For the budding alcoholic/addict in recovery, relapse is all too often a nanosecond away. Even for the well-seasoned soul who has practiced a clean and sober lifestyle for many years, relapse may be in a deep, dormant sleep but can be aroused with a touch of a feather.
More than a year ago, I wrote a blog entitled “Is Relapse Part of Recovery?” in which I explored the four broad psychological triggers that the recovering alcoholic/addict faces: fear, resentment, expectations, and boredom.
In my new book Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict, I have a chapter entitled “77 Warning Signs of Relapse” (yes, I said 77), and they range from eating irregularly to developing an I-don’t-care attitude. But the following six are specific frontrunners that can start the motor revving toward relapse:
- Feelings and emotions are all over the map. Sobriety can be a very new, often uncertain and even scary state of mind. The alcoholic/addict has been used to living and functioning a certain way. Now, all of that is gone or surely has greatly changed. The difficulty in managing these new feelings, taking it slowly and understanding that the body, mind and emotions are transforming can feel so unstable to the alcoholic/addict that they quickly run out of patience to cope with this and believe that relapse is the only way for them to feel normal again.
- Difficulty living life on life’s terms. Much like the above, the alcoholic/addict in recovery has difficulty living life on life’s terms. Normal, daily stressors that the normie or healthy one might take in stride can turn into monumental issues of such a catastrophic nature that their coping devices are non-existent or too early in their infancy to deal with the situation at hand. The alcoholic/addict may have difficulty hitting the pause button, stepping back to analyze the circumstances in a calm and clear manner and realizing that an answer or conclusion is easy to obtain and that relapse does not have to be part of the equation. Bailing at the first sign of trouble or turning tail and heading for the hills is all too commonplace for the alcoholic/addict, and therefore relapse is not only their excuse but their answer to the problem.
- The staunch belief that they will never drink again. When the alcoholic/addict has finally committed to living a clean and sober existence, it is often like a new love affair. I have counseled many clients who spout and pontificate about how they have finally realized how important sobriety is. They proudly feel that they have found the key that will halt their drinking forever; this very cocky nature and ego-driven thinking will almost always be their downfall. The word humble is missing from their vocabulary, and they foolishly don’t give this powerful disease the respect and caution it deserves; they believe they are wiser and stronger than their addiction. Whether they adhere to a 12-step recovery program or not, it is the wise folks who started AA many years ago who staunchly state that sobriety can only be successful if taken “one day at a time.”
- Irritated or easily angered. There may be rumblings of a relapse if the alcoholic/addict is quick to anger or more easily irritated than when practicing a clean and sober lifestyle. Your loved one could be lashing out at anyone around him/her for no apparent reason as they find their struggle with sobriety becoming precarious. Their irritation or anger can be the result of being unable or unwilling to seek help and get the situation in check. Sometimes it takes more strength and courage to realize that one may be sinking back into that black hole, admit that they are in trouble, put their ego aside and buck up to ask for help. Anger and irritation can also be mere cover-ups for feeling scared, embarrassed, or ashamed. Too many emotions going on at one time may very easily blow the circuit of sobriety, and relapse presents that doorway leading to the comfort of addiction.
- Loss of commitment to their recovery program. Rarely does the alcoholic/addict become or try to become clean and sober without help. Whether it is the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step recovery program, an outpatient or residential recovery program, or individual counseling, it is almost impossible to self-treat years of out-of-control, abusive, addictive behavior. If relapse is knocking at the door of your loved one, they may start to rearrange their sober program and use excuses for not attending AA meetings (“I don’t need to go to this meeting, I already went to one this week. Anyway, I don’t like the people there”); leaving a residential program early (“This place is not for me. I’ve gotten everything out of it there is to know”); or quitting private or group counseling (“I don’t like my counselor. He/she has no idea what I’m about and can’t help me. I’m wasting my money”). True and strong recovery takes years of work and is successful when coupled with an ongoing and consistent clean-and-sober program.
- Hanging out with drinking buddies or visiting old haunts. There is a saying in the AA community, “If you visit the barber shop often enough, you’re bound to get a haircut.” If your loved one is starting to hang out with the old gang and visiting sites where his/her addiction was in full bloom, no matter how hard they try, eventually it is more likely than not that they will succumb to their old ways. The alcoholic/addict may justify returning to their old friends by saying that they just want to see them, they miss them and swear that there is no way that they will indulge in any substance abuse behavior. Well, eventually that will wear thin, as it stands to reason that if everyone around you is getting high, what fun are you having being clean and sober? Wanting to belong, glamorizing and missing the good old days can be a very strong pull toward relapse.
So, if you see these symptoms in your loved one start to rear their ugly heads, what, if anything, can you do about it? Honestly, very little. Remember that you cannot control whether they decide to enter a clean and sober lifestyle or continue to maintain it. You can certainly state calmly and lovingly that you have noticed a steady change in their demeanor or behavior and that you are concerned, and you are available to talk about it if they wish. If you have established consequences in the event of a relapse, you can certainly remind them of what’s at stake if they continue down this possible destructive path.
Please keep in mind that you are not the cause or responsible if there is a relapse. They may try to rope you in or pin it on you in some way, but the bottom line is that their commitment to live a clean and sober life style rests solely and squarely on their shoulders.