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What to do if someone you know relapses

When someone you care about starts drinking or using drugs again, it’s normal to feel frustrated, angry or upset.

But it doesn’t mean that they’ve failed or that their treatments haven’t worked.

Ultimately, the other person is responsible for their own drinking or drug use, and the desire to change has to come from them.

But there are still ways to look after them and yourself.

The difference between lapses and relapses

A lapse is when someone drinks or uses drugs once after not drinking or using for a while.

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

A single lapse doesn’t mean that they have failed. With support and encouragement, they can avoid a full relapse.

If someone does have a full relapse, it might make stopping more difficult - but if they have managed it once, they can do it again.

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 protect yourself 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 drink or drugs in your home.

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

See our advice on setting and keeping healthy boundaries.

Get some help

Anyone who’s struggling with drink or drugs can benefit from professional help.

If they have attending a drug or alcohol service, encourage them to get in touch and be honest about the troubles they’re having.

If they haven’t attended a service, a lapse or relapse could encourage them to join 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 normal to feel angry, disappointed or frustrated 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.

But in fact, their decision has nothing to do with you. The cravings that lead someone to lapse or relapse can push all other thoughts from their mind.

So even if it feels personal, try not to get angry. If your trust has been damaged, it’s more helpful to focus on maintaining your boundaries.

Help them avoid triggers

Triggers are things that make someone want to use alcohol and drugs. They could include:

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

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

Doing what you can to help someone avoid their triggers will make them less likely to lapse again.

See our advice on how to understand and avoid triggers.

Try to stay connected

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

But you can help them stay motivated by expressing optimism about them getting back on track.

If you show them that you believe they can change, they will be more likely to believe it themselves.

This can be difficult 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 you and them stay positive. It could also be helpful to look at our advice on having better conversations.