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Relapse: Prevention, Symptoms, and Recovery

December 11, 2008 by Emily Battaglia 

“The lust for comfort, that stealthy
thing that enters the house a guest,
then becomes a host,
and then a master.”

-Kahlil Gibran

This phrase from 19th century poet Kahlil Gibran resonates with anyone who has struggled with substance abuse. One of the most difficult experiences that a recovering addict can go through is a relapse into drug and/or alcohol abuse. Very often, relapse involves an attack of a sort of nostalgia – a longing for the familiar short-term comfort of a drug hit or an alcoholic drink, regardless of long-term consequences. This craving for comfort and solace through relapse into substance abuse most often stems from elevated levels of stress and the recovering addict’s inability to cope with them.

There are steps that recovering individuals can take to help prevent relapse. It is important for a recovering addict and those in her support network to recognize common symptoms of an impending relapse. These symptoms may include:

• Dishonesty – unnecessary little lies, evasiveness to the questions of friends and family, rationalizations of certain behaviors, breaking promises, making excuses.

• Restlessness – impatience, frustration with self or others, need for immediate gratification.

• Argumentativeness – creating negative situations to provide justification for a relapse; breaking down important supportive bonds with friends and family; provoking arguments to release anger and frustration on those who don’t really deserve it.

• Denial/Arrogance – acting like recovery isn’t really necessary; claiming to be recovered without really completing the process; believing that one drink or one hit at this point wouldn’t be a big deal; trying to prove that the problem is “fixed”; testing yourself by drinking or doing drugs “just a little”; believing that you’re the master of your addiction now and you can control it.

• Complacency – relaxing healthy routines and habits that have been learned in recovery; returning to other forms of self-destructive behavior such as overeating; neglecting self-help meetings or other healthy activities like exercise and hobbies; taking recovery for granted.

• Expectations – wanting others to immediately change and offer acceptance because you are in recovery; looking to others for validation or approval of the recovery choices you are making.

Even without a relapse, most individuals in recovery have some idea about the situations and people that influence them to use. One of the most effective steps to preventing relapse is simply to identify those triggers and avoid them. Part of recovery is a process called “rehabituation,” which simply means learning new habits. Recovery usually involves a full-scale overhaul of one’s life. Recovering addicts typically lose some friends (the ones with whom they used substances) and gain new ones (fellow recoverers). They also stop spending time in certain places or engaging in certain activities, where they were accustomed to drinking or using drugs. Making the decision to stop associating with people, places, and activities that encourage substance abuse is a crucial step in recovery.

Another important aspect of avoiding relapse is stress management. Exercise, even simple walking, can go a long way toward relieving stress and maintaining a healthy outlook. Individuals in recovery should be aware of the sources of stress in their lives, and have a plan for dealing with that stress. Other popular stress management techniques include breathing exercises, meditation, massage, counseling, journaling, artistic or creative hobbies, community volunteering, and more. Recovering individuals should identify stress reduction activities that work for them and engage in them when stress levels reach dangerous heights.

The good news about relapse is that, while not recommended, it can be one of the most valuable and informative experiences that a recovering addict can have. A relapse gives an individual in recovery the opportunity to identify the specific circumstances and influences which triggered the event and take steps to avoid them in the future. The pain and regret that a recovering individual may suffer as the result of a relapse is constructive if it deepens his understanding of his addiction and helps him progress toward successful recovery. In the words of Kahlil Gibran, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

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