How To Support Someone After a Relapse

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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

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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.
  • Again?

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 their situation and lend support instead of criticism. What you can say is that you still love them, you don’t think any less of them and you will be there to give support as they continue 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!

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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.

No Thank You, No More Shame For Me

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I have been so wrapped up in shame that I pretty much became a hermit in my own mind just to not have to face all of which I was afraid that people were judging me for. I totally closed, and I did not share my pain with anyone. I did not seek support and I did not look for guidance. Instead, I threw myself into fixing the arbitrary parts of my life just so that I did not have to deal with my shame, thinking subconsciously that if I do something great over here, maybe it will cancel out all that bad shit I did over there.

Meanwhile, my shame was doing pushups waiting for my next self proclaimed “failure” to attack!



When people feel shame, the focus of their evaluation is on the self or identity.[4] Shame is a self-punishing acknowledgment of something gone wrong.[5] It is associated with “mental undoing”. Studies of shame showed that when ashamed people feel that their entire self is worthless, powerless, and small, they also feel exposed to an audience -real or imagined- that exists purely for the purpose of confirming that the self is worthless. Shame and the sense of self is stigmatized, or treated unfairly, like being overtly rejected by parents in favor of siblings’ needs, and is assigned externally by others regardless of one’s own experience or awareness.

But you know what? Fuck all that and fuck shame! I have had enough. Shame is the lie that tells me that I am BAD and I can’t stay sober if I keep shaming myself about every mistake I have made. All I do is keep beating myself up for this shit and it’s not doing anything for me except for keeping me closer to a drink.

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
~C.G. Jung

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”
~Brené Brown

So I am done. Shit happens. No more shame for me!

When I decided to end my dysfunctional marriage I had no idea what laid ahead. I just took a leap of faith and went for it believing that whatever was on the other side was going to be way better than over here. I had no idea that I would break over and over again.

“If you want a breakthrough you must be open to a possibility of breaking.” – (heard somewhere)

And it sure was not pretty but maybe necessary? Because there is something very incredible about breaking down and rebuilding – every time I got to rebuild into a stronger and better me; a more understanding me that could have only emerged from this sort of experience. But still even in this circumstance shame was not necessary – it was almost as if I was giving myself more punishment than needed that held me hostage and stuck.

I make lots of mistakes and I also do a whole bunch of good stuff. I am no better or worse than others. I am just like everyone else, sometimes struggling, sometimes not. But always hoping for a better tomorrow.

So please, let us stop shaming ourselves! It is literally poisoning our minds and hearts. NO ONE IS PERFECT and IT IS OK NOT TO BE PERFECT!

This article has really helped me to get through my shame:

10 Life-Changing Ways to Move Through Shame

Shame is so personal! It’s a painful feeling of humiliation—that you’ve done something wrong or that there’s something disgraceful or embarrassing about you. It’s the secret emotion that can sit in you like a poison.

And the last thing you want to do is bring it out in the open. You think that all that will do is highlight your worst fears about yourself.

But here’s the possibility for you—the light that can begin to untangle shame:

If you explore it skillfully, if you navigate shame with wisdom and heart, you find tenderness, compassion, courageous vulnerability, and the relief that comes from no longer hiding from yourself—or keeping yourself hidden from others and the world.

This Tedtalk about shame from the amazing Brené Brown- had me crying and laughing all over it!

Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.


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This year I would have had 10 years of continuous sobriety. But I don’t.

I shared once at a meeting that I had this list of the most horrible things in life that if they would happen to me, I would possibly give myself a free pass to drink, like the death of a loved one or losing a limb or something. Then my mom passed away and I remind sober because I knew, that even though I had this list, it was really a list of events during which I needed to stay extra vigilant to stay sober.

Divorce was not on that list. I was not ready for it or for the pain that I was about to experience. Divorce meant the end of my “forever after,” the splitting of my family, and coming to terms with the end of what I thought was going to be my life. I also had no clue how difficult the actual divorce process would be, and that my ex was going to fight me on everything and repeatedly take me to court. 

I am, however, very proud that I am back, again, and that I continue to fight this mind-boggling disease. I know many of us do not make it back, and that frightens me!

Yet, at the same time, I feel lots of shame and guilt – I do. I can’t help it! I feel like a failure. I feel like I let many people down. I feel like I let myself down too! And no matter how often I remind myself that I am not a failure, I continue to feel it, deep down to the core – it continues to hurt. Relapse has such connotations of failure, I read often about how some say its not part of recovery, you don’t have to relapse, you have to work harder and so on and on. But really, this is one of the instances when until you have gone through a relapse you have no clue what it feels like – and it doesn’t feel good at all.

That is also the reason that I have not written about it, but I think it really is time to do so especially since I wish that people were more supportive to ones who relapsed, instead of being judgmental and offer tons of advice. Welcoming the person back and showing them love and care is way more important because trust me, it is very hard to come back.

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I had no intentions to drink, I was not focused on it especially since I was used to being sober and accepted it as a way of life. But the downward spiral happened very fast. There was lots going on with the freshly started divorce process, and many things that had to be done right away – splitting accounts, packing belongings, adjusting to a new schedule, becoming a single mom, and a newly empty bed to sleep in.

I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t really eating either. I often would have stomach ache caused by stress. My mind was constantly occupied with what-ifs and I couldn’t focus on anything. I was trying to stay connected but it was hard to keep talking about things over and over and rehashing the pain. Then I started isolating and pretty much fell off the recovery grid.

Eventually, I just broke. I was in so much pain that I just could not deal with it anymore and I could not see any options.

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I have gone through many difficult times in my sobriety. I always made it through with lots of recovery support, many meetings and the fellowship, and professional therapy when needed. This time though, I carried the shame of a failed marriage and even though I had people around me, I was not telling anyone what was going on in my marriage, and that I have filed for a divorce. It was a huge burden to carry and ultimately my secret lead me to a drink.

Addiction recovery is a long process filled with both victories and setbacks. Kat McGowan clarifies that, when it comes to addiction recovery, “relapsing is the rule, not the exception.” She goes on to explain that, instead of looking at relapse as a sign that the recovery process has failed and that the person should give up all hope of maintaining sobriety, she should instead look at the experience as a learning opportunity.

So if I can offer any advice whatsoever, I would say: grow a huge support network in recovery, stay diligent with your sobriety every day, and get professional help when needed.

Most importantly, find a group of people who you can connect with and let them know how you are feeling and what you are struggling with, especially in those super hard, unexpected times! It’s what I rely on now – a simple text or call to someone that I keep in the forefront of my life, has made a huge impact on my recovery because after all, we need each other! We cannot do this by ourselves, trust me, I’ve tried.

To be continued…

This is a 4 part personal story. Relapse is part 3.
To read Part 1Divorce click HERE.
To read Part 2Depression click HERE.
To read Part 4Hope click HERE.