How to Help Someone Who Relapsed

Table of Contents

Being the friend or loved one of someone with an addiction disorder can be a very challenging position to be in. Bicycle Health encourages caregivers, friends, and family members of patients with addiction disorders to talk openly with their loved ones about their concerns. The more we talk openly about addiction, the more we move towards a culture and a society that prioritizes addiction treatment and recovery. I also remind friends and family members that they cannot take care of their loved ones unless they are also and foremost taking care of themselves. 

There are many support groups and resources for family members of patients dealing with addiction that can help provide resources and guidance for how to help someone who has relapsed. If you have concerns about a loved one relapsing, ask for their permission to reach out to their medical providers to help reconnect them to care and support.

What Does Someone Need if They Just Relapsed?

Substance use disorder is a chronic condition characterized by relapse. Most people need about five attempts at recovery before they sustain sobriety long term.[1] 

Your friend doesn't need your judgment or condemnation. Instead, your loved one needs your support and encouragement. 

Most people need these core things after a relapse:

Support

Whether this is the person's first relapse or the fourth, feelings of shame and guilt are likely present. Your loved one may feel like all the hard work done before doesn't matter, and that they have let important friends and family members down.

Don't pile on to this guilt. Be as kind and loving as you can. Remind them that relapse is common, and it doesn’t mean they’ve failed.

Treatment

A minor slip doesn't have to become a major backslide. But the person must enter a treatment program and learn more about what happened and what should come next.

You can persuade the person to contact their treatment team about the relapse. The sooner that connection happens, the better. 

Protection

Did the person stock up on alcohol to make the binge last longer? Did you find needles and other drug paraphernalia in your home? Easy access can make a relapse last longer.

Get rid of these things if you can, and explain to the person why you're making your home a drug-free zone. Enlist the help of their treatment team with this step.

What to Say (& What Not to Say)

You want to comfort the person and guide them to a happier future. But you're not sure what to say. You're not alone. 

Kind things to say include:

  • "This doesn't mean you can't get better."
  • "I know you worked so hard. I believe in you."
  • "What is the best way for me to help you?"
  • "Do you want to talk about it? What did you learn?"

Your feelings are valid, and it's common to experience anger or disappointment when a loved one relapses. It's critical to keep those thoughts away from someone who recently relapsed. Don't say things like:

  • "I can't believe you would do this to me or your kids."
  • "I'm so fed up with you."
  • "Why can't you just quit? People do it every day."

Your self-care is important, and if you feel overwhelmed with the urge to say something unkind, talk with a counselor. You may also benefit from therapy to help you deal with your loved one's substance use disorder. 

Getting Back on Track After a Relapse

People with substance use disorders often need multiple courses of treatment, and they do best when they have a continuum of care that follows them for the rest of life.[2]

After a relapse, your loved one's treatment team should consider the following:

  • The treatment setting: Is your loved one participating in an outpatient program? Perhaps a stay in an inpatient facility would offer the structure and supervision the person needs to break long-standing habits. 
  • The treatment type: Is the person using counseling alone, and would medications help? Some people need multiple treatment types to effectively manage their substance use disorder.
  • The person's motivation: Some counseling types can help people with SUDs tap into their reasons for sobriety. Strengthening resolve could help people avoid or minimize the next relapse. 

You aren't your loved one's counselor, and you're not required to change the person's relationship with treatment. But you could suggest that the person talk with treatment providers. You could even go to appointments and offer moral support. 

This relapse could be the start of the person's turnaround to sobriety.

Sources

  1. Is Addiction Really a Chronic Relapsing Disorder? Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7739524/. January 2021. Accessed June 2022. 
  2. What Is an Addiction? New Jersey Department of Human Services. https://www.state.nj.us/humanservices/dmhas/resources/addiction/help/what_is.html. Accessed June 2022.

Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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