It would be nice to believe that once the addict in your life has successfully completed treatment, they will never again return to using the substances that brought them to insanity and almost death.
Well, there is good news and bad news. Relapse is not a requirement for all recovering addicts. However, for some, it will become a reality.
The Watershed Family Weekend Program believes that relapse can be a common occurrence among recovering individuals. The chemically dependent person in early recovery needs to be extra cautious and aware of their personal signs and symptoms, triggers, and scenarios that could result in relapse.
"Addicts and alcoholics don't just use to self-medicate; if it's a good day they'll want to use and if it's a bad day, they'll want to use," Jackie G., Program Director. "Addicts tend to associate drug (or alcohol) use with things like celebrating a pay raise, anniversaries, holidays - even the fact they've achieved what they believe is significant clean time."
The Watershed Program Director says the most common reason people relapse is because of denial, the foundation of the disease of addiction. Denial is an acronym, of sorts, for "Don't Even Know I am lying." Chemical dependency is a brain disorder, so the brain uses denial and defense mechanisms such as euphoric recall and magical thinking. Euphoric recall is romanticizing the ritual, use and effects of the chemical and denying, minimizing or ignoring the consequences of the use. Magical thinking is the addict believing that he or she can "control" their use or believing that others won't find out or know. It’s the “big lie” in an addict’s mind that they will be able to safely use again. That it will be different this time.
Not everyone who leaves treatment will head straight to the liquor store or drug dealer. Nor can it be said that all recovering addicts will stay clean for an extended period of time. Their will power may weaken over time and they may pick up again.
Friends and family members of the recovering addict/alcoholic should understand that a relapse is not a sudden, single event. A return to use is a process that may have been in the works for a while. Friends and family members can support the future recovery of the addicts in their life by learning to recognize and then address relapse-mode actions and behaviors. Many addicts who relapsed but returned to recovery included the following among their pre-relapse warning signs:
Staying in touch with or hanging around the people, places and things associated with using and active addiction
Becoming inconsistent about or failing to continue aftercare and discharge plans, such as attending and participating in a 12-step program, obtaining a sponsor, outpatient counseling, medical doctors appointments, therapy or stopping psychiatric meds on their own and against medical advice
Dramatic life changes--either good (raise or promotion at work) or bad (death in the family or divorce)
Lack of structure or too much free time, leading to edginess and boredom
Hanging out or living in an environment where alcohol, drugs or paraphernalia is around
Isolating is a huge warning sign - this includes failing to attend meetings and losing contact with sober support network, as well as spending unnecessary time alone
Participating in other addictive behaviors such as excessive eating, gambling, acting out sexually, or working too much
Constantly thinking or obsessing about alcohol, drugs, or the using days – fun looks big and consequences look small
Hanging on to anger, resentments, hurt feelings, fear and unresolved issues
The false belief that “I’ve got this”- feeling as if addiction could not possibly happen again, overconfidence and possibly disassociation from meetings, sponsor, sober support network and belief that it is safe to hang around people who use
Jackie says that learning to identify relapse scenarios and triggers is a focus of treatment at The Watershed, but it is not uncommon for some to subscribe to the philosophy that, It might happen to someone else, but not to me.
How can you as a friend or family member of an addict, be on the lookout for these signs? How can you help the recovering addict to recognize them, without invading or controlling their recovery? Offering support and encouragement is extremely important. You must realize that recovering addicts the overwhelming majority of people in early recovery do have thoughts of using, drinking or drugging dreams, and fleeting thoughts that just taking one would make things better. The response to these thoughts is what’s important and what can prevent a relapse, Jackie says.
An easy and accessible way of combating those things is a variation on the old recovery saying. Play the tape through, which is when recovering addicts are encouraged to think back on their using days and the consequences of using. Rewinding the tape may have a bigger impact on their thoughts. Starting at the beginning may bring up recollections of good times and fun, before addiction took over. Starting at the end, when the progression of the disease involved things like stealing to pay for drugs, DUI or other drug related arrests and legal problems, painful withdrawal, despair, depression, demoralization, and complete loss of self and connection to family, is a useful tool to keep relapse away.
"Family members must understand that there is hope and healing for them, as well as for the family members of addicts and alcoholics," Jackie says.