What to Do When an Alcoholic Relapses

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

The role of alcoholic relapse is widely misunderstood. Learning what to do when someone relapses on alcohol is streamlined if you have a thorough understanding of the alcohol relapse process.

Relapse is not an isolated occurrence. There are three distinct stages to relapse – emotional, mental, and physical.

Neither relapse nor recovery are single time-limited events, but rather an ongoing process that might not always be linear.

Alcoholism is clinically described as AUD (alcohol use disorder). A chronic and relapsing brain condition with no cure, alcohol use disorder has high relapse rates. Research suggests that anywhere from 40% to 60% of those in recovery from AUD will relapse once or more.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain condition with anywhere from 40% to 60% of those in recovery relapsing at least once. As such, the relapse rate for addiction mirrors that of other chronic diseases. How you negotiate any roadblocks on your recovery journey could be the difference between ongoing sober living and repeated relapse.

Today’s guide outlines the relapse process, giving you the confidence to know what to do if an alcoholic relapses.

Understanding Alcoholic Relapse

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) states that an alcohol relapse occurs when someone returns to consuming alcohol after a spell of abstinence.

Relapsing into alcohol abuse, like any addictive behavior, doesn’t usually happen overnight. Before learning what to do when an alcoholic relapses, you must first understand the stages of relapse.

Alcohol relapse is characterized by the following stages:

  • Emotional alcohol relapse
  • Mental alcohol relapse
  • Physical alcohol relapse

These stages of relapse were outlined in this study published in YJBM (Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine).

  1. Emotional alcohol relapse: The emotional phase of alcohol relapse is characterized by emotional and psychological withdrawal symptoms rather than physical withdrawal symptoms. During this precursor to relapse, you may become defensive about your recovery. You are also likely to experience dramatic mood swings, anger, anxiety, intolerance, and isolation. Poor eating habits and disrupted sleep patterns can ensue. At this early stage of relapse, you may stop engaging with treatment or peer support group meetings.
  2. Mental alcohol relapse: This phase of alcohol relapse often involves a fierce internal battle. You may start reminiscing about the time you spent drinking alcohol. You may downplay all the adverse consequences that sent you in search of addiction treatment, at the same time glamorizing the experience. Some people undergoing mental relapse start thinking about the idea of drinking again, while others actively plan a return to alcohol.
  3. Physical alcohol relapse: When physical relapse occurs, some people rapidly realize the mistake they have made, correcting it and re-engaging with recovery. For others, relapse means months burdened by alcoholism once more followed by the need to detox again and start recovery from scratch.

How to Talk to an Alcoholic Who Has Relapsed

Here are some actionable pointers to show you what to do when an alcoholic family member relapses.

  • Remember that addiction is a chronic brain disorder
  • Show love and concern rather than criticism or judgement
  • Leave blame out of the equation
  • Practice active listening
  • Prioritize your self-care
  • Avoid enabling and co-dependency
  • Encourage your loved one to seek help

Remember that addiction is a chronic brain disorder

Keep in mind that your loved one is not their addiction. It can be easy to get frustrated or angry with an alcoholic family member who has relapsed. Try to remember, though, that the person is not their addiction. Alcohol use disorder is widely viewed as a chronic disease. Your loved one needs your support and understanding.

Show love and concern rather than criticism or judgement

Approach the conversation with love and concern, not judgment or criticism. It’s vital to let your loved one know that you care about their well-being and that you will support their recovery. Avoid making accusations or criticizing their behavior. This can often make the person act defensively rather than listening to your concerns.

Leave blame out of the equation

Under no circumstances blame your loved one for relapsing. Alcoholism is a chronic and relapsing condition, with between four and six in ten people in recovery relapsing at least once. Your loved one is likely to be feeling lots of shame, so resist attaching any blame when discussing their relapse.

Practice active listening

Listen actively and try to better understand your loved one’s perspective. Instead of interrupting or attempting to solve their problems, listen actively. Ask lots of questions and demonstrate that you are trying to understand the situation from their viewpoint. This can help your friend or family member to feel supported.

Prioritize your self-care

Helping a loved one can be draining. Make sure that you help yourself while you are helping them. Remember also that you cannot force someone to seek help or to change their behavior. If your loved one is unwilling to seek help or to engage in a productive dialogue, it might be necessary to take a step back and focus on your self-care. Although this can be challenging, it will benefit you and your loved one over time.

Avoid enabling and co-dependency

If you make excuses for your loved one with alcohol use disorder, or you take the blame for their negative behaviors, you could be enabling their addiction. The same applies if you supply your loved one with money to spend on alcohol. Continual enabling can lead to the development of a co-dependent relationship.

Encourage your loved one to seek help

If your loved is willing to talk about relapsing, encourage them to connect with a therapist or addiction counselor. They may also find some benefit from attending peer support group meetings.

Get Help for Alcohol Relapse at Renaissance Recovery

If you find your recovery is suddenly derailed by relapse, what can you do to get back on track? It’s important to know what to do when an alcoholic relapses.

Firstly, accept that relapse is often a part of the recovery process. Resist any feelings of guilt or shame, and double down on your sobriety rather than slipping back into active alcoholism.

You should reach out to your loved ones, allaying their concerns about this roadblock and getting the help you need to recalibrate.

Take this opportunity to connect with your sober network, whether that is a counselor, a recovery coach, a psychologist, or a sponsor, meet face-to-face with someone you can speak with openly about your relapse and its implications for your recovery.

Whatever stage of your recovery journey you are at, always remain vigilant for the possibility of relapse. If it occurs, how you handle it could mean the difference between months more of chaos and a rapid return to sobriety with renewed focus.Here at Renaissance Recovery, we can help you or your loved one power through a relapse and get back on track. Call us at 866.330.9449 to learn more.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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