How to tell if someone has relapsed

How can you tell when someone has relapsed and keep them from destroying their life

How to tell if someone has relapsed

Maintaining recovery is an everyday battle but with the right support, it is always an achievable task. For their loved ones questions always remain even long after they give up their substance of abuse. Will they stay clean this time? How do I tell if they relapsed? How can I be supportive of their recovery?

The truth is that the potential for relapse is always there, regardless of how long they have been abstinent. As a family knowing the warning signs that could foreshadow a relapse can make the difference between long-term recovery and a life-changing relapse. Family and friends must understand what to look for as signs that a loved one is going to relapse.

Relapse is not an event that ends someone’s recovery, in reality it is a process. It is important to know is that the process can be addressed prior to the final stage and prevent the use of substances. The relapse process can be broken down into three distinct stages.

  • Emotional Relapse
  • Mental Relapse
  • Physical Relapse

Emotional relapse is the first and most misunderstood stage.

The first stage of a relapse is the emotional stage, it occurs long before someone in recovery even begins to think about using drugs again. The individual will begin to experience negative emotional responses, such as depression, anger, anxiety and restlessness. As a loved one of an addict or alcoholic it is important to be mindful that the response to emotions reflects the quality of their recovery. There are many things that show someone is in the Emotional Relapse Stage.

  • Mood-swings
  • Isolation
  • Unprovoked outbursts 
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Poor eating habits

When you notice your loved one displaying any of these behaviors it can lead you to question their sobriety and bring about a dificult dilemma. How can I tell if that have relapsed or if they are just having a bad day? The best indicator is if these signs are chronic or a rare occurrence. If your loved one is showing multiple signs and they seem to be worsening it is best to intervene prior to the development of stage two in the relapse process, a mental relapse.

Mental relapse is the second stage in the relapse process and often the hardest to detect.

In the mental stage of a relapse the individual will often torn internally. They have the desire to remain on the road to long-term recovery but emotional turmoil drives them to reconsider use of substances. This desire to use substances as a means of coping is the precise reason addiction is considered a chronic condition.  If your loved one has entered this stage they will often begin to reduce their activities in recovery. (Therapy, AA, NA, SMART). 

As the mental stage develops, specific thoughts about using eventually arise. At this point, it’s very difficult to break the cycle. When someone dealing with addiction makes the decision to act on these thoughts it is often too late to break the cycle as this stage very quickly develops into a Physical relapse which is when the answer to the question, how can I tell if they relapsed, becomes clear.


Physical relapse is the final and most dangerous stage. 

The physical stage of relapse is the stage that is classified as “a relapse”. In this final stage the individual begins using either their primary substance of abuse or an alternative mind altering substance. Many people who struggle with addiction will justify their use by saying “it is only one time” or “I’m not using my drug of choice”. The unfortunate reality is that once an individual with a Substance use disorder uses any substance their cravings will only increase and it becomes imperative that they seek treatment immediately.

At this stage it is imperative to seek professional resources. This becomes difficult as many who have been in long-term recovery will not believe that they need treatment. Many will believe they have the knowledge and understanding necessary to regain control of their addiction.

It is often difficult for the family and friends of an individual that struggles with substance abuse to accept that their loved one has relapsed. This is especially difficult if they have obtained a significant period of abstinence. Just as someone in early recovery needs the most intensive support an individual that has recently relapsed needs immediate and intensive treatment

Living with a loved one in short or long term recovery is a double-edged sword. Witnessing somone recover and live a full life after struggling for so long is a rewarding experience. However if an event occurs and you can tell that they have relapsed will be devastating. The next question will be “what do I do now?” there are many options to break the cycle and offer them the resources they need. The most successful of these options is an intervention as it will create their new “rock bottom” in a safe and compassionate manner to prevent them from returning to the depths of their addiction.


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