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What To Say To An Addict Who Has Relapsed

What To Say To An Addict Who Has Relapsed
Written by Seth Fletcher on January 8, 2021
Last update: February 9, 2023
If somebody that you care for has a substance addiction, it is quite possible that they might experience a relapse. If this happens, then you might feel angry and hurt, but the person who relapsed is also experiencing strong emotions such as guilt, shame and devastation. Wait until the person has recovered before having a discussion with them about the situation. This will allow for a more productive discussion and will also give you time to process your own emotions.

1. Provide encouragement

A person who has relapsed may fear that they will never be able to achieve their goal of sobriety. You can help that person get back on the right track by providing encouragement. Words such as “I know you can do this” or “I believe in you” can have a very positive impact on the person’s confidence level.

2. Show empathy and understanding

It takes strength and courage for a person with an addiction to work on their ultimate goal of sobriety on a daily basis. When they relapse, shame and guilt set in. They might find it difficult to face you out of embarrassment, especially if they made you a promise to quit their addiction.  Your goal is to get the person back on their journey to sobriety. Show them that you understand that this was not their choice and that you care about them now just as much as you did before the relapse. Invite the person to share their feelings with you and take the time to truly listen to them. If the person can unload some of the pressures by talking openly with you without feeling judged, it might be enough to help them focus on their recovery again.

3. Agree on limits

You are not a healthcare professional, nor are you trained to treat a person with an addiction. However, you can be a friend that understands and cares for the person, but you are not responsible for their actions. Moreover, you should not feel as though the person is taking advantage of your kindness.  Now might be a good time to identify and agree on certain boundaries. If the person is motivated to restart their journey to sobriety, knowing certain boundaries that are considered unacceptable in your relationship could help the person stay the course. It also ensures that your relationship with the individual maintains a level of respect for both parties. For example, you may set a rule that the person is never to use their addiction substance when there are children in the house. Select a consequence if the rule gets broken and do not forget to follow-through on the consequence if necessary. The goal is to provide an opportunity for the person to think about the rule and consequence if ever they feel the urge to use again and hopefully refrain from relapsing as a result.  

Example of things to say to a person with an addiction who has relapsed

Your words carry a tremendous amount of weight, particularly with a person who is feeling shame and guilt from having relapsed. The list below gives you ideas of things that you can say;
  • How are you feeling?
  • How are things going?
  • Is there something that I can do to help?
  • You managed to stay sober for a good while before. You can do it again.
  • It’s not easy, but you are a strong person.
  • This was a bump in the road. Now you can restart fresh and get back on track to recovery. 
  • You did pretty well with your recovery before. I know you can do it again.
  • You are stronger than you think. 
  • You showed a lot of courage when you were on your path to recovery. That courage is still in you. 
  • I am there to support you.
  • This relapse helped you better understand your triggers. Use that deeper knowledge of your triggers to your advantage.

Things that you should avoid saying to a person with addictions who relapsed

Again, your objective is to help guide the person back to a place where they feel the courage to get back on track with their recovery. You might need some time to let your emotions settle a bit before engaging in such a discussion. Here are some examples of things that you should avoid saying to a person with addictions who has just relapsed;
  • How could you do this?
  • I am so angry at you right now.
  • Don’t you want to get better?
  • Stop being so selfish. Look at what this is doing to our relationship?
  • Why won't you just stop doing drugs?
  • Didn’t you follow the steps that you were given in therapy? 

Encourage the person on their good days also

Remember to give encouraging words to the person when they seem to be successfully following their treatment plan as well. For example, let them know that you see their strength and courage, and that you are happy to see them living a healthier lifestyle. Remind them that you and others are there to support them if they feel like they might make a slip-up again. Photo by Odonata Wellnesscenter from Pexels
Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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