People trying to support someone through addiction recovery should be prepared to spot the signs of relapse and offer help when it’s needed.
When a loved one is in recovery from a substance use disorder, it is common to feel conflicting emotions. On the one hand, people often feel relieved that their loved one is living a healthier life. On the other, friends and family members may feel afraid that their loved one will relapse. It can be difficult to know when these fears are justified and when someone is unfairly assuming the worst about a loved one.
People supporting a loved one through recovery can find it tempting to be in denial about the likelihood of relapse. They may be quick to believe made-up stories and ignore the warning signs of relapse because they don’t want to believe that this person is returning to substance use. The truth is, relapse is often part of recovery. About 40–60% of people dealing with substance use disorders relapse and treatment plans need to be regularly revisited and revised to be effective. Being realistic about the possibility of relapse can help people be supportive of their loved ones.
Being able to spot relapse warning signs is a skill that people can learn and get better at over time. People who have a loved one who has gone through treatment for substance misuse should learn about relapse and recovery so they can help their loved ones during this journey.
One of the most telling signs of relapse is when a person suddenly starts experiencing financial difficulties. Sometimes, there is an obvious reason for these challenges. After all, the beginning stages of recovery are a time of transition. Those early in recovery may have recently lost a job, have reduced hours at work or be adopting new hobbies or habits. A little bit of upheaval is normal. However, if there is no obvious reason why someone may be dealing with a reduced income or increased expenses, yet they are struggling financially, this may be a sign of relapse. Supporting a substance use habit is expensive.
A person going through a relapse and looking to support old habits may turn to friends and family asking for money. If a relapse seems likely, their loved ones should avoid giving them money, regardless of how much they may want to provide support. Giving people money that they may use to support a drug or alcohol habit is a form of enabling behavior.
Sudden Changes in Hygiene
Substance use often drains a person’s energy or motivation to keep up with hygiene and other daily habits. Relapse symptoms related to a person struggling to meet their own physical, mental or emotional needs include:
- Not showering regularly
- Not washing or combing hair
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Suddenly being more irritable or having mood swings
Hygiene changes may not necessarily be a sign of drug use. However, they could indicate that someone is more vulnerable to relapse. Some mental health professionals view relapse as occurring during multiple stages, beginning with emotional relapse. Emotional relapse occurs when a person still wants to avoid using substances but is exhibiting behaviors that could make relapse more likely in the future. Someone struggling with self-care may end up restless and unhappy and be more tempted to return to substance use as a way to cope. Noticing and addressing these changes may help stop a relapse before it happens.
Skipping Recovery Meetings
Support groups, recovery meetings and sober communities are an important part of maintaining sobriety. If someone suddenly stops participating in meetings, this can be a sign of “mental relapse,” where a person may be actively considering using again. Pulling away from support networks or skipping therapy may indicate that someone is struggling with their addiction recovery.
If someone is in the early stages of recovery and stops going to meetings, this may indicate that their rehab treatment didn’t last long enough. In later stages of recovery, people may stop going to meetings because they resent the fact that they have to spend time and energy getting better because they feel like they’re not learning anything new or because they’re embarrassed to admit that they’re still struggling with their recovery.
Other related signs that someone is relapsing include brushing off offers of help, acting defensive or resentful toward people who are trying to help, spending time around new friend groups or missing work or school. If someone misses one social obligation or recovery meeting, this may not be a cause for concern, but if there are multiple signs that someone is changing the way they spend their time, it could be a cause for concern — people who revisit old habits and relationships while in recovery are more likely to relapse.
Things Going Missing
In many cases, drug addiction and stealing from the family go hand-in-hand. Someone who has gone back to using substances might steal cash or valuable items to pay for their new habit. If someone’s loved one is going through recovery and they notice that money is gone from their purse, wallet or bank account, concerns about a relapse may be justified.
It also may be helpful to keep an eye on medications stored around the house. Someone trying to return to drug use might be tempted to ingest prescription medications or cough syrup. Noticing that household drugs are gone is another potential relapse warning sign.
If someone suddenly starts displaying drug withdrawal symptoms, it is a sign that they have returned to substance use. Withdrawal symptoms for each substance can vary, but some common signs of drug withdrawal include:
- Anxiety or depression
- Sleeping difficulties
- Muscle aches
- Being unusually tired or having low energy
People often deal with post-acute withdrawal syndrome once they are in recovery. They may experience intense feelings of depression and anxiety, low energy, problems sleeping and strong cravings. These symptoms tend to cycle on and off for months or even years. It is often because of these symptoms that people relapse.
What Should You Do If Your Loved One Relapses?
Relapses may be common, but they should still be taken seriously. When people relapse, they are more at risk for overdose since their body no longer has the same tolerance it used to. Additionally, the earlier a relapse is caught, the more likely someone will be to remain committed to long-term recovery.
When someone suspects a relapse, the first step is having a conversation. People should be prepared for their loved one to react defensively or angrily to this conversation. It’s important to be as supportive and nonjudgmental as possible and avoid criticism. People trying to provide addiction support should also be prepared to hand out consequences for people who are returning to substance use. Consequences might include not giving financial support or cutting off contact.
Relapses may be an indication that someone may need a different addiction treatment plan. They can also indicate that someone’s rehab didn’t last long enough or that there are underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed. The best treatment plans are the ones that are evaluated regularly and modified based on a person’s changing needs and circumstances.
If you suspect that someone you care about is relapsing, know that help is available. Talk to a doctor or treatment center if you’re unsure what to do when a loved one relapses. If you’re interested in learning more about how to aid your loved one’s recovery process, call The Recovery Village to talk to a compassionate admissions counselor.
Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015. Accessed August 23, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Effective Treatment.” Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition), January 2018. Accessed August 23, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment and Recovery.” Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction, July 2018. Accessed August 23, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.