Stages of Relapse

What many people (recovered addicts and those who care about them) do not realize is that relapse is a process, not a solitary event. To prevent relapse you need to understand the stages of a relapse before it happens. A drug or alcohol relapse actually begins weeks or even months before the actual event of relapse to substance use. The person will experience emotional issues, mental distress and unease followed by the actual physical event of relapse.

When a person has stopped using drugs or alcohol and has completed a drug rehab program e.g. Narconon Fresh Start (Fort Collins New Life Center, Lone Star Victory Ranch, Rainbow Canyon Retreat or Sunshine Summit Lodge) they are no longer an addict. This means that they now have all the necessary tools and skills to remain sober no matter what ups or downs life throws their way. While this is all well and good in theory, sometimes a person’s emotions are not as clean cut as that. A graduate who experiences undesired emotions and chooses not to properly handle them is setting themselves up for a possible relapse in the future. Because this is the first stage of relapse it is also the easiest to pull back from. Acknowledging these emotions and addressing them as soon as possible will likely be all that is needed to put them behind you. Common signs of an impending emotional relapse include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Defensiveness
  • Intolerance
  • Isolation
  • Mood swings
  • Not asking for help
  • Poor eating habits
  • Poor sleep habits

When a person begins to start having mental distress or unease it feels as though there is a war going on in their mind. A part of them wants to use, but part of them doesn’t. During the beginning phase of mental relapse issues the individual is just idly thinking about using. However, in the later phase they are definitely thinking about, probably even coming up with plans on how they can get the drugs and where and how they are going to use them. Signs of mental unease leading to relapse include:

  • Fantasizing about using
  • Glamorizing your past use
  • Hanging out with old using friends
  • Lying
  • Planning your relapse around other people’s schedules
  • Thinking about people, places, and things you used with
  • Thinking about relapsing

As the recovered person begins to think more and more about the act of using it doesn’t take long for their thoughts to become actions. Before they know it they are putting themselves in situations where drugs and alcohol are present, driving to the liquor store or headed over to their dealers. It becomes extremely difficult to stop the process once it has gone this far. Putting effort in at this point is no longer “recovery”; it is strictly attempting to get the person not to use through brute force. Recognizing the early warning signs, understanding the symptoms and taking action before the individual is already out the door on their way to use is the only way to prevent a relapse. Once it has taken place the drug user will need to re-evaluate their recovery and likely need additional time in treatment. At the very least, they will need to speak with a professional about what issues drove them to use. This way the issue does not develop into a pattern and a continual excuse for the substance user to relapse.

2 thoughts on “Stages of Relapse”

  1. Thank you so much for your response. Triggers are such a key issue for newly recovered individuals. Heck, even for people with years of sobriety coming across a past trigger to use can put them on edge and get their wheels spinning. Being able to identify and resolve one’s triggers to use is a vital part in maintaining sobriety. Developing healthy ways to handle your personal drug using urges and compulsions is necessary so that if/when they surface you already have a strategy for what to do.

  2. I really appreciate your sharing of the process of relapse. I, too, agree that many individuals do not understand that relapse is not the result of lack of willpower nor is it a spontaneous event. And, I think you described so well the role that unsettling or unplesant emotions play in relapse. The only thing I would add is the importance of ‘triggers’ in the manifestation of these uncomfortable feelings. Triggers can present themselves in so many forms; and it necessary to be aware of them. They can be past painful memories, or an insensitive comment, or a smell -a sound – a touch with pleasant or unpleasant associations; or an environment – a place – a thing -a person -that brings with it reminders of pain or of shame. Triggers take us back immediately to a place of vulnerability and weakness, and a myriad of emotions surface to mitigate that unpleasantness. While it is hard work, if we identify our triggers and their connections to our past pain, we can continue to work through unfinished healing and we canlearn healthy ways to handle our triggers as we continue down the path of recovery.

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