Anatomy of a Relapse

A random poll among newly sober clients, recovery counselors, and people who have achieved years of clean time would probably produce a varying consensus about the most pressing need for successful recovery.   Most respondents, however, would likely agree that relapse is often an indicator of stress.

The process of recovery, like the process of grief, is fluid and dynamic.  Exploring relapse before it happens is a good way to identify potential problems so you can be prepared for them.  Thorough preparation can help you minimize or even avoid issues may hinder your recovery.

Most people don’t think though the actions which eventually bring them to the point of relapse .  They simply had a desire to drink, and acted upon that without any thought for the consequences.  If they did indeed have any thoughts and feelings about the consequences of use, those thoughts and feeling were ignored or rationalized away.

In the recovery process, your recognition of that lack of forethought and insight should be a powerful lesson.  You can learn that anticipating the ultimate results of your behaviors will help you make much better choices.

With that in mind, try to see your past drinking/using behavior as a learning experience. Guilt and shame are a waste of time.  Having negative feelings about relapse (or anything) is can be very instructive in that you are reminded that your actions are in conflict with your values, and with the lessons you have gained from your experience.

When we talk about relapse we’re looking at the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that precede a using episode, and what we can do to minimize or avoid their effects.

Let’s explore a model of relapse and break it down into manageable steps.  We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that you have committed to recovery and are facing a relapse into using.  While there are many models of recovery, the focus of this article is total abstinence.

Step one – People around you may mention that your behavior is weird or dysfunctional, or that your priorities have reverted to those of your “using” days.  Our natural tendency is to brush off such comments.  You may not even be paying attention to the signs or symptoms of relapse.

Step two – You start to feel restless and agitated, irritated and discontent. Your focus shifts from internal to external, from you to someone else.  Your focus shifts to blaming others  and feeling like a victim.   You find yourself thinking that outside forces affect your actions, rather than taking responsibility and looking at your own behaviors.

Step three – These “victim” thoughts may surface and manifest in destructive ways.    You may start to isolate yourself.  You seek emotional and physical withdrawal, avoiding friends or failing to return their calls.  You become very self-centered and dismiss any outside suggestions.  As you become isolated, you may find yourself discounting recovery, or even seeing it as impossible.  You may seek to understand your situation by magical or “if only” thinking.

Step four – You find a way to rationalize a justification to resume using.    You may even feel that you can give yourself permission to have one or two drinks a day.  One or two drinks quickly turn into three, then four or more, and so on.  You ease back into your old, using lifestyle while you revert to your former views of yourself and the world.  Often, life events accelerate this process and demonstrate that your behavior is no longer subject to your own control.

It is important to understand that the process of both recovery and relapse are separate things.  Sustaining recovery takes an ongoing concentrated effort which can be a difficult habit to build.  Part of a sustained recovery requires the ability to look at your behavior with an unbiased opinion, inclusive of the ability to not only identify the stages of relapse, but the ability to change your behavior.  These tendencies  do not come naturally nor are they gained without effort.  The anatomy of relapse tends to be a part of recovery, but it doesn’t have to be.





Leave a Reply