Signs That An Alcoholic Has Started Drinking Again
It can be very alarming when an alcoholic in recovery drinks again. There are warning signs to look for if an alcoholic in your life begins to drink again after being sober. Certain behavior changes can signal that an individual with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) has relapsed. People with alcohol use disorder are still considered alcoholics, even if they abstain from alcohol and achieve sobriety. They remain at risk of relapse. Even if someone is dedicated to abstinence, they are still at risk, especially when upsetting life events occur, and put them in a place where coping skills are needed.
What Happens When An Alcoholic Starts Drinking Again
Given the long-term nature of the disease of alcoholism, it is critical to remain alert and aware of signs that an alcoholic is drinking again. Knowing how to recognize when an alcoholic is drinking again allows you to help them get back on track. Priya Chaudhri, MD, and CEO of Elevation Behavioral Health explains that “being able to recognize the signs of an impending alcohol relapse allows you to offer your support and encouragement, hopefully fending off the relapse altogether.”
The first thing to look out for in a person with an AUD is a personality change. Changes in behavior can indicate that they may be going through something and changing the way they act as a result. For people with an AUD, drinking alcohol serves as a coping mechanism when something went awry in their life. Behavior changes often associated with an alcoholic drinking again include irritable and moody behavior. This could indicate that the drinker is frustrated with themselves because they drank again and “ruined” their recovery. This irritability is frequently directed toward those around the drinker, but it can also be directed toward themselves because they feel guilty. Sabrina Sportorno, LCSW, is part of the online recovery platform Monument in New York City and has witnessed that “sometimes, a shift in mood can happen because of an emotional trigger or guilt over wanting to drink again. The alcoholic might even try quitting again because of that guilt.” The first sign to look for in an alcoholic who has started to drink again is behavioral changes like unpleasant mood, irritability, and defensiveness.
It is possible to have an emotional relapse without having a single sip of alcohol. To further understand that “this cycle does not necessarily start with a physical relapse,” Spotorno explains that the relapse is “typically some emotional relapse, generally in the form of fantasizing or obsessing over past use.” This period of idealization, referred to as emotional relapse, “can be followed by a triggering event, then actual use, a sense of loss of control, guilt over use, cessation, and passage of time.” An important point is made here; the individual with an AUD experiences a triggering event and thinks about drinking to cope. They eventually drink and feel a loss of control and a huge sense of guilt. The cycle then continues with alcohol used to numb the guilt, but eventually, the user’s guilt can become so unbearable that they stop drinking again.
Social Withdrawal and Isolation
Social withdrawal is another indication that an alcoholic has relapsed. Individuals who are sober but have an alcohol use disorder often feel the need to isolate themselves when they begin drinking again, to avoid shame from their loved ones and recovery community. Another sign of self-isolation is failing to follow through on plans and personal responsibilities. This is often obvious to the people in the individual’s life who support him or her the most in recovery. A sponsor or other member of a support group may notice that their friend has made excuses for not attending meetings. The 12-step programs emphasize the importance of showing up, being present, and holding one another accountable. A member of the person’s Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) group may notice that he or she has begun to isolate themselves. In most cases, A.A. members will check up on each other to ensure that they have not started drinking again. If the individual has already relapsed, then they can be helped in re-establishing their sobriety. The peer support could be as simple as offering to drive them to an A.A. meeting or stopping by their house with a coffee and an ear to listen. Those with experience in addiction medicine, like psychiatric nurse practitioner Parool Desai, believe that it is essential for those in recovery to consistently “touch base with their sponsor or sober peer” to be held accountable and to ensure that they are okay and remaining sober.
Having a sober friend makes individuals in recovery feel less alone and isolated. Another way to help someone who you believe has relapsed due to isolation is to invite them to go out into the world with you and participate in an activity together. Leaving the house reminds you that you are not alone in this world and going for a brisk walk or a conversational run with a sober friend increases feel-good hormones and decreases the craving to drink.
Turning Back to Old Behavior Patterns
When a person in recovery reverts to drinking, it is natural for them to regress to old behaviors. Consider someone in recovery hanging out with old friends who used to be his drinking buddies. By reliving past habits and ways of life, it becomes easy to turn back to behaviors like drinking. Experts like Spotorno believe that “if an alcoholic goes back to locations or people from when they were drinking, it might be a sign that they could relapse.” It’s important to note that just because a person returns to their hometown, they won’t automatically have a relapse. Some people may be confident enough in their recovery that they feel ready to return home to see family and friends in a safe, supportive, and sober environment. Not to mention, those in early recovery may still be dealing with past issues like legal trouble and may have to return home for a court date. It’s important to help prepare the person to be strong and stay sober during such a difficult time, so they do not relapse. Spotorno summarizes that “if you see your loved one returning to any past people and places the individual would go to when using after an extended time away from use, you may want to gather more information as to why they are returning to those environments and what boundaries are being set to reduce risk.”
Someone’s appearance can also indicate if they have started drinking again. When an individual is dealing with an active addiction and drinks excessive amounts of alcohol every day, they do not look healthy. Their face may be red and blotchy, they may have a beer belly and look bloated. The amazing thing about sobriety is how the body reacts to the new care. The drinker’s skin will clear up, the beer belly will begin to shrink, and they will no longer appear bloated. If the individual with an alcohol use disorder begins to look like they did when they were drinking heavily, they may have relapsed. The individual may stop taking care of themselves, have poor personal hygiene, or have poor nutritional habits. If an individual who is sober with an AUD stops taking care of themselves, it may be a sign that they have started drinking again.
Psychiatric nurse practitioners like Desaai have witnessed that “alcoholics who are drinking again might neglect personal hygiene or change their personal eating patterns.” If the person who has relapsed is a parent, their children may show signs of neglect. When an individual begins drinking again they may neglect personal tasks and other responsibilities, “trouble with work, school, or caring for family could also signal an alcohol use relapse.” Unfortunately, some of these responsibilities could involve children. Teachers or other parents may notice that a certain child is always picked up late or they never have a lunch packed for them. Trends like this indicate that the parent might be in trouble and that it may be necessary to step in and ensure everything is okay.
The most obvious sign that an alcoholic has started drinking again is rejecting support and ignoring the tools they once used to stay sober. It is a cause and effect; “if an alcoholic begins to neglect the support groups or therapy that helps them stay sober, then they could relapse.” In the recovery world, actions speak louder than words. Attending meetings means a lot to the individual and their recovery community. Clinical Psychologist Heidi J. Dalzell PsyD supports the belief that missing meetings speaks volumes and “it may also be a more direct testament such as ‘I think I can handle drinking now,’ or ‘I can drink in moderation.’”
At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we are here to support our clients and their families to navigate life in sobriety. Sobriety does not come easily. Every person suffering from AUD must actively work on their recovery every day, and they must be extremely cautious of themselves and their peers to avoid drinking again. Reach out if you need help because there is no reason to feel isolated in the recovery community.