The path toward recovery from any addiction is often not a straight line.
Unfortunately, addiction relapse is quite common. According to studies, nearly half of all people who try to get sober, return to heavy drinking or drug use, and even more experience a mild slip. There are several reasons for this high number. Short term treatment – 30 days isn’t enough. Studies show that the first 90 days in recovery hold the highest risk for relapse, while longer-term treatment shows the highest success rates.
A relapse is a productive tool that highlights the elements that must be added to the recovery plan to realize a more robust means of avoiding triggers, changing or removing connections with non-supportive people or developing a more firmly rooted sense of hope. -James F. Tenney, MS, Psy.D
With that in mind, it is also very difficult to come back from a relapse. It’s hard to get past the shame and the feeling of failure. I have experienced many negative comments after my relapse. Some people just stopped talking to me as if I had the plague. I even sat at a meeting and after sharing another person shared, and said something like, if she keeps relapsing then she is not a good example of recovery to the newcomers.
To help people come back and stay we need to watch what we say to them in this very fragile time.
Things NOT to Say to Someone After a Relapse:
- Oh, no! That’s horrible!
- Does it get any better out there?!
- Thanks for sharing your story so I can stay sober.
- Relapse is not part of recovery.
- I thought you were stronger than that.
- Did you call someone before you drank?
- You just need more willpower.
- You have to start at day one.
- You just have to try harder.
- You can do anything you really want to do.
So when you are trying to help someone after a relapse, remember that your friend will be fighting the urge to use again, and this is a great burden to carry. Be sensitive to her/his situation and lend support instead of criticism. What you should say is that you still love her/him, you don’t think any less of her/him and you will be there to support her as she/he continues on the journey to recovery.
Things to Say to Someone After a Relapse:
- I am so glad that you are back.
- How can I help you?
- I am happy to see you giving recovery another try.
- Do not give up!
- We are in this together.
- We love you!
- Don’t beat yourself up, it won’t help you.
- Can I take you to a meeting?
- Please call me.
The number-one thing to remember about helping someone after they relapse is to help them focus on rediscovering their sense of self-worth!
For many, just making the decision to seek treatment for drug addiction shows the strength of character and willingness. Staying sober for the first day, the first week, or the first month is huge. If your friend has done any of the above, he or she has something to be proud of—and reason to believe “I’ve beaten obstacles before and I can beat them again!”
Encourage your friend to remember those past victories and how good it felt to achieve them. If you were part of the process, reminisce together and let your friend know how proud you are of them. Paying attention to what was done right encourages more victories.
As far as possible, keep the relapse itself out of the conversation—except in the context of “How can we ensure it doesn’t happen again?” There’s a subtle but powerful difference between “What went wrong?” and “How can we keep the same thing from going wrong in the future?”—the first implies “I was [and probably will always be] a victim,” the second says, “I hold the real power.”
Whatever help they ask for (or don’t ask for), let them lead the conversation. Some people regain their footing quickly after a relapse. Others need weeks of encouragement—even professional treatment—to keep from returning to the full addiction lifestyle. But all need to be respected and treated as individuals. Build on what you know of your friend’s temperament, weaknesses, and strengths and offer unconditional support for where they are in their recovery.
If you, or anyone you know, is struggling with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)*, please check out the Sober Courage menu at the top of this page for an extensive list of support groups and recovery related articles.
*Problem drinking that becomes severe is given the medical diagnosis of “alcohol use disorder” or AUD. AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using (Ref: NIAAA).