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Relapsing Doesn’t Have To Mean Failure

When relapsing happens, it can be managed as a valuable learning process. But, when a person relapses repeatedly, further steps need to be taken.

Most people suffering from addiction, whatever their drug or behaviour of choice, will at some time in early recovery find themselves in danger of relapse. This may take the form of physical craving, the self-deception that it is somehow ok to resume their habit or just the shock of an unexpected challenge (such as being offered an alcoholic drink at a party) that they cannot handle appropriately. These important moments in their fledgling sobriety often occur through no fault of their own and are totally unexpected. It can happen to anyone – that makes it more dangerous, and relapse can often follow.

Why Do People Keep Eelapsing

The consequences of relapsing into addiction tend to be dire, so you’d expect people would go to any lengths to prevent it.  Yet, they often don’t follow advice, don’t commit fully to changing their lifestyle and cheerfully minimize the dangers. Just like divorce, old age and global warming, they seem to tell themselves that it can’t happen, despite a pile of evidence that it can and does.  Afterwards, the relapse may be put down to stress, lack of support, peer pressure or just bad luck, but make no mistake, the real cause of our relapse is – us.

Examining the circumstances of your relapse in detail can be a valuable learning process because if you can pinpoint where you went wrong, you can ensure that you will act differently next time.

Relapse does not mean failure

If you really want sobriety and are prepared to go to any lengths to get it, there is good news. Addiction is a treatable disease, and many people recover to lead happy and successful lives. Relapse happens to some people, and it can be dealt with. Addiction is said to be a cunning, baffling and powerful disease but it is also largely predictable. There are well-tried methods to help sufferers progress from abstinence to long-term happy sobriety and some of these methods include learning relapse prevention skills.

What Can You Do To Prevent Relapsing

Relapse prevention courses help participants to identify possible dangerous situations and events that may trigger thoughts of relapse. They also provide opportunities to learn practical coping tools for when sobriety is challenged. These may include role play in assertiveness and refusal techniques. The need to acquire new habits (and lose old habits, such as going to the pub) is emphasised. These courses provide valuable techniques to help smooth the often-rocky path through the first few weeks of sobriety. Yet, the power of addiction means that some people will still relapse, and a few will do so repeatedly.

If you should relapse more than once and a pattern of relapsing becomes established, then you most probably need to look more deeply into yourself for reasons why you would entertain such self-defeating behaviour. After all, deciding to quit your addiction of choice represents a life-changing decision, one of the best you will ever make. If you ever find yourself questioning your decision or even considering reversing it, then the chances are that you are experiencing some sort of emotional pain that you are not yet able to cope with in sobriety.

Recognising the signs of relapse

Addiction is a physical, mental and emotional illness and our state of well-being in each aspect should be carefully considered. How successful we are at self-care will affect our ability to handle difficult situations.  Emotional turmoil is dangerous, however good our intentions may be:

Physical signs of relapse:

Isolation, overwork, poor nutrition, and lack of support are all factors that can affect our level of energy and commitment. Common sense and moderation are vital, especially in early recovery when we are at our most sensitive. Even obvious practical steps such as removing all drinks from the house or deleting all your dealer’s details from your phone can make a huge difference.

Psychological signs of relapse

Stress and worry can lead to tiredness and unrealistic thinking. We can’t control random thoughts coming into our heads, but we should be careful not to entertain those to do with our addiction, such as the euphoric recall of past excesses. Our thoughts, actions and emotions are all connected, and we need to be on top of them.

Emotional signs of relapse

People with addiction problems often struggle with a combination of inflated ego and low self-esteem which leads to irrational thoughts such as ‘I’m not worth it’ or even suicidal ideation played out through substance abuse. It takes a long time for our emotional fluctuations to settle down to normal levels. Any sort of psychological distress can be dangerous in early sobriety. That is why the newly sober are recommended to avoid romantic involvement and demanding work situations.

Are You Prone To Relapsing

If you are prone to relapsing, it will help to be aware of the warning signs. As always, we need honesty and self-awareness to recognise these in ourselves:

– Irritability for no obvious reason and other mood swings.

– Defensiveness and justification of dangerous ideas (why shouldn’t I go to the pub for orange juice?)

– Depression

– Not asking for help and desire to isolate

– Poor self-care and breakdown of daily routines

– Criticising the recovery lifestyle

– Euphoric recall of active addiction

– Ceasing to attend self-help groups and aftercare

– Lack of interest in spiritual growth

– White lies and errors of omission.

Addiction is often called an ‘attachment disorder’ because when alcohol abuse (or whatever drug or behaviour is your preference) turns into dependence, it is like an attachment to an unsuitable lover, leading to debt, dishonesty, crime and other unacceptable behaviour. Giving up a lover, or giving up an addiction, can seem like a painful bereavement and there often remains a nostalgia – lingering regret for what might have been. “It wasn’t all bad”, we say to ourselves, “what about the good times?”.  This small siren call of denial needs to be recognised and dealt with firmly. It may never go away completely, but it will get smaller.

A successful and lasting life in sobriety requires honesty, openness and willingness to change. These three requirements have deep meanings that go to the heart of recovery. They are principles that, when combined with the act of asking for help, provide us with all we really need. But, we must have commitment too.

About the Author

Chris Burn joined Castle Craig in 1988 as Financial Director and retrained as a specialist addictions therapist in 1994. Chris ran the Gambling Addiction Programme at Castle Craig for many years. After retiring in 2016 he remained involved with Castle Craig as a consultant therapist and part of the editorial team.

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