The road to recovery can have a few bumps. If you or a loved one has a relapse, it’s not the end. Here’s how to deal with a recovering alcoholic who relapses.
For the recovering alcoholic, whether you have just stepped out of a rehab facility or celebrated your 25th year of sobriety, relapse is only ever 1 drink away.
Accurate figures on the actual incidence of relapse are near impossible to get thanks to the anonymous nature of recovery.
A study by the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) estimates that 90% of recovering alcoholics relapse within 4 years. Alcoholics Anonymous hazards a guess at 75% of their members relapsing within 1 year.
Bear in mind that these figures exclude those unfortunates who have never made it to treatment but who continue to try and stop drinking on their own.
The bottom line is that relapse is not rare, but it is also not insurmountable.
Let’s pick apart this powerful phenomenon and find out how to help the recovering alcoholic who has suffered a relapse.
Common Causes of Relapse
The most common cause of relapse is being a recovering alcoholic! Triggers such as an emotional upset or unpleasant event may seem to cause a relapse. However, alcoholism, like any treatable disease or disorder, will resurface unless treatment is ongoing, in some capacity.
Insufficient Ability to Cope
Recovering alcoholics are still learning new coping mechanisms to replace their old habit of turning to the bottle at the slightest sign of trouble. In this light, even small daily stressors can seem like insurmountable obstacles to the newly sober addict.
Over the years, heavy alcohol or drug use takes its toll on the brain. While the physical cravings for alcohol may subside over time, the mental obsession rarely does.
Basically, alcohol use floods the brain with the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine, causing feelings of euphoria. After being bombarded with this happy-juice for long enough, the brain slows down its production of dopamine, in an attempt to regain a natural balance.
This results in a shortage of feel-good enzymes and an intense craving for more alcohol. The recovering addict needs to find a way to restore this balance with healthful, productive activities.
Emotionally, remaining sober after a lifetime of alcohol abuse is hard work and brings with it new responsibilities.
Facing up to the rigorous honesty of a recovery program takes courage and it is easy to see how the recovering alcoholic may prefer to escape back into the familiar, safe cocoon of drink.
Being sober is an alien and uncomfortable sensation for the newly recovering addict. Even those with many years of sobriety behind them experience an intense longing for the escape offered by alcohol from time to time.
Helping the Recovering alcoholic Get Over a Relapse
The best thing you can do for a recovering addict that has relapsed is suppress your own feelings of frustration and resentment. Remain supportive, yet firm, from the moment you find out so that you can get their recovery back on track without any further upheaval.
Whether they admit it or not, they will be feeling intense disappointment, guilt, and failure. These emotions can make them reluctant to seek the support of their peers.
Make it clear that they must reunite with their support group. Get hold of their sponsor immediately for back up. If they have been attending any meetings for recovering alcoholics during their sobriety, get them to the next one. Even if you have to take them there yourself.
It is vital that the relapsed alcoholic returns to the familiar surroundings and positive associations of their home group as soon as possible.
Once you have ‘handed them over’ to the experts, let them work their magic. The number one thing that the recovering addict needs is the support and understanding of fellow alcoholics in recovery.
It may happen that the relapse is too severe, or the recovering addict has become so disillusioned that they need to start over in their recovery. In these instances, there is no shame in repeating rehabilitation treatment at a reputable center.
How to Tell If a Relapse May Be on The Horizon
There is no such thing as a ‘slip’ in the book of most 12-step programs. Any return to active use of a preferred substance is a relapse. What’s more, relapse is seen to be deliberate on a subconscious level.
During the rehabilitation, addicts find out how to tell if a relapse may be approaching and what to do about it. However, owing to the deviousness of the addict mentality, they are hardly ever aware of these.
As somebody close to them, it helps if you can recognize the signs and take action early. These are the triggers and symptoms that could signal an impending relapse:
The very first sign that something is amiss is a return to addictive behavior. The recovering alcoholic may start to behave erratically without ever touching a drink.
- Mood swings are a good indication of an internal struggle.
- Selfishness, dishonesty and self-involvement may resurface
- Talking about ’the good old days‘
- Anxiety, anger and extreme sensitivity may arise
- Visible impatience
- A desire for isolation
- Changes in appetite and difficulty sleeping
- Hanging out with old drinking buddies
- Talking about relapse
- An attitude of having recovered instead of being in a process of ongoing recovery
- Missing out on group therapy is usually a sign that relapse has already begun.
If you notice any of these symptoms, point them out to the person concerned straight away. If they are serious about their recovery there are steps they can take to prevent the inevitable.
Avoiding situations which can lead to relapse is first prize in preventing relapse. Yet this is not always possible, especially after a long period of sobriety.
Help your loved one to set up and carry out a plan of action for when these distressing alcoholic behaviors start to re-emerge, signaling a possible relapse. This could include:
- Calling a fellow in recovery to talk about it
- Distraction – getting outdoors, doing some exercise, meditating, reading a book
- Improving feelings of self-worth – doing something for someone less fortunate
- Delaying tactics – agree to start drinking again tomorrow (as a last resort)
We can assist you with this and any other aspects of recovery and are available with help and advice at any time. Please reach out if you need help.