Getting clean and sober is one of the most difficult journeys anyone can undertake in life, and once you have come out the other side, you should feel proud about what you have accomplished.
However, for many people who have experienced getting sober, there is also the nagging fear that, one day, you might relapse. After battling to stay sober, it can be discouraging to suddenly drink or use again.
Unfortunately, going through a relapse is not uncommon for people fighting addiction — anywhere from 40% to 60% of addicts and alcoholics will relapse at some point.
In fact, most people who have long-term sobriety have relapsed at least once before finding a strong foundation in recovery.
Fortunately, there is a lot you can do after a relapse to get sober again and stay sober. If you’ve gotten sober before, you can certainly do it again.
Sometimes a person may “slip” or have a brief lapse by drinking or using once — and then immediately stop. Some people will consider this a relapse, some won’t. Whether you consider this a relapse or not is a personal choice.
However, almost everyone agrees that when a person who suffers from substance abuse issues returns to regularly drinking or using drugs, that’s a relapse.
For those who suffer from substance abuse disorder, that high risk of relapse is always around. Their history of constant abuse of drugs and/or alcohol has altered the way their brain functions, which persists for a considerable time after they first get sober.
Although some people can have a slip accidentally (for example, when they unknowingly take a drink or use drugs, like taking a drink of something that they thought was non-alcoholic), most consciously choose to take a drink or use drugs.
Many times, they do it just to relieve stress, or they falsely believe that after a time of sobriety, they can handle it without going overboard.
It is even more common that a relapse begins weeks or even months before they make that decision to actually pick up drugs/alcohol again.
The same kinds of thoughts and feelings that initially made them turn to drinking and using in the first place could have been turning over in their minds for a considerable time. When these kinds of thoughts aren’t dealt with, the chances of relapse increase greatly.
Relapse is a complex process that has several stages. Fortunately, if you find yourself in the initial stages of a relapse, there’s still time to get things back on track.
The emotional stage of relapse typically begins way before someone picks up a drink or uses a drug. The signs that someone is unable to deal with their emotions in a healthy way include:
While the sober addict or alcoholic might not consciously be thinking about drinking or using, stuffing emotions, avoiding difficult circumstances, and generally feeling down about life is definitely a sign that someone is laying the groundwork for a future relapse.
The mental relapse stage is characterized by conscious thoughts about drinking and using. At this stage, the battle between wanting to stay sober and wanting to use has begun.
Cravings (sometimes called “the mental obsession”) tend to come on strong, and you begin to secretly think about ways to drink or use.
You might start to think about how much fun it was when you were drinking or using and, at the same time, try to downplay any negative consequences you might have experienced.
In short, you begin to rationalize why you might be able to use alcohol or drugs without suffering any major consequences.
Of course, the final stage of relapse, the physical stage, is when you actually start using or drinking again.
Thoughts of, “I’ll just have one and quit,” quickly cascade into daily using and drinking, and, if you’re a true alcohol or drug addict, there is little-to-no control.
Before and after a relapse, you’ll face a number of problems that challenge your ability to cope with your emotions and make the decision not to use. Recognizing what these are and taking action will greatly lower your risk of relapse.
Being around people, places, and things that remind you of drinking and using can trigger you to drink or use, especially right after a relapse.
Limiting your exposure to these can definitely help with cravings. If some things are simply unavoidable, at least minimize the time you spend around certain people and situations until you feel more confident about your coping abilities.
Part of avoiding triggers is having to deal with friends or family who may pressure you to drink or use.
Simply being around people who are drinking or using drugs can cause cravings. A strong predictor of relapse is having friends or family who drink or use.
Being unable to cope with stress may lead you back to drinking and using. Not knowing how to deal with anger, depression, and anxiety can also increase your risk for relapse.
Marital and work stress (not being able to deal with your partner or worrying about money) are the two greatest relapse risk factors. If these are causing stress in your life, talking to a couple’s therapist and taking action to fix your financial situation can be hugely beneficial.
Having arguments with friends and family can be frustrating and cause resentment and depression. Not being able to deal with these kinds of emotions can lead to relapse.
Not having the right kind of support network makes it extremely difficult to cope with life without using drugs or alcohol.
Enduring physical pain because of injuries or other medical issues can be hard, especially since most doctors prescribe narcotics to alleviate acute or chronic pain.
While, for most people, taking pain medications under the supervision of a doctor can be safe, people who have a substance abuse problem have a difficult time not abusing them. This is particularly true of opioids, which have a high potential for addiction.
Many alcoholics who thought they could safely take opioids have found themselves addicted.
Having low self-confidence about your ability to stay sober can keep you from actually staying sober, which is pretty common for people who have relapsed in the past.
However, putting together some sobriety time can boost your confidence, helping you feel that you can stay sober this time.
Surprisingly, many people relapse when things are going well just as much as when things are going poorly. When someone with a history of substance abuse is happy, they may feel so elated that they want to enhance their moods by drinking and using.
In addition, celebrations, like birthdays and weddings, can also lead to relapse when so many people are drinking.
There are many different perspectives on how to think about a relapse, which can be confusing at times. Some consider relapsing a sign of weakness, but this can only cause feelings of guilt and shame, which will make recovering from a relapse that much more difficult.
The more healthy perspective is to view it as a setback, which is something that everybody experiences in their life, whether they’re an addict or not. Rather than thinking of a relapse as shameful, the more helpful perspective is to see it as a learning experience.
An important prevention strategy for avoiding another relapse is understanding how the first relapse occurred. If you can recognize what happened leading up to your relapse, you can learn to avoid those same things before you start using again.
One common situation that leads to relapse is when a stressful situation occurs and you don’t have the coping skills to deal with it. Feeling this kind of frustration, anger, and sadness leads you to think you can deal with the situation by just using drugs or alcohol one time.
But that one time leads to such feelings of guilt and shame that you use again to deal with those new feelings, eventually leading to a full-blown relapse.
When such a situation occurs, if you have the confidence that you can recognize your triggers and how you’re feeling and thinking, you can take action to avoid a relapse when a stressful situation happens.
No relapse is too big to overcome. If you or someone you care about has relapsed, it's important to take action as soon as possible.
Reaching out to friends, family, and especially sober friends can help you navigate an episode of relapse. Positive and supportive people can help remind you of the fact that you’re not alone.
People in sobriety will be particularly helpful because they have been there and can offer concrete solutions.
12-step groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery, provide an environment where you can share your experience and get help from others who have experienced similar situations in the past.
There are literally thousands of meetings across the country, and even if you can’t find one within 24 hours, you can almost immediately find one online.
To begin to take care of yourself, you need to set limits. Having weak boundaries can be dangerous to your recovery. When you come into contact with negative or abusive people, you can more easily experience anger and resentment.
The best place to first establish healthy boundaries is to stop hanging around people who are using or drinking, especially if they tend to pressure you to use or drink with them.
Engaging in emotional and physical self-care is important after a relapse. Any activity that helps reduce stress and anxiety after a relapse can be extremely helpful.
These can include:
Even simple activities like going for a walk, taking a bath, or listening to relaxing music can help you get through a difficult relapse.
Instead of thinking of relapse as a failure, it’s better to look at it as a learning experience. Take some time to consider what led up to the relapse. Think about the kinds of thoughts you had before the relapse:
Discussing these kinds of questions with others, or even putting them down on paper, can help you take different actions in the future and help you stay sober.
Writing down a detailed relapse prevention plan can be extremely useful as it cements in your mind what you should do when you feel a relapse coming.
Write down as many triggers as you can think of that might lead you to drink and use again. Make a list of coping skills that help you deal with cravings, anxiety, and stress.
Make note of different people in your sobriety network that you can contact when you need help. You might also want to know where you can find a meeting when you need to — downloading apps for findings meetings quickly is also a good idea.
After a relapse, especially a prolonged relapse, if you find you just can’t stop using or drinking, it might be a good idea to seek professional treatment.
Even if you have recently been to treatment, and then relapsed, it doesn’t mean that treatment failed or even that you failed yourself. Like many other chronic illnesses, substance abuse disorder might require multiple treatments or adjustments to your recovery plan.
There are various levels of care when it comes to treatment programs. You might decide you need inpatient treatment, or you might be able to recover by attending an intensive outpatient program.
Before making a decision, be sure to discuss your options with your family, sober friends, and treatment professionals so you can decide on the best course of action.
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