7 Warning Signs You Are Heading for a Relapse

Posted on July 19th, 2010

The sad truth is that many people who try to recover from addiction to alcohol or drugs do not stay in recovery. Although relapse may be common, rarely does it occur without warning. There are usually significant behaviors that can signal that the recovering person is at high risk for relapse. It is critical for anyone in recovery to understand these warning signs.

First, it is important to understand triggers. Triggers are things that tend to lead addicts back to their drug of choice. A trigger can be a person, a place, certain types of events, or unresolved psychiatric issues, such as depression or anxiety. When a person undergoes addiction treatment, their therapist will help them understand those things that could trigger them to relapse. The most common triggers are old friends who still abuse substances and significant stressors, such as job or relationship problems. For alcoholics, a trigger might be a bar they used to drink at. Some people in recovery will try to revisit their old haunts without the conscious intention of drinking or using drugs; they will claim they just miss their old friends. This is rarely a good idea in recovery.

Here are seven warning signs that you might be heading toward a relapse.

1. You Stop Doing What You Need to Do to Stay Abstinent

The most common thing is for the recovering addict or alcoholic to stop going to 12-step meetings. They will make excuses: they don’t like the fact people pray or everyone talks too much about their past substance abuse. Most people who stay in recovery maintain some sort of connection to the 12-step programs, even if it’s only a weekly meeting. This allows them to continually be reminded of who they are and what is at stake.

The recovering addict might stop therapy because they find it too uncomfortable. They might go against the advice of their doctor in treating a psychiatric disorder such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder.

2. You Start Romanticizing the Days When You Were Abusing Substances

This might take the form of remembering only the good times when you were drinking or experimenting with drugs. Most addicts had a time during which they had few consequences for substance abuse. They may even have had fun. However, those times were long gone by the time you got clean. At some point they became dependent on the drug and consequences piled up. If you find yourself smiling about the “good times,” and conveniently forgetting the misery of your later drug or alcohol use, this is a strong warning sign.

3. You Start Acting the Way You Did When Using: Selfish and Moody

Sometimes this is called a “dry drunk.” You act like you did when drinking, even without the drink. In recovery, addicts attempt to change their attitudes. They learn that they have a tendency to personalize things and overreact. They discover that they have a low tolerance for frustration, and can get rather ornery if they don’t get what they want, when they want it. They are the focus of everything. If someone doesn’t smile at them, they take it personally. If someone else gets a promotion, it says something bad about their work.

If you have been working on this behavior then start to see it reappear, this is a warning sign.

4. You start thinking that maybe just one drink or one pill wouldn’t hurt

It you find you are talking yourself into “just one,” this is one of the most obvious signs of an impending relapse. Those in recovery know full well the consequences of substance use, so the first step in using again is to somehow convince themselves that it wasn’t that bad, or that they have “changed” and won’t have the same issues this time around. The rule of thumb is that those who relapse pick up right where they left off. It might take a few days or weeks, but you will rapidly be in the same place you were when you last quit drinking or using drugs.

5. You begin seeking out old friends from your substance-abusing days

You might excuse this as just trying to find out how old friends are doing, but if you start seeking out old drinking buddies or people who shared your interest in using drugs, you are heading into dangerous territory.

6. You slowly but surely remove all those elements from your life that keep you anchored and balanced

Maybe you stop keeping your journal, stop calling healthy friends, and quit that daily walk that always helped you clear your head. You probably already stopped doing the things that are important for sobriety, but now you are removing things that keep you calm and centered. You might say you are getting lazy, and your life is likely getting more chaotic and stressful. You might also notice you are slipping back into old deceptive patterns; you might start lying to loved ones to keep them from challenging you.You are not taking care of your emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

7. You are extremely defensive when anyone brings up the changes in your behavior and attitude

This feeling will be familiar: it’s the same feeling you had when you first were encouraged to get sober and wanted everyone to mind their own business. It is denial crossed with an unhealthy self-righteous attitude. It’s very uncomfortable when others begin to notice our movement back toward a way of living that made us and most people around us miserable. Why? Because you are now in the place of moving with purpose back toward drinking and using, and the addict in you is determined to get that drink or drug. For some, this can be the ultimate point of no return: you either wake up and change direction, or end up taking that inevitable first drink or drug.

There is always a way back from this movement toward a drink. The important thing is to recognize it’s happening and be honest about your attitudes and behaviors. Many a time those in recovery have heard stories where someone says, “I don’t understand; I just suddenly heard myself ordering a drink.”  In truth, if that person looked back over the past few weeks and months, they would see this was the natural result of a progression toward relapse. The sooner you catch yourself slipping back into old behaviors, the better chance you have of not slipping.

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