Relapse is the return to drugs and alcohol after a period of abstinence. It is easy to think of a relapse as an event but it is in fact a process. A relapse begins with a series of small, noticeable steps that build up until the person finally breaks under the pressure and begins drinking and/or using drugs again. This is why it is important to know the relapse cycle and relapse triggers that can stop the actual picking up of the alcohol and drugs.
Addiction can be treated and controlled but it can never be “cured” (at least not yet). A former addict can receive treatment and begin to recover and abstain from their drug of choice for the rest of their lives. It has been done and it is possible. Addiction though is always right beneath the surface waiting to pop back up when a person is most vulnerable. This is when relapse happens.
According to SAMHSA, 54% of all people in recovery will relapse and 61% of those people will relapse more than once.
A relapse begins with a series of warning signs. For most people the relapse warning signs are subtle. The relapse warning signs that someone is becoming vulnerable or heading back towards drug use and alcohol are all unique to the individual and it is important that addicts in recovery learn what their unique warning signs are.
Here are a few general relapse warning signs:
- Stress – Changes, any changes. The breakup of a relationship and a new job or promotion. Whatever it is that causes stress.
- Mood changes – Mood shifts are a big indicator of relapse. A person may feel extremely elated or confident but they also might feel low and disheartened.
- Lack of engagement in actual recovery – The person may skip meetings, cancel therapy appointments or deny the addiction problem ever existed. This is a huge warning sign of relapse.
- Increasing cravings – The person feels out of control and begins thinking about using again.
- Challenges – The person begins to go to bars to spend time with people who participate in other high-risk behaviors
- Withdrawal – The person pulls away from support systems and falls even deeper into hopelessness and despair.
The end result is relapse.
Not everyone follows a path as specific as this one when they are heading towards a relapse. Some people experience heightened promiscuity, some people get really irritable all the time, and some just get depressed. Some people end up relapsing because they get complacent. This is very common in addicts or alcoholics who have been clean for many years and their lives have begun to get really good. They eventually start believing they don’t really need to manage their addiction, that it has already been handled. They may even begin to believe they never really had an addiction to begin with. This can very rapidly lead to a relapse and the loss of multiple years sober.
Luckily not everyone has to relapse and there are ways to totally prevent it from happening by understanding that it is a process, utilizing sober supports and the community, and taking an inventory.
All of these things can keep a person moving towards recovery and away from addiction.