Our sobriety is often not endangered by big things– those winning the jackpot things, those elephants that trample through your glass house, those tsunamis of life. When those big things happen, we keep our guards up and later say, “Look, I got this!”
The danger lies more in the little nagging mosquitoes of life: that co-worker we can’t stand, the one-digit amount of prosperity in our bank account, that unfair boss, that car that works only part-time, that weight that keeps coming back uninvited, and such. Those things trap us into resentments, sleepless nights, and dwelling on problems. And those traps end up in relapse before we even had a chance to notice that something is going wrong in our recovery.
Relapse is actually a bad word. I would love to see it be replaced by the word “recurrence”. People with other chronic diseases don’t have relapses. Have you ever seen a diabetic entering the ER in tears, telling the doctor that he relapsed on a chocolate cake?
When we talk about relapse in addiction, we must say right away that it is not a specific event, but a process which lead to the act of using the substance. How long this process takes depends on the person, environment, drug, support, time of recovery, and other circumstances.
As an addict myself, I usually can’t see a recurrence coming, but my support network can see the changes in me before I can. Some of my symptoms of a possible recurrence/relapse include:
- Changes in mood and behavior
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in diet
- Anger outbursts
- Lack of responsibility and drive
- Not going to meetings, or going to less meetings
- Making excuses
- Being suddenly unreliable
- Hiding things
- Engaging or even forcing verbal arguments
- Breaking up relationships
- Avoiding those who are trying to help with sobriety
- Contacting old friends again or driving through old neighborhoods
- Excessive video gaming or watching TV all of a sudden
- Watching TV shows or movies that show a lot of drinking or drug use
There are more examples, but these come to mind, and may be seen in most people.
In the meeting rooms, you might hear the saying, “You either work on your sobriety or you work on your relapse.” There is a lot of truth to that. In recovery, we should always strive for growth. If our growth is stopped for a significant time, we are already “working” on our relapse. Recovery is a lifelong process and standing still for a large amount of time is not helpful at all. If you feel you stand still or hit a wall, think outside the box and see how you can kindle the fire again and get moving.
If you or someone else notices the first signs of relapse, take those signs as a serious indication that something needs to change. Here are some suggestions on how to reverse the relapse process and get back into forward gear:
- Start going to meetings or return to meetings as often as possible, ideally every day.
- Get a sponsor if you don’t have one and work the steps (again).
- Call your sponsor, and find allies in recovery you can spend time with. Tell them about your fears and worries. There is a good chance they have been there themselves.
- Get a coach and look at your goals, passion, structure, and more.
- Check out an alumni or aftercare program in your area or from your treatment center.
- Enroll for a refresher course of treatment in your chosen outpatient program
- Switch meetings, and find a new group so that you may hear new people.
- Get more involved in your recovery community.
- Start a gratitude list or an emotions journal.
- Make a relapse prevention plan.
- Ask for help! Tell people in your recovery network that you feel that you are in danger! Ask someone to go to meetings with you and hold you accountable.
- Do not feel guilty or ashamed. It is your disease that got you in this position, not your lack of willpower, or any type of personal failure. You are a human being with a very strong disease. Dust yourself off and start again.
- If you are concerned about a loved one, talk to him or her openly about your observations and your fear without accusing your loved one of using. Be mindful and kind. Keep in mind that at this point, your loved one most likely doesn’t want to relapse and does not have a clue that a relapse is coming. Do not start to control, shame or blame. Show love and offer support.
It is never too late to turn around—even if you have used your drug of choice again. The sooner you seek support, the easier it will be. The easier it is, the better your outcome will be. A full relapse does not have to be part of recovery. Please do not use the “relapse is part of recovery” mentality as an excuse to drink or use. The fact is, relapse does not have to happen. If relapse does happen, it’s not the end of the world unless you stop trying to get back on track. Learn from your mistakes, and question what lead to the relapse. Try to avoid it, by all means, and don’t use “relapse is part of recovery” as a cheap excuse to get loaded. It does not have to be part of recovery and only makes it unnecessarily harder for yourself.
The best approach is to catch a relapse before it happens and steer against it with all the tools you have available. Ask for help– there is nothing wrong with that. Counselors, therapists, coaches, or companions are not just good helpers or sidekicks. These people exist to help you stay safe and sound. If you can’t have a professional to help in your journey, please keep close contact with your support network, a sponsor in a 12-step program, other people in the fellowship, sober friends etc., that can help you through problems of life. Why make recovery complicated, if it can be easier? Use all resources that are open and readily available to you.
Try to make a relapse prevention plan, if you don’t have one in place yet. You can find templates all over the Internet. Also there are good relapse prevention workbooks online and in book stores. I personally like a workbook by Terence Gorski, available through Amazon. It takes some effort to go through it, but it’s worth the time.
If you have some time into your recovery, it doesn’t hurt to pick up a recovery prevention plan and give yourself a refresher. You have come a long way if you made it into recovery– don’t risk this awesome achievement today through negligence. While a relapse is not the end of the world, you may underestimate the difficulty of your next attempt toward recovery. Respect your sobriety as one of the greatest gifts you have; it’s worth more than a few days of using or drinking again.
Have you relapsed since your first sobriety date? Just give me a yes/no in the comments here on the website, and (if you don’t mind) tell us what got you back out of it.
We do recover.