Understanding Relapse and Relapse Prevention

By Terence T. Gorski, Author
August 18, 2006

imagesRelapse is more than just using alcohol or drugs. It is the progressive process of becoming so dysfunctional in recovery that self-medication with alcohol or drugs seems like a reasonable choice.

The relapse process is like knocking over a line of dominoes.  The first domino hits the second, which hits the third, and soon a progressive chain reaction has started.  The sequence of problems that lead from stable sobriety to relapse are similar to those dominoes, with two differences.  First, each domino in the line (i.e. each problem that brings us closer to substance use) gets a little bit bigger and heavier until the last domino, or problem, in the sequence is 10,000 pounds.  As this 10,000 pound domino begins to fall on us, it is too heavy for us to handle alone.  The second difference is that the problems circle around behind us.  So when the last domino or problem falls, it hits us from behind when we’re not looking.

So here we are, moving along in recovery.  We encounter one small problem.  No big deal!  Then we encounter another problem.  Soon a chain reaction begins.  The first problems are so small that we can easily convince ourselves they’re no big deal.  We look the other way and start doing other things.  All of a sudden a huge problem falls on us and causes serious pain and injury.  We need to make the pain go away and we reach for old reliable – the magical substances that always helped us with our pain in the past.  We’ve now started drinking and drugging.

The answer to avoiding relapse is to learn how not to tip over the first domino, and take care of the little problems in life.  Another part of the answer is to develop an emergency plan for stopping the chain reaction quickly, before the dominoes start getting so big and heavy that they become unmanageable.

The Relapse Process

The progression of problems that lead to relapse is called the relapse process.  Each individual problem in the sequence is called a relapse warning sign.  The entire sequence of problems is called a relapse warning sign list.  The situations that we put ourselves in that cause or complicate the problems are called high risk situations.

It’s important to remember that we don’t start drinking and drugging because of the last problem in the sequence.  We start drinking and drugging because the entire sequence of problems got out of control.  Let’s look at this process:

Step 1: Getting Stuck In Recovery

Many of us decide that alcohol or drugs are a problem, stop using, and put together some kind of recovery plan to help us stay sober.  Initially we do fine, but then we hit a problem that we are unwilling or unable to deal with.  We stop dead in our tracks.  We are stuck in recovery and don’t know what to do.

Step 2: Denying That We’re Stuck

Instead of recognizing that we’re stuck and asking for help, we use denial to convince ourselves that everything is OK.  Denial makes it seem like the problem is gone, but it really isn’t.  It just goes under ground where we can’t see it.  We keep investing time and energy in denying it which results in a buildup of pain and stress.

Step 3: Using Other Compulsions

To cope with the pain and stress, we begin to use other compulsive behaviors. We may begin overworking, over-eating, dieting, or over-exercising. We can get involved in addictive relationships and distract ourselves with sex and romance.  These behaviors make us feel good in the short run by distracting us from our problems.  But they do nothing to solve the problem.  We feel good now, but we hurt later.  This is a hallmark of all addictive behaviors.

Step 4: Experiencing A Trigger Event

Then something happens.  It’s usually not a big thing.  It’s something we could normally handle without getting upset.  But this time something snaps inside.  One person described it this way: “It feels like a trigger fires off in my gut and I go out of control.”

Step 5: Becoming Dysfunctional On The Inside

When the trigger goes off, our stress increases, and our emotions take control of our minds.  To stay sober we have to keep intellect over emotion.  We have to remember who we are (an addicted person), what we can’t do (use alcohol or drugs), and what we must do (stay focused upon working a recovery program).  When emotion gets control of the intellect we abandon everything we know, and start trying to feel good at all costs.

Relapse almost always grows from the inside out.  The trigger event makes our pain so severe that we can’t function normally.  We have difficulty thinking clearly.  We swing between emotional overreaction and emotional numbness.  We can’t remember things.  It’s impossible to sleep restfully and we get clumsy and start having accidents.

Step 6: Becoming Dysfunctional On The Outside:

At first this internal dysfunction comes and goes.  It’s annoying, but we learn how to ignore it.  On some level, we know something is wrong, but we keep it a secret.  Eventually we get so bad that the problems on the inside create problems on the outside.  We start making mistakes at work, creating problems with our friends, families, and coworkers, start neglecting our recovery programs.  Things just keep getting worse.

Step 7: Losing Control

We try to handle each problem as it comes along but miss the growing pattern of problems.  We never really solve anything.  It’s just band-aid after band-aid.   Then we look the other way and try to forget about the problems by getting involved in compulsive activities that will somehow magically fix us.

This approach works for a while, but eventually things start getting out of control. As soon as we solve one problem, two new ones pop up.  Life becomes one problem after another in an apparently endless sequence of crisis.  One person put it like this: “I feel like I’m standing chest deep in a swimming pool trying to hold three beach balls underwater at once.  I get the first one down, then the second, but as I reach for the third, the first one pops back up again.”

We finally recognize that we’re out of control.  We get scared and angry.  “I’m sober!  I’m not drinking!  I’m working a program!  Yet I’m out of control.  If this is what sobriety is like – who needs it?”

Step 8: Using Addictive Thinking

Now we return to addictive thinking.  We begin thinking along these lines:  “Sobriety is bad for me, look at how miserable I am.  Sober people don’t understand me.  Look at how critical they are.  Maybe things would get better if I could talk to some of my old friends.  I don’t plan to drink or use drugs, I just want to get away from things for a while and have a little fun.  People who supported my drinking and drugging were my friends.  They knew how to have a good time.  These new people who want me to stay sober are my enemies.  Maybe I was never addicted in the first place.  Maybe my problems were caused by something else.  I just need to get away from it all for a while!  Then I’ll be able to figure it all out.”

Step 9:  Going Back To Addictive People, Places, And Things

Now we start going back to addictive people (our old friends), addictive places (our old hangouts), and addictive things (mind polluting compulsive activities).  We convince ourselves that we’re not going to drink or use drugs.  We just want to relax.

A client in one of my groups said he wanted to go to a bar so he could listen to music and relax while drinking soft drinks.  An old-timer in the group asked:  “If you told me you were going to a whore house to say prayers, do you think I’d believe you?”

Step 10: Using Addictive Substances

Eventually things get so bad that we come to believe that we only have three choices – collapse, suicide, or self-medication.  We can collapse physically or emotionally from the stress of all our problems.  We can end it all by committing suicide.  Or we can medicate the pain with alcohol or drugs.  If these were your only three choices, which one sounds like the best?

At this stage the stress and pain is so bad that it seems reasonable to use alcohol or drugs as a medicine to make the pain go away.  The 10,000 pound domino just hit.  We’re dazed, and in tremendous pain.  So we reach out for something, anything that will kill the pain.  We start using alcohol and drugs in the misguided hope it will make our pain go away.

Step 11: Losing Control Over Use

Once addicted people start using alcohol or drugs, they tend to follow one of two paths.  Some have a short-term and low consequence relapse.  They recognize that they are in serious trouble, see that they are losing control, and manage to reach out for help and get back into recovery.  Others start to use alcohol or drugs and feel such extreme shame and guilt that they refuse to seek help.  They eventually develop progressive health and life problems and either get back into recovery, commit suicide, or die from medical complications, accidents, or drug-related violence.

Other Outcomes Of The Relapse Process

Some relapse prone people don’t drink.  They may say “I’d rather be dead than drunk” and they either attempt or commit suicide.  Others just hang in there until they have a stress collapse, develop a stress related illness, or have a nervous breakdown.  Still others use half measures to temporarily pull themselves together for a little while only to have the problems come back later.  This is called partial recovery and many people stay in it for years.  They never get really well, but they never get drunk either.

What I have just described is called the relapse process and it’s not uncommon.  Most recovering people periodically experience some of these warning signs.  About half can stop the process BEFORE they start using substances or collapse from stress.  The other half revert to using alcohol or other drugs, collapse from stress related illness, or kill themselves.

It’s not a pretty picture.  No wonder we don’t want to think or talk about relapse.  It’s depressing.  The problem is that refusing to think or talk about it doesn’t stop it from happening.  As a matter of fact ignoring the early warning signs makes us more likely to relapse.

But there is hope.  There is a method called Relapse Prevention that can teach us to recognize early warning signs of relapse and stop them before we use alcohol and drugs, or collapse.

Books and Takes On Relapse Prevention|

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