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What to Do When a Loved One Relapses

8 minute read

Watching a loved one relapse can be gut-wrenching. It’s normal to experience a flood of emotions. You may feel angry, sad, scared, and resentful. You thought this was behind your family, and now, here you are again. The fact is, relapse happens a lot, and it doesn’t mean that your loved one is doomed to a life of addiction.

“It’s easy to become frustrated by your loved one’s repeated attempts to stop using drugs and alcohol,” said Agy Wielechowski, a case manager at Footprints to Recovery. “It’s very easy to think that if they wanted to stop, they would just stop. It may seem that simple in the mind of someone who has never struggled with addiction, but it isn’t that simple at all. In fact, drug and alcohol relapse is a common part of addiction recovery.”

If you’re wondering what to say to someone who relapsed or what to do when someone relapses, read these 5 important tips.

#1 Don’t Blame or Shame

The person who has relapsed is likely feeling a lot of shame already. Adding to that will do no good. Research shows that people who relapse may experience the abstinence violation effect. This is the clinical term used when an individual experiences such strong feelings of shame, guilt, and failure when they relapse that they figure they might as well just turn in the towel and head straight back into active addiction. Piling on the shame or blame may just exacerbate this feeling for your loved one.

Focusing on the fact that a substance use disorder is a disease that changes the brain may help you feel more compassionate in a situation where anger and frustration are understandably often knee-jerk reactions. If you haven’t struggled with addiction, it’s hard to comprehend just how strongly substance abuse can hijack the brain, making it extremely difficult to stop using drugs or alcohol. It’s not just a matter of willpower.

“Addiction takes over the survival part of the brain, and the substance being abused becomes so central in a person’s life that all their energy, thoughts, and time are consumed by it,” said Wielechowski. “The parts of the brain that are critical to decision-making and behavior control are also changed by repeated substance use. Quitting can be very difficult, even for those who feel ready.”

#2 Address Your Feelings

Allow yourself to feel the many emotions around your loved one’s addiction relapse. Don’t judge your emotions. They’re all valid. Express them in healthy ways without taking them out on your loved one. Give yourself some space before you speak with your loved one about their relapse. “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm,” said Wielechowski. “You are allowed to walk away and take a time out. Remember to breathe, and focus on some self-care steps you can take to feel better.”

Some healthy ways to cope with strong emotions:

  • Journal
  • Process them in individual therapy
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member
  • Allow yourself to cry, yell, or hit a pillow
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Do something that feels meditative to you like knitting, golfing, or playing an instrument
  • Attend a 12-step meeting for loved ones like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon

Once the emotions from your loved one’s alcohol or drug relapse feel less raw and intense, try to speak with them about it. It’s okay to express your feelings to them, but do so in a way that doesn’t cast blame. Using “I” words is a good rule of thumb. For example:

What not to say to someone who relapsed:

  • How could you do this to me? You’re ruining your life and our family.
  • What is wrong with you? Why can’t you just stop?
  • You were doing so well in recovery. How could you throw it all away?

What to say to someone who relapsed:

  • I feel sad and frustrated, and I’m worried about your life and our family. I struggle sometimes with how to best help you.
  • I understand that relapse is sometimes a normal part of recovery because it’s a chronic disease. How can I help?
  • Let’s get you some help so you can learn from this relapse and strengthen your relapse prevention skills.

“A drug or alcohol relapse is not the end, and it does not mean that treatment has ‘failed,’” Wielechowski. Always remember to take a step back and gauge the situation. Don’t assume that this misstep will cause your loved one’s or your entire life to be destroyed.”

#3 Keep Healthy Boundaries

Seeing your loved one struggle with addiction is tough. Holding your boundaries when someone relapses may feel like kicking them when they’re down, but that’s not the case. There’s a difference between supporting and enabling. If you’re wondering what to do when someone relapses, this is at the top of the list. Keeping healthy boundaries right now can mean the difference between them getting the substance abuse treatment they need or spiraling further into a relapse. The main message that comes across with boundaries is that you love them and support them, but you will not support their self-destructive behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse.

Boundaries for addicted people look different depending on the situation, but common ones include:

  • I won’t let you live here if you continue abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • I won’t support you financially while you’re in active addiction. This could include not paying for phone bills, rent, car payments, gas, or groceries.
  • I won’t bail you out of legal or financial trouble tied to drug and alcohol misuse.
  • I won’t make excuses for you if you skip work, school, or social obligations.

Let your loved one know you want to be the first person they call when they’re ready to attend substance abuse treatment and get back on track, but you love them too much to enable the behaviors that are contributing to their addiction.

“The recovery process can be a hard and long road, but with time and the proper tools, you and your loved one can heal,” said Wielechowski. “Drug and alcohol relapse is a completely natural part of addiction, and it is never your fault.”

#4 Encourage Them to Get Help

A relapse doesn’t always mean a return to drug rehab is necessary. However, it usually means some form of substance abuse treatment is a good idea. Support groups for sobriety like SMART Recovery ( differentiate between a relapse and a slip. They consider a slip to be a brief, one-time event that couldn’t be foreseen. This could include a brief slip into substance abuse as a reaction to things like a job loss, death of a loved one, or being blindsided by a trigger. SMART Recovery considers a relapse to be drug or alcohol abuse that continues for days or weeks when people fall into past patterns like hanging out with “drug friends,” missing support groups, and feeling “homesick” for their old lifestyle.

With a slip, you’re loved one might just need to increase their individual therapy sessions, attend more recovery support groups, or look into an outpatient program that meets two to three times a week in the day or evenings. If their return to drugs and alcohol looks more like a relapse where they have moved back into active addiction and old lifestyle habits, a return to drug rehab might be the best decision. Inpatient treatment can give them space and time away from triggers, so they can focus on themselves, what they can learn from the relapse, and how to move forward.

“This is actually a great opportunity to look back at the last few weeks or months and try to figure out if there were any situations that may have triggered the drug or alcohol relapse,” said Wielechowski. “This is a time to assess coping skills and allow your loved one to make a stronger relapse plan. Relapse can be an opportunity to strengthen their recovery.”

#5 Take Care of Yourself

If you’ve attended a family program at a drug rehab center or any support group for loved ones of addicted people, you’ve heard how important it is to take care of yourself. It may seem cliche, but it’s true. When you sacrifice self-care, you can become physically and mentally depleted, which isn’t good for you or your loved one. Taking care of yourself is important for both of you. Worrying and focusing all of your energy on

your loved one’s addiction isn’t going to change them. You can give them love and support that doesn’t enable, but you can’t do the work for them.

Ways to take care of yourself include:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating three nutritious meals a day
  • Exercising
  • Journaling
  • Meditating or practicing mindfulness
  • Spending time with people you enjoy
  • Attending Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or other support groups
  • Seeing a therapist
  • Continuing to take part in hobbies or fun activities

“Whether or not your loved one is willing to seek addiction help, remember to take care of yourself,” said Wielechowski. “You are not responsible for other people’s actions or emotions, and they are not responsible for yours. You can’t change how someone else feels or thinks. You may be able to influence them for the better, but ultimately, people decide their own behavior.”

We Can Help

We understand what you’re going through, and we can help both you and your loved one bounce back from this relapse. We’ll help your loved one identify the reasons that led to relapse, develop healthy coping skills, and create a detailed relapse prevention plan for moving forward. We offer recovery resources for you as well such as family therapy and family education so that you can heal alongside your loved one.

Our drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers offer different levels of care so your loved one has options. Footprints’ drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs include:

You are an important part of your loved one’s long-term recovery. Research shows when people believe that their family supports them in their recovery, they have a better chance of staying sober.

“Know that your support matters and try to always be patient. Keep in mind that your loved one may be feeling ashamed, afraid and hopeless,” said Wielechowski. “Neither of you are alone, and there is always hope.”

If your loved one has relapsed, we can help. Call us for a free phone consultation and insurance verification.



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