Averting Disaster in Recovery
It is a major disappointment when people relapse after a period of sobriety. Some of those who pick up on the spur of the moment do manage to avert disaster by stopping again right away. This is called a slip rather than a relapse. However, in many instances, the individual will make a full return to active addiction. Some will never have another opportunity to find sobriety. Relapse can be a death sentence, so it is vital that every effort is made to avoid it. People do not usually return to their addiction out of nowhere. Instead, there are usually warning signs of what is about to happen. If the individual is able to spot these tell-tale signs, they will be able to prevent disaster.
Relapse Warning Signs
The most common signs that an individual is sliding towards relapse include:
- Isolation: This is where the individual starts to cut themselves off from other people. They start behaving secretively or even dishonestly. Those who attend AA meetings or other support groups will stop sharing or stop going to meetings altogether.
- The feeling of being stuck in recovery: People become frustrated because they feel that they are no longer making any progress.
- Loss of interest in recovery: People stop doing the things they need to do to stay sober, as if they have run out of steam or completely lost interest.
- Anger and resentment: Life in recovery is not turning out as the individual expected, and they may blame this on those around them. These feelings provide an excuse to return to alcohol or drugs.
- Denial of problems: The worst thing that a person in recovery can do is deny that they are having problems with life away from addiction. They might fool other people, but they cannot fool themselves for long. Problems that are not dealt with can become an obstacle to recovery.
- Stinking thinking: This is when people become [excessively negative about their life] away from addiction. It is as if they are looking for an excuse to relapse.
- Overconfidence: There is the well known saying that pride comes before a fall. Individuals who are overconfident about their recovery may be setting themselves up for disaster. It can lead to complacency, and people can be back in the midst of addiction before they even realize what has happened. Recovery is a serious business and people are most vulnerable when they let their guard down.
- Feeling unable to cope: This is often a sign of imminent relapse. When people feel overwhelmed they are unable to think rationally. A desire to escape the discomfort can easily lead them back to addiction.
- Romancing about the drink or drug: This is when people start to remember the times they felt happy as a substance abuser. They may begin to yearn for these lost days. Memory can play tricks on people, and the past can seem far rosier than it actually was. People can even forget how much they wanted to escape their addiction.
- Addiction substitution: This is where the individual attempts to escape their difficulties in recovery by new maladaptive behaviors. This might involve exercising excessively or becoming obsessed with their job. Some individuals will turn to other mind-altering substances.
- Behaving like a dry drunk: This is where people have stopped drinking or using drugs but continue to act much like they did before. Such individuals will have a weak commitment to sobriety and may relapse more easily.
- Spending time with old crowd: If the individual drifts back to spending time with their old drinking or drug using buddies it can be highly dangerous. If people have a weak recovery they will easily succumb to the peer pressure to relapse.
- Visiting drinking venues: It is usually safe for people with a strong recovery to visit a bar so long as they have a good reason to be there. It is dangerous when people go to these drinking venues in order to get vicarious pleasure from watching other people consume alcohol. It is also a terrible idea to go to these places out of loneliness. In AA, they say that if you sit in a barber shop long enough, you will get your hair cut.
The Relapse Process
The warning signs of a return to addiction can be better understood in the context of the relapse process. This is a series of steps that describes what usually happens before people relapse. The process usually begins inside the individual’s mind long before they actually pick up the drink or drug. Not everyone will experience these exact steps, but it does provide a useful description of the way things often happen. Each of these stages is part of the relapse process:
- The individual stops making progress in recovery. This happens because they are faced with a challenge they feel unable or unwilling to deal with.
- They try to ignore the signs that they have stopped making progress.
- The lack of progress makes life uncomfortable. The individual turns to maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with this. It may be possible for people to bury their internal discomfort, but it will continue to bubble away unnoticed.
- A trigger event provides the opportunity for this internal discomfort to rise to the surface. This could be a minor argument over something trivial, but the individual overreacts because the tension has been building up over time.
- The individual will begin to experience increasing emotional turmoil. This is the sort of discomfort that they would once have dealt with by turning to substance abuse. Now that they are sober, they may feel particularly vulnerable to these emotions. The inner turmoil makes it harder for the individual to think straight and carry on with normal life.
- The emotional unrest may become more obvious to other people. The individual may appear angry or agitated. Their behavior may be erratic. The person who has reached this stage will stop doing the things they need to do in order to maintain sobriety.
- The individual now feels overwhelmed and out of control.
- They spend more time thinking about how alcohol or drugs once allowed them to escape the difficulties of life.
- The motivation to stay sober is now no longer enough to prevent them from relapsing.
Steps to Avoid Relapse
If people spot the warning signs of an impending relapse they may need to take action through the following steps:
- Focus on the reasons why they gave up their addiction as well as their hopes and aspirations in recovery. If they have been keeping a recovery journal, then now is a good time to go back and read this.
- Make staying sober the top priority in life. Everything else has to take a backseat until the individual is feeling more secure in sobriety. Now is not the time to be taking on new responsibilities or making important life changes.
- It is almost vital that the individual shares their relapse fears with somebody who is going to be able to listen and offer good advice. If they belong to a 12 Step group, then their sponsor will be a good person to turn to. Those who have a therapist are advised to make an emergency appointment. If people have recently left rehab, there may be somebody they can contact there. The important thing is to talk to somebody and to avoid isolation.
- Those people who belong to a fellowship are advised to increase the regularity of their attendance during this vulnerable time. It is also recommended that they discuss their concerns while sharing at these meetings.
- Completely avoid former drinking or drug using friends at this time. It is also not a good idea for recovering alcoholics to visit places where alcohol is served if they are feeling vulnerable.
- The reason why people relapse is that they have taken a wrong turn somewhere in their recovery. It is important for them to retrace their steps to see where this occurred. It can be highly beneficial to do this investigation with a therapist or somebody who is strongly established in their own recovery.
- Now is a good time to read inspirational recovery material. This can help motivate people to stay sober. There are also online addiction recovery resources that people can make use of.
- Seek out addiction help lines that are open any time of the day or night. If the individual is feeling vulnerable to relapse, they should certainly consider using one of these help lines.