“Though addiction is a disease – a brain disease that’s often progressive – addicts who relapse are often blamed.”

David Sheff

A relapse isn’t a sign of weakness

Unfortunately, there’s often stigma associated with a relapse. Those suffering from untreated alcoholism know only too well the harm it causes both themselves and loved ones. An alcoholic may be accused of being “weak”. Such a characterisation has often tarnished the reputation of individuals suffering from alcoholism and led to further misunderstanding and ridicule. The shame associated with “having no self-control” or “not being able to handle a drink” in countries such as the UK and US can be detrimental to social mobility and one’s overall standing in society.

Alcoholism is a chronic brain disorder which progressively worsens over long periods of alcohol consumption. Left untreated it can cause alcohol-related brain impairment, wet brain, and alcoholic dementia.

There is an abundance of data to substantiate the severity of alcohol dependency and how it can lead to other diseases. At Addcounsel, we recognise that alcoholism, like drug addiction, is a health issue and not a moral failing. Shaming a person for relapsing makes it harder for them to talk about it and can lead to further isolation and poor mental health. They’ll likely be struggling with guilt and attempting to physically recover from the impact of a relapse (such as tremors, sweats, hot flushes, panic attacks, cravings etc.), and so any perceived disapproval or recrimination will be very unhelpful. While we encourage individual clients to focus on their unique one-to-one treatment programme, we’re aware that some will recover more quickly than others.

With respect to alcoholism, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states: “Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterised by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism.” The author then continues: “Considered a brain disorder, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Lasting changes in the brain caused by alcohol misuse perpetuate AUD and make individuals vulnerable to relapse.”

What are the (warning) signs of a relapse?

Here are some of the symptoms of a potential alcohol relapse:

Extreme cravings

A relapse will almost certainly reignite an overwhelming urge to drink. Although the cravings will lessen over time once a recovery treatment plan is in place, it could take days or even weeks for the cravings to disappear. In some cases, much longer. Extreme cravings will be very distracting and can lead to a complete inability to carry out even the most routine tasks as the obsessive thoughts become all-consuming.

Withdrawal symptoms (alcohol withdrawal symptoms)

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms (AWS) can be dangerous, and there’s even a risk of fatality if withdrawal is abrupt and not supervised by professionals. We recognise that withdrawal symptoms can vary from mild to life-threatening. Mild symptoms usually include headaches, shakes, fatigue, nightmares, and vomiting.  Severe symptoms will present as seizures, hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, confusion, and dehydration. For these reasons we recommend a medically supervised detox led by our world-class team of professionals.

Withdrawing from people and avoiding a support network

The shame associated with a relapse can cause people to completely withdraw from their family, friends, and recovery support network. Unfortunately, the individual may feel overwhelmed with guilt and shame, and feel unworthy of another chance to reset. They may avoid taking calls from their peers, avoiding contact with family, thus exacerbating the feelings of isolation.

Reducing or no longer attending support groups

Alcoholism thrives on isolation. When an individual isolates, they can consume more alcohol and not have anyone trying to moderate their behaviour. After a relapse, a person may stop attending their local support group or feel a real reluctance to return to socialising with their recovery peers. This can happen for several reasons, one being that the individual will need to continue drinking without interruption. Another is not wanting to be held accountable or feeling like they’ll be shamed for relapsing. Even a closed, private support group (often attended by ultra-high-net-worth-individuals or highly profiled individuals) may feel too daunting.

Self-delusional thoughts (denial)

Most relapses begin with a thought (that can have occurred and remained unchallenged by the individual suffering from alcohol dependency) days or weeks prior to the relapse itself.  Self-delusional thoughts (“It won’t be so bad this time”, “I’ll stop after a few”) minimising one’s alcohol dependency, and its impact on health commonly lead to a relapse unless help is sought at this crucial point. This can lead to further relapse and often a demoralising series of relapses, compromising health even further until the vicious cycle is broken.

One of the toughest ingrained beliefs to challenge in the brain of an alcoholic is the denial about their lack of control where drinking is concerned. Many believe they can manage their alcohol consumption, even when the consequences of their alcoholism are painfully apparent for all to see. A relapse can resurrect old patterns of denial, making it harder to stay sober in the long-term. Fortunately, once the denial and delusion are addressed once and for all thanks to receiving the appropriate help and guidance, the chances of long-term recovery becoming established are much higher.

Reconnecting with old drinking associates

Very often, an individual may need to let go of relationships which revolve around drinking. Making such adjustments can be quite painful, but sometimes necessary. However,during or after a full-blown relapse, an alcoholic might reconnect with old drinking associates.

Change in physical appearance

By and large, people who stop drinking/using illegal drugs look much healthier. There’s a sparkle in the eye. Their skin is rehydrated, and vitality often returns. Therefore,when a person relapses, it’s usually quite noticeable. There’s a sudden change in demeanour and they look exhausted. Some individuals present themselves well whether they drink or not, however some will revert to poor hygiene after a relapse.

How to treat a relapse

The most important thing to do after a relapse is talk to a trusted person and/or professional about it before it spirals out of control again. Left unchecked, a relapse can establish new (and frequently more extreme than previously) drinking patterns which can last for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. The longer one avoids talking about it, the harder it’ll be to stop drinking because alcoholism is a progressive brain disorder. Often, an individual will quickly return to old drinking habits within a matter of weeks (going from zero alcohol to ordering a bottle of vodka within 24 hours, for example). In no time at all they are back to where they left off and frequently, find themselves in an even worse place.

It takes immense courage to make that call and ask for help, but it’s worth it. Our dedicated team will guide you through the entire alcohol detox process from start to finish, in the comfort and anonymity of one of our discreet, luxury alcohol rehabilitation facilities in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, or Notting Hill, London.

Support for loved ones

While it’s certainly true that a relapse has the potential to reactivate traumatic memories in both the alcoholic and their loved ones, we have found that compassion and greater understanding can play an important part in a long-term recovery programme. For the alcohol dependent individual, self-compassion can help to get a better perspective on their life, their illness, and prospects. They can reduce misplaced guilt (for example, feeling guilty for having a brain disorder/illness) and give themselves permission to start again. Awareness of an alcohol addiction, its symptoms, and signs of a relapse will certainly help to aid recovery.

Families directly affected by alcoholism will have their own challenges. There are very real consequences associated with alcoholism. There are security and financial implications, as well as emotional and psychological distress. Anger, despair, and distrust are repeatedly described by families with an alcohol dependent individual. Spouses of an alcoholic will have a different experience than a child will when engaging with an alcoholic parent. Similarly, a sibling of an alcoholic will face different dynamics.

We recognise how extremely delicate it is for a family to seek help. It’s perfectly normal to be sceptical around interventions or before embarking on family therapy. Our experts can leverage the world’s most extensive menu of treatment services to help you and your family recover and create a compassionate aftercare programme to support re-integration into your family and lifestyle. From Family Systems Therapy to Conflict Resolution and Meditation, we have twenty-four therapies available.

Please get in touch today to begin your recovery.


We are here to help

Related articles from Addcounsel

What is Internet Addiction?

What is Internet Addiction?

“Internet addiction is a subtle thief that steals our time, attention, and focus.”   — Tony O’Driscoll What is internet addiction?  Internet addiction is characterised by

Read More »

Contact Us Today

Whether you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, our team would like to answer any questions you may have about treatment. Call our care team today to find out more about our treatment modalities and have all your questions answered