What to do if someone you know relapses

Find out what to do when someone you care about relapses and starts drinking or using drugs again, as well as how to look after yourself.

It's not the end of their journey

When someone you care about starts drinking or using drugs again, you may feel frustrated, angry or upset.

It’s important to remember that a relapse doesn’t mean they’ve failed or that their treatments haven’t worked.  

Setbacks are a natural part of making any change, and this includes lapse or relapse while making changes to drug and alcohol use. Lapses and relapses are important opportunities to learn and strengthen the journey going forwards. 

Ultimately, the other person is responsible for accepting support or taking any action with their own drinking or drug use, but there are still ways you can look after them, and yourself.

The difference between lapses and relapses

A lapse is when a person first uses alcohol or drugs after not doing so for a while.

Using support and encouragement, and taking action at an early point, they can avoid a relapse.

A relapse is when someone goes back to drinking or using drugs regularly.

It can be helpful to think of a relapse as a process that starts with a lapse. If the lapse isn’t addressed, it can lead to a relapse. 

But just because someone has a lapse, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll go on to have a relapse. Understanding this difference is key to helping someone stay on track with their recovery.

Even though stopping after a relapse may feel more difficult, change is always possible and if they have managed this before , they can also use what they learned to strengthen their approach.

If you feel comfortable doing so, you could show them our advice on what to do if you lapse or relapse.

Look after yourself

While you’re looking after someone else, it’s important that you also look after yourself. You could start with our advice on looking after yourself.

One important way to take care of your own wellbeing is to set healthy boundaries: the limits you have when it comes to other people’s behaviour.

For example, you may draw the line at being lied to, being sworn at, or having alcohol or drugs in your home.

Keeping boundaries can be difficult. But in the end, they will protect you and the other person.

Get some extra help

Anyone who’s struggling with alcohol or drug use can benefit from professional help.

If they're attending a drug or alcohol service, encourage them to get in touch and to be open about the difficulties they’re having.

If they haven’t attended a service, a lapse or relapse may encourage them to approach one for the first time.

Find a drug or alcohol service near you

We also run a free and confidential webchat service, offering advice and support to people with drug or alcohol problems, or their friends and families.

Talk to us online

It's not personal

It’s natural to feel upset when someone you know has a lapse or relapse.

If someone has promised to change, it can feel personal if they drink or use drugs again.

In reality, their decision to use substances is their own and for some people is linked to them trying to manage a physical dependence.

So even if it feels personal, try to remember this, remain calm and take care of your wellbeing. If your trust has been damaged, try to focus on maintaining your boundaries.

If agreed with you and the person you care about the following can be helpful:

Help them avoid triggers

Triggers are things that remind you of using alcohol and drugs. Triggers can lead to cravings and can include:

  • people
  • objects
  • moods and feelings
  • places
  • times of the day or week

You won’t always be able to avoid triggers, but it’s still helpful to know what they are.

Doing what you can to help someone avoid their triggers will help in the short term to reduce the chances of lapse again.

However as it is not always possible to avoid triggers in the long term, it is important to plan and practise coping strategies for managing known triggers and cravings. See our advice on how to understand and manage triggers.

Try to stay connected

After a lapse or relapse, someone may feel like giving up.

But you can help them stay motivated by encouraging self-belief, reminding them about what has worked well for them and being positive about them getting back on track.

If you show them that you believe they can make a change, this can help them believe in themselves.

It can be difficult to do this if you’re feeling let down. But remember, most people who stop drinking or using drugs for good have lapses or relapses along the way.

Keeping this in mind will help everyone stay positive. It could also be helpful to look at our advice on having better conversations.