Misconceptions about Relapse

Sitting MeditationWhen you hear the word ‘relapse’ in relation to substance addiction, what does that word conjure up for you, what do you understand relapse to be?

Many people will probably state that relapse is going back to using either alcohol or drugs, and this is a common misconception even amongst trained professionals working within the drug and alcohol field as it doesn’t fully reflect the whole story.

Of course they are partially correct, using drugs or alcohol is without doubt part of the relapse cycle however, chemical use is not the beginning of a relapse it is the final act in a much longer relapse process.

So if the act of using substances again after a period of abstinence is the final stage of the relapse process, when exactly does the relapse cycle begin?

It often begins with thought processes not directly associated with drug or alcohol use at all, a return to your ‘old’ way of thinking. You may start to question this ‘new life’ you have embarked upon in recovery and begin denying the benefit it may offer you. These thought processes often have a strong denial factor involved.

You may start to believe that the program you have chosen for your sobriety isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That you don’t have to work this program of responsible living or communicate healthily and honestly with others to get where you want to be.

You might start to believe that you don’t have to look inward for signs of progress you have made, or address any issues which initiated your addiction in the first place.

You may even start thinking about how GOOD drugs or alcohol were (euphoric recall) when you used to take them, conveniently forgetting all the negative aspects, and how completely awful it is now you can’t use drugs and/or alcohol any longer. This usually comes in the form of recalling stories of your past drug use to friends or other people you are in recovery with.

These are all early warning signs that you have started along the relapse cycle, and that you have become dysfunctional in the recovery process. That’s right, you haven’t had a craving or used a drug (yet) but you are already on that relapse road! You are moving further away from your new life of recovery and closer towards your old life of addiction.

Your thought processes are no longer fit for purpose (the purpose being recovery) and along with these early signs of relapse can come uncomfortable or even painful emotions. You are slowly but surely returning to your old way of thinking (processing thoughts) and at this point you are firmly set in the relapse cycle.

After a period of negative thinking like this, and the experience of uncomfortable or painful emotions it’s almost a certainty that you will begin to experience urges, or what some people call ‘cravings’. This is the point when people normally start to recognise they are slipping into the cycle of relapse, when in reality there were many early warning signs prior to this stage.

These self-defeating thoughts and urges in turn often lead to self-defeating behaviours, such as the aforementioned substance use, and there you have it, before you know it you’ve used.

Here is a simplified breakdown:

  • Thoughts (negative in content) lead to
  • Feelings (uncomfortable and/or painful) lead to
  • Behaviours (reflecting the negative thoughts and feelings) lead to
  • Return to drug/alcohol use

It may seem like going back to using your drug of choice came out of the blue, and maybe took you by surprise. However, if you know the signs and what to look for you can stop a relapse in its tracks much earlier than at the craving or using stage.

Continuing your recovery from drugs/alcohol requires you to learn new ways of coping, new ways of thinking and a whole new way of living. Moving away from a life of addiction isn’t easy by any means but it’s completely achievable, as long as you work your chosen program and commit to your new life.

Recognising a relapse early on can be the difference between living and dying. The quicker you recognise that you may have slipped into the relapse cycle, the sooner you can take some action to get out of it before you find yourself at the ‘using’ stage, and save your own life.

Remember: relapse is a reality but it’s NOT a requirement!


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