It’s your greatest fear. It’s a living nightmare, and it’s a nightmare that keeps you anxious, hypervigilant, and even obsessed.

Watching loved ones struggle with an addiction is one of the hardest experiences you can encounter. There is such a moment of relief when they complete treatment or start to embrace the concepts of sobriety. However, the underlying fear of someone relapsing- after a sustained period of success- can be even more frightening and difficult.

That said, despite your intuition, it isn’t always obvious to tell if someone is back on drugs. What are the visible and apparent signs? What are the more discreet ones? Finally, how should you intervene if you suspect a relapse has occurred?

Understanding Why Relapse Happens

Addictions are diseases, and just like all medical conditions, it is vital to be aware of the risk of relapse. Even the most effective treatment cannot necessarily eliminate this risk.

With that in mind, relapse isn’t necessarily a conscious choice. Many sober people want to stay sober. However, addiction isn’t this logical and linear process. In fact, many experts agree that relapse can be an influential part of one’s recovery process.

Relapses can happen for many reasons. Common situations include:

  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Significant life transitions
  • Medical issues
  • Financial problems
  • Trauma or major stressors
  • Lack of social support
  • Work or school problems
  • Being around triggering places or people
  • Mental health issues

It is essential to note that relapses don’t always have a specific trigger. Many people describe their relapse experience as “not knowing what was happening until it was actually happening.”

Many experts differentiate between a lapse and relapse when defining recovery. Typically speaking, a lapse refers to a single episode of using drugs after a period of sobriety. A relapse, on the other hand, represents the process of using drugs and falling back into the old habits prevalent in addiction.

A woman who has just had a drug relapse

Physical Symptoms of Relapse

Depending on the drug used, most people show physical changes once relapsing. These changes may be subtle, but an attuned loved one may be able to recognize them as they happen. The common physical symptoms include:

  • Changes or lack in general grooming and hygiene
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pupils that are smaller or larger than normal in size
  • Bloodshot, watery eyes
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Tremors
  • Dullness in eyes, skin, or hair
  • Skin problems (scabs, increased acne, “picked” marks)
  • Track marks

Any of these symptoms can potentially indicate that your loved one may be using drugs. However, due to both fear and shame, many people also take great lengths to hide their drug use. For this reason, it is important to note that you cannot depend on physical changes alone to determine the possibility for relapse.

Emotional and Psychological Symptoms of Relapse

If you spend a significant amount of time with your loved one, you might be able to notice fluctuations in mood and behavior. These common symptoms include:

  • Secretive behavior
  • Increased agitation and irritability
  • Withdrawal from friends or family
  • Recent issues at school or work
  • Increased anxiety, paranoia, or hypervigilance
  • Depression
  • Manic-like symptoms (euphoria, restlessness, high energy, very talkative)
  • Financial problems
  • Dishonesty (including catching someone in the lie directly)

Likewise, you may simply have that gut feeling that “something isn’t right.” You may be having this feeling because you’ve picked up on a sudden personality shift that just doesn’t seem to make sense.

A young man helps his friend after he has relapsed

How To Help Someone Who Has Relapsed

In an ideal world, your loved one would be honest and forthcoming about the relapse. Perhaps, he or she would even reach out to you for support and help.

In reality, this is rarely the case. Many people struggle with a deep sense of shame, inferiority, and humiliation over their drug addiction. A relapse can feel incredibly defeating- especially if the individual has been doing successfully for a while.

Some people will minimize, downplay, manipulate, or downright lie about the situation. They will accuse you of being paranoid or irrational. They will lash out and attempt to blame you for not trusting them. As painful as this can be, you should know that these reactions are normal. They are part of the pervasive shame prevalent in addiction.

Find A Neutral Time And Space To Talk

It’s usually a bad idea to confront people when they’re acutely intoxicated or high. For one, their inhibitions are impaired. Moreover, they are more likely to become aggressive or hostile when approached.

Instead, it is better to wait until you can find a neutral time and location to voice your concerns. The brief wait allows you to collect your thoughts. It also allows you to revisit the boundaries you intend to set.

Identify Your Boundaries

Before you intervene with your loved one, you should reflect on your boundaries. These boundaries are crucial for your protection. Addiction can be consuming for everyone involved- the boundaries help you stay sane and healthy during this insidious process. Likewise, they mitigate the chance for you enabling your loved one (which can ultimately result in more problems for both of you).

Your boundaries will vary depending on your needs and the relationship you two share. Common boundary examples include:

  • Refusing to let your loved one stay in your home while under the influence
  • Discontinuing financial support
  • Prohibiting any name-calling, blaming, or blatant disrespect
  • Refusing to cover up drug-related behaviors
  • Limiting or discontinuing social interactions

You should know that there isn’t a “right” way to set boundaries. However, if you tend to enable your loved one, your behaviors may only perpetuate the perils of addiction.

Speak Assertively Without Blaming

When speaking to your loved one, it is best to remain calm and collected. Yelling, blaming, or threatening the other person will only result in potential defensiveness and conflict.

Stay objective when speaking. This means using statements like, I noticed you were home two hours late last night. Do not make accusations or assumptions. Stick to the facts.

You can also use this time to assert your thoughts and feelings about the situation. The goal in doing this is to let your loved one know where you are coming from. This means using statements like, I felt very concerned when you asked me to loan you twenty dollars last week.

Finding Solutions For Recovery

Ultimately, your loved one needs to make the decision for recovery. No matter how much you want the positive change for someone, you cannot do the work required to stay sober. For this reason, it is imperative that you have your coping skills and sense of support.

Support For Loved Ones

When someone you care about has relapsed, it’s normal to feel like your world has also been flipped upside-down. After all, is it possible to experience happiness when you know your loved one is hurt and struggling?

Finding and utilizing support during this time matters. Fortunately, there are numerous options available to you. Some people choose to participate in their own 12-Step programs (Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous). These meetings provide free, anonymous support and are welcome to anyone.

You may also want to consider pursuing individual therapy during this time. Therapy can provide you with a safe, nonjudgmental space to explore your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It can also help you strengthen your boundaries and increase your self-esteem.

Finally, this is the time to lean on supportive friends and family. While some people won’t know what to say or do, it is important that you try to take care of yourself during this vulnerable time.

Encouraging Recovery Efforts

Regardless of your loved one’s level of motivation, it is imperative that you aim to promote recovery efforts. This encouragement may mean helping them locate viable treatment options.

Of course, you need to assess your capabilities first. You should evaluate your insurance and financial circumstances before discussing treatment with your loved one. Doing so will help you narrow down the best options for your situation.

Final Thoughts

It isn’t always possible to tell immediately if your loved one has relapsed on drugs. It is important that you don’t blame or shame yourself if you didn’t notice right away.

That said, with time, you should be able to spot some of the symptoms. If and when this happens, you should be intentional with how you approach your loved one. Remember that a relapse does not make someone a “bad” person, and it does not mean he or she is doomed. It is important that you avoid taking a relapse personally.

Are you concerned that someone you love is struggling? Do you want to learn more about the treatment options available? Contact us today at (866) 957-7298 to speak to one of our admissions representatives. We are available 24/7 to help you get the answers you need.