Our current understanding of the psychology behind addiction suggests that relapse occurs not all at once as a single event, but in stages which gradually build up to the final step of physically using. Be careful to know your past history and behaviors so that you can identify the warning signs of a possible oncoming relapse. If you can catch yourself in time, you can get help, and keep your sobriety on track. Below are the three stages of relapse and what you can do to prevent them from taking hold of you.
The earliest warning signs of oncoming relapse may not appear to be relapse-related at all. The first stage is emotional relapse. One of your goals in recovery should be to practice careful awareness of your state of mind. Strong, lasting feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger should be your first signal that something may be wrong deeper down. If left unaddressed, these feelings can pave the way to isolation, pent-up frustration, and relapse.
Pay extra attention to feelings that pull you away from social interaction and interpersonal accountability. Isolation is a breeding ground for the most dangerous forms of addictive behavior and it often begins with feeling withdrawn and antisocial. For many people fighting addiction, drugs and alcohol act as an outlet for thoughts and emotions that otherwise stew and rot without release. Fighting the tendency to isolate yourself will allow you to prevent those feelings from taking hold. Sometimes it can just take reaching out to one person to help you get back on track. It’s never easy to admit you’re having a hard time, but doing so early on will help save you pain and setbacks in the long run.
Remember that no matter how strongly you’re feeling a negative emotion, part of you still has the ability to detach from it and observe your behavior from a logical standpoint. Though it may be extremely tempting to simply let powerful emotions take the reins, do your best to remain firmly rooted in the part of your mind that can see when a problem is forming. Once you identify a problem, don’t hesitate--reach out to get help and break the cycle of negative emotions before they take hold.
The next stage of relapse occurs in the mind. Watch for thoughts about using or drinking like you used to, especially the desire to remember your old lifestyle with fondness. The most overt example of mental relapse is if you catch yourself thinking about using again, even thinking about how you would go about it--you know, just hypothetically. Because most people in recovery will have social support systems and safeguards in place, the prospect of using again will mean that you’ll have to begin by thinking about how you could get away with it undetected. If you find yourself pondering a long weekend all to yourself, a trip out of town, or another excuse not to be in touch with your peers or sponsors, take it as a serious warning sign that you should get help before things go any further.
Mental relapse can also come in the form of revisiting old relationships, getting back in touch with people you used to party with, or reigniting past flames with people who knew the old version of you. Even if you’re not actively pursuing a return to using or drinking at this time, the desire to reassociate with your old life is a dangerously slippery slope.
The final stage of relapse is physical consummation: returning to using drugs or alcohol. Even if you only consume a tiny amount, don’t be fooled into thinking that you “just had a little slip-up”--this is a common way that addiction can trick you into slipping back into your old habits. Addiction doesn’t resurge in a vacuum, and if your mental and emotional condition was right for a small slip-up, it’ll be able to quickly develop into being right for a much larger slip-up unless you take swift action to change course.
Relapse is a part of recovery that each person battling addiction must face in one way or another. Even if you do relapse, remember that you have not failed. Relapse isn’t a sign that you’re incapable of beating addiction; it’s simply a sign that something about your approach to sobriety must change. The best thing you can do for yourself is to recognize the steps that led up to your relapse so that you can be aware of them and take appropriate action to protect yourself in the future.
Whether you’ve been in recovery for a day or a decade, the spectre of relapse may lie waiting in the back of your mind. It’s important to remember that recovery is a process, not a switch you’ve flipped, and that even if you do relapse, you can still succeed in sobriety. Relapse isn’t a sign that you’ve failed; it’s a sign that you need to increase or modify your plan of action. If you find yourself struggling with relapse, it may be time to consider a more comprehensive approach to keeping your sobriety on track. At START UP RECOVERY, we provide a state-of-the-art sober living space for people who want to press the reset button on life. We connect you with experienced sobriety professionals who work with you on a one-on-one basis to create a personalized approach to recovery for your unique needs and goals. Your recovery is one of the most challenging and rewarding mountains you’ll ever climb in your life. Don’t go it alone. Call (310) 773-3809 to learn more.