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He’s Relapsed After Three Sober Months, and We’re Worried

When our Loved Ones’ solid progress gets interrupted by a lapse, it’s easy to feel crushed and discouraged. But we can’t let those feelings make us forget what’s going well. For me4johnson’s son, quite a lot has been going well. Training ourselves to notice and reinforce those positive aspects of our situation can help our Loved Ones and ourselves alike.

“You have helped me on a lot of issues with our son, who was living away from us. He has since been fired (for repeated lateness due to drinking), and we have brought him into our house to sort out his finances and try to figure out his next move. For three months after moving him in with us, he was very good, went into counseling, and was interactive with our family, completely sober.

Last Thursday night he drank to excess in his room from midnight to five a.m. (two large bottles of vodka), and there was quite a scene. We do not know at all what caused this—here we all had a great day and evening. He brought it up at counseling the following Tuesday and sounded like he was ashamed and sorry.

Last night it happened again. We had given him the keys to our car so he could go to his therapy appointments so as to make him see we trust him, and I can only assume that with this privilege he chose (therefore planned) to buy his alcohol. We do not have alcohol in the house.

We need to talk with him about all this, but are so unsure how. We are starting to think we need counseling as well, only because we think he is fine and then this happens. We have a friend whose stepson died from alcohol poisoning, and our son seems to drink the same huge amount, putting that possibility here as well. Can you give us some things to say or do?”


Hi Maryanne,

Your son’s story is an all-too-familiar one that I am sure many of the Allies in Recovery community can identify with. It can be difficult and confusing when our Loved Ones (LOs) have made strides in their recovery process only to slip back into old patterns. Watching your friend’s son struggle with a similar level of drinking and seeing the difficult results of his passing surely just trigger all the more fear and angst for you.

There are, however, a number of very positive points in your comment that might be a start to addressing your question:

  1. Your son was abstinent and working on his recovery for three months. This is a very big deal. Three months is a long time for someone in early recovery. This is a positive to tap into, especially when there is a recurrence. Now is the time to validate and recognize all of the hard work it must have taken to get to that point.
  2. Your son expressed his disappointment in not being able to maintain his abstinence. Another positive to take advantage of. Point out to him that no one is perfect, that he is human, that recovery from anything is never a straight-line process.
  3. Your son is seeing a counselor. He is already engaged with some form of treatment.
  4. You don’t have alcohol in your house (it also sounds like family functions are alcohol-free?), which is a way of being sensitive to the vulnerability of early recovery.
  5. A recurrence can be short.
  6. You and Dad are also looking for support.

I hear the disappointment in your words and voice that you drank after being alcohol-free for three months. What I am hearing in that disappointment is that really, you want to stop, but that it’s difficult to do. It’s great that you have your counselor to talk to. I also want you to know that three months is quite an accomplishment and isn’t erased by a slip. Would you consider talking to your counselor about coming up with a plan for getting back on track? Either way, you’ll find a strategy that works for you.

We family members place way too much of our hopes and expectations into their progress with recovery. We often set ourselves up for a crash when we do that, even though it’s totally out of the immense love we have for them. Every ounce of our being, every wish we have (not only for them but for ourselves), every moment and ruminating thought of our day, often hinges on their actions. When they faulter, we come crashing down. It can be really hard to understand why a recurrence happens, when it seemed that everything was going swimmingly.

Take a healthy step back

In our disappointment, we tend to focus on the negative and cannot see the positive. We also tend to believe we can read others’ minds. Again, totally out of love, but also driven by our own fears.

I’ve found that it is important to step back and really consider all angles of a situation. Is there something I’m missing? Is there more than one thing going on here? Were my expectations too high? Can I find some positives in this situation? I am hoping we can look at a few thoughts you wrote about and consider adding ideas to them.

For the SUD sufferer, feelings are rarely black and white

Recently I have been exploring the concept of ambivalence. It keeps coming up, so what I’ve learned about it is fresh in my mind, and I feel it may have some relevance to your situation. While we explore a few things in your comment, I would ask that you keep the definition of ambivalence in mind.

According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ambivalence is 1) simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action; 2a) continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite); and 2b) uncertainty as to which approach to follow.

Picture a little angel and devil sitting on your LO’s shoulders when he’s trying to make decisions.

We experience ambivalence all the time, every day, with all that we do. In other words, it’s normal. Ambivalence looks like this:

“I really want to fit into my summer clothes and should start exercising, but boy am I tired.”

“The doctor said I really need to cut sugar out of my diet because my glucose levels were high, but boy, that chocolate cake looks delicious right now.”

“Things are really out of control at home and we should find a marriage counselor, but it won’t work anyway. Plus, we will have to wait months for an appointment, and boy are they expensive.”

 Let’s take a look at a few of the comments above, and also consider the ambivalence your LO might be experiencing.

  1. For three months after moving him in with us, he was very good, went into counseling, and was interactive with our family, completely sober. Last Thursday night he drank to excess in his room from midnight to five a.m. (two large bottles of vodka), and there was quite a scene. We do not know at all what caused this—here we all had a great day and evening.

Is it possible that his smooth transition into abstinence wasn’t so smooth? However it appears on the outside, it’s most likely that he is experiencing something very different. People in long-term recovery often talk about ‘white knuckling it,” meaning they’re battling the physical pangs and thoughts that bounce around in their mind just to keep themselves from drinking/using. That voice quiets over time, but for someone in early recovery it is the constant focus.

Picture that angel and devil: “Just don’t drink. You don’t want to disappoint the people that love you!” And at the same time, “It’s going to be a long time before you feel normal. Just one drink won’t hurt anything. Look how everyone in the family is doing so well, and you’ve wasted all this time drinking and ruining your life.”

  1. He brought it up at counseling the following Tuesday and sounded like he was ashamed and sorry. Last night it happened again.

I believe every word when he says he is ashamed and sorry. And I am sure that at the same time, that little devil was saying something like, “You know you’re going to disappoint everyone again, so you might as well do it and get it over with. For a while anyway, you get to not feel bad.”

  1. We had given him the keys to our car so he could go to his therapy appointments so as to make him see we trust him, and I can only assume that with this privilege he chose (therefore planned) to buy his alcohol.

Again, I bet ambivalence came into play here too. I bet both thoughts were in his head at the same time: “I can do this. I will go to my therapist’s appointment and drive straight there.” And “What a jerk I am for even thinking about stopping at the liquor store.” And finally, “I’ll just stop on my way home, I was going to do it anyway. I’ll just limit what I drink and then no one will know.”

Right now, ambivalence is likely his constant companion

Maybe right now, with him so early in recovery, the freedom of driving around is too much to handle. It’s not that I wouldn’t trust him. I wouldn’t trust his choices or his ability to defend against his triggers right now. He’s not bad, he’s just battling a lot. It’s also important to avoid assuming things. Maybe he did plan to buy alcohol, or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he thought he would be fine, and then saw a liquor store on the way home and it was just the last push that got him drinking again. All of this is just ambivalence in play.

If he asks for the car again, you might respond with something like, “Right now we are not comfortable handing over the keys in light of what happened the other night. We would like to hear your thoughts on how to move forward, and to share what we would need to see happen so we can all be more secure with you taking the car.”

He has that pull from both sides, and the substance-use voice is probably the loudest. This is a part of why he is so vulnerable to having a recurrence.

Understanding ambivalence might help you as an ally to your LO. Here are some things to consider:

  1. Positive thoughts and behaviors compete with negative thoughts and behaviors.
  2. Positive thoughts and behaviors do not replace negative thoughts and behaviors.
  3. Ambivalence is normal! Having competing thoughts and behaviors is human. Everyone experiences them.

We tend to focus in on negative thoughts and behaviors and cannot even see that the positive exists. If we change direction and pay more attention to the positives, it can help us to be more understanding. It can also help reduce the “awfulizing” that we do and bring a little bit of peacefulness into our lives. Turn a little bit more to the angel!

Above, I give examples of the kind of conversation you might have to focus more on what went well and less on what didn’t. Those sorts of responses might help your LO know that it is okay for him to stumble and that those who love and support him are still on his side. They are ways of dropping “seeds” that might inspire him to find a path back to abstinence.

Seeing the positive isn’t wishful thinking. It’s helpful thinking.

Understanding ambivalence can help us to have more empathy for the struggle our LOs face. Look for positive behaviors that your LO is already engaged in, and reward them. The more positive thoughts and behaviors, the better.

And there’s an added benefit: the more often we focus on the positive in our LO’s efforts, the more positive we feel and become! The practice helps us understand that our LOs are human, that stumbles are going to be a part of this. It helps us to form more realistic expectations of what will happen.

Other ways we can be there for you

For added help for you and your husband, would you consider checking out our online support groups? Kayla Solomon, a licensed CRAFT-trained counselor, holds groups on Wednesday evenings at 6:30PM (Eastern Time). There are also CRAFT-based education (REST) groups on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesday nights. You can access both groups through the Allies in Recovery website’s Live Support Menu.

This response is really jam-packed. I don’t want to overload you with more. But please know that you can reach out to us any time, and that we will work to support you in any way that we can. Please keep us updated on your progress.

Remember, you are not alone in this. We are a community, and there is strength in connection and numbers.


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In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)