is key to preventing the relapse from going any further.
Here are some ways to convey your support to get help and return to sobriety. They apply whether you’re saying them to another person who’s relapsed or whether you’re the one who ended up back on the sauce.
- Relapse isn’t a failure, and you need some help.
- I’m here for you.
- I know this isn’t what you wanted and that it’s your addiction talking.
- How can I best support you right now?
- Did you learn anything from this relapse about either your alcohol use disorder or your sobriety?
- You got sober before, and I know you can do it again.
See if the brain can heal from alcohol abuse here:
Muse Can Help Alcoholics Achieve Lasting Recovery
At Muse Treatment, we want you to be successful in rehab and on the rest of your path through life. Our staff is compassionate and understanding and dedicated to your recovery. We focus on making your rehab stay (whether inpatient or outpatient) as stress-free as possible. We customize your treatment program to address the underlying cause of your alcohol addiction to give you the best results possible. Our facility is affordable, and we take most insurance plans. Don’t wait any longer – call us at (800) 426-1818 today.