It’s widely accepted among addiction treatment professionals and members of the recovery community that the relapse process begins long before somebody picks up a drink or a drug. Recognizing the warning signs of relapse can help to stop the process from progressing to that point. A person will typically backslide into old patterns of thinking and behaving before they put a substance into their body. Unfortunately, according to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the statistics having to do with relapse in drug addiction indicates that relapse is common and likely. Knowing the warning signs of relapse can help prevent it from happening.
It’s generally agreed that there are three stages of relapse.
These stages are:
An emotional relapse
Followed by mental relapse
Finally leading to a physical relapse, which is actually using drugs or drinking again
Characteristics of the Three Stages of Relapse
In the emotional phase it may be noticeable that someone is more irritable or defensive than usual. They may be dealing with increased depression, anxiety or anger. Drastic mood swings may occur. Overall, a person may become significantly unhinged and unbalanced in their lives. Intolerance for others can often lead to isolation. People can become more likely to miss their regularly attended 12-Step meetings. It is common for people to become distance or detachment from sober supports and the recovery community as a whole. At this point it will be difficult to ask for help. A deep-seated feeling of loneliness can start to set it. The factors of emotional relapse will lead to emotional distress. Old desires to escape difficult realities might crop up. If this situation continues, thoughts of turning to substances or alcohol can start being entertained. At this point the next stage, the mental stage of relapse, has already begun.
Once mental relapse has started, using will become a constant thought in the forefront of an addict’s mind. First, fleeting thoughts will arise. Reminiscing about past use or glamorizing drug use and drinking can find it’s way into the imagination. At this stage, people can often remember more of what they liked/loved about using and block out all of the hardships and despair that their addiction leads to. Fantasizing about using and perhaps reconnecting with old associations or returning to environments that include drinking and drugs will be red flags that a mental relapse is progressing.
As the process moves along the progression will become more rapid and it will be less simple to intervene. It’s often suggested at this stage to “play the tape through.” Consider what will happen immediately following having a drink or using a drug. Realizing that one drink or one use will lead to much more and inevitably to the same destructive patterns as before. Honestly recalling to mind where an addiction goes and where it led before recovery can be an effective deterrent. There will be unpleasant consequences to a relapse. Focusing on these negative aspects may reiterate that the consequences of using or drinking drastically outweigh the benefit of a temporary escape. Anything to reinforce the fact that picking up will be unwise will be helpful at this time. Avoid acting impulsively. Find a distraction. Make a pros and cons list. Reach out to friends and supporters about the state of your recovery.
If you know of someone who you think is on the verge of relapse, please, reach out and let the person suffering know they are not alone. It’s helpful to check-in with a couple other recovery support people so you are not the only person available to help the suffering person. Encourage them to come to meetings again where more support is available.
Of course the final stage of a relapse is the physical relapse and actually using a substance. Often when someone slips a chain reaction takes off of guilt, shame and physical craving. This late in the game someone might continue down the wrong path and return to heavy using for sometime. This need not occur. We need to give ourselves a break. There’s no reason to allow what happened to determine our course of action afterwards. Put aside damaged pride and embarrassment. It takes great courage to walk back into our recovery communities. It is commendable and respected. It is widely supported for “the rooms” of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous to be welcoming and accepting to all persons, no matter how many times they receive a white chip for having at least one day clean and sober. Use the relapse as a reference point to gauge the quality of recovery in the future. Stand up, brush yourself off and start living one day at a time again.