How to Help a Relapsing Alcoholic

Even though recovery is a positive step for anyone addicted to alcohol, there is always the very real and present concern of relapse. Relapse is when a recovering substance abuser returns to using substances immoderately and threatens their recovery. You, as a loved one, likely want to help your loved one or be prepared for this possibility—and luckily, there are several ways to do that. Here’s how to help a relapsing alcoholic.

If you need a safe space to stay sober, our sober living environment at The Sanctuary Recovery Foundation may be right for you. Contact us and learn how we can help.

What is Relapse?

But first, what is relapse? Relapse is when a person returns to substance use at an immoderate level for an extended period of time. It’s different from a “slip” when a person gives in to temptation once or twice, but then realizes the danger and returns to working on their recovery. Relapse has the potential to derail plans of recovery for the long term.

Symptoms of relapse include the following:

  • Cravings the individual cannot distract themselves from
  • Withdrawal
  • Isolation
  • Leaving support or recovery groups
  • Putting themselves into tempting situations
  • Talking and thinking about the substance excessively

How to Help a Loved One Who is Relapsing

Relapse is so dangerous because when a person stops using substances for a time while in recovery, their tolerance for the substance decreases. So, if they go back to using a substance at the levels they used before they began recovery, there is a much greater risk of overdose. If you are concerned that this is a real possibility for your loved one, here is how you can help:


Realize first and foremost that relapse is not a matter of willpower. It is a very real and biologically rooted symptom of the disease/disorder itself. The brain is deeply impacted by addiction, and between 40 to 60 percent of people in recovery will end up relapsing at one point or another.

So, empathize with your loved one as much as possible. Recognize their suffering and be there to support them and love them through it—don’t accuse and condemn them. Guilt and shame are a big part of relapse, so be a rock of support to encourage them to return to treatment and recovery.

Prepare Yourself for the Worst

Relapse is very possible, and if not addressed, it can be fatal. Have emergency personnel numbers and any interventions you can have (i.e. naloxone for opioids) on hand in case you need to step in to save your loved one’s life.

Encourage Your Loved One in Treatment

Encourage your loved one to attend and stay in their treatment program. Help them access local resources with high-quality treatment plans that will help them have the best chance for success. This may include a 12-step program or access to trauma counseling, if needed.

Help Them Avoid Triggers

One of the most important things you can do is to help your loved one avoid triggers. Help them get away from friends who are bad influences, remove alcohol from the house, and don’t take them places where alcohol will be served.

Sobriety is the Goal

We hope you better know how to help a relapsing alcoholic. All in all, sobriety is the goal, and The Sanctuary Recovery Foundation can be an integral part of that process. Helping your loved one avoid triggers and manage stress properly will allow them to have the greatest chance for success in preventing relapse. Contact us today. We would love to talk to you about how we can help.