When you worry that you’re in danger of falling into relapse or make some serious mistakes that could land you in trouble, it’s time to do something proactive to get yourself back firmly in step with recovery principles. The reality is that fear of relapse is quite common, especially among the newly sober individuals just trying to make their way in this altogether different lifestyle called sobriety. But it’s not just the newcomers to the rooms of recovery that may experience a slip or a serious relapse. The risks are there for everyone in recovery. So, what can you do to ward off a full-on slide into relapse? How do you guard against the tendency to become lax in taking care of business and doing what you know you should for your recovery? What, if anything, can you do once you feel like you really are slipping? Here are some suggestions that may be worth a try.
Get Hold of Yourself
Before anything else, when you feel yourself slipping, stop and take the time to recognize what may be going on with you. Don’t go off into a panic just because you feel a sense of anxiety about your current ability to remain clean and sober. This is the time to analyze what kinds of stresses and triggers you may have encountered recently that have thrown your world into a state of confusion. Although it may have been some time since you were in rehab, a little reminder may be in order. In essence, a trigger is any person, place or thing that you associate with your past addictive behavior. This could be someone from work that keeps hounding you to go out with the gang for drinks, or it could be a building or street you pass by where you used to hang out with acquaintances and do drugs. For compulsive gamblers in recovery, the sound of slot machines on the TV ads for casinos could be enough to put them in a precarious state of mind. Alcoholics may have jangled nerves just hearing the clink of ice cubes in a glass or seeing others consume drinks at family or other get-togethers. Think about your job. Have you been putting in long hours at work? You may be exhausted, or filled with stress trying to meet deadlines, or trying desperately to make up for lost time. Any of these can be triggers that arrive unannounced and threaten to derail your sobriety. Make a list of what you come up with. This is important because, as you know, you can’t do anything about a situation until you know what you’re dealing with. Put everything down, even if you think it’s not that important. In recovery, you can’t take anything for granted. Once you have your list, you can start being proactive about how to handle these stressors and triggers. But, most of all, thinking about what landed you in this situation where you feel like you’re losing it should make you feel a little more in control of your emotions. Once you’ve established some framework for how you got where you are right now, you will be better able to make some decisions on how to manage the situation.
Conquer Your Fear of Relapse
Even though you’ve made a list of possible contributing factors to why you feel like you’re slipping, this may not necessarily help you deal with your overall fear of relapse. So, before going any further, acknowledge that yes, you could indeed suffer a relapse. You could give into a trigger or succumb due to overwhelming stress. It could happen. But that doesn’t mean that it will. Recovery experts say that acknowledging that the potential for relapse is there gives you the power to be more in control of your actions. You’re not hiding from the fear; you’re doing something about it. Once you do acknowledge the potential, you don’t need to be haunted by fear. This is vitally important, since fear can stop you in your tracks and make you more likely to engage in behavior that can precipitate a relapse. Beyond acknowledging that relapse could happen, the next thing is to avoid dwelling on the thought. There’s no need to keep rehashing the idea in your mind that you could slip. Why? You’ve already recognized that it could happen. Now, get on with your life and the business of daily activities, particularly those that benefit your recovery.
Use Your Support Network
It can’t be emphasized enough that when you feel like you’re in danger of slipping, this is all the more reason to step up your attendance at 12-step meetings, to do one-on-one sessions with your sponsor, and to engage in heart-to-heart discussions with your loved ones and family members. The truth is that there is no better source of help than your support network. That’s because, as you well know, you’re not in recovery alone. And you certainly don’t maintain your sobriety on your own. Granted, you do need to take actions on your own, but it isn’t like you’re out there in the woods by yourself trying to battle the demons and overcome obstacles in your path. You have allies, and they’re there ready and willing to help you. By the way, when you feel like you’re about to relapse, keep in mind that this is nothing alien to most other members in the rooms of recovery. Each one of them has had to deal with similar feelings and may have some valuable suggestions for you based on what worked for them. Of course, you need to filter what you hear from others and tailor it or modify it to better suit your circumstances. This goes for everything you hear in the rooms of recovery, not just recommendations and advice you hear on preventing relapse – or coming back from it. Sometimes what you really need is for someone to listen, not talk. The shoe may very well be on the other foot later on in your recovery. At that time, you will be in the position to be able to give back to another in need of assistance. For now, make good use of your support system. It’s one of the best things you can do to get it together again and regain your firm footing in recovery.
Know the Signs of Relapse
Maybe what you’re feeling is something other than a precursor to relapse. Here is a refresher on some of the common signs of an impending relapse.
- Depression increases – Your energy starts to lag, and your thoughts become darker, more intense, and prolonged. You may even entertain thoughts of suicide – feeling that your family, friends, colleagues at work – would be better off without you.
- Actions become obsessive or compulsive – You find yourself acting in an out of control manner when it comes to the use one or several of these: caffeine, sex, food, work, nicotine, gambling or other compulsive actions. Or, you react to situations without any thought of the consequences, either to yourself or to others.
- Cravings and urges become constant – Every waking moment becomes plagued with thoughts about using drugs and/or alcohol. You tell yourself it’s the only way for you to feel better again. Your mind tricks you into thinking that you have to have it and the voice inside your head keeps drumming it into your consciousness until you can’t shut it out. Left unchecked, these urges and cravings will become overwhelming.
- Your situation appears hopeless – You start to feel like nothing is ever going to change for the better. You feel stuck in a rut and you can’t stand it. Feeling paralyzed, you find yourself resorting to wishful thinking, possibly remembering happier times when you were drinking or using, and start to imagine that if you go back to your old habits, everything will be better.
- You become accident-prone – It may start with a small fender-bender in the parking lot or you back-up into a fence or utility pole. Or, you may find yourself falling or injuring yourself while doing some minor task. Burns, cuts and bruises may become commonplace as your mind isn’t really on whatever it is you’re doing. After a series of accidents or mishaps, it’s time to take stock of what’s really going on. You’re in serious jeopardy if you don’t do something to get back on track.
- You suffer disturbances in sleep, emotions and/or memory problems – It gets harder and harder for you to get a good night’s sleep. You can’t seem to get through a night without waking up several times, having nightmares. In the morning, you feel as though you were dragged through a wringer. You start to lash out in angry or emotional outbursts, often for no reason. You may have difficulty remembering tasks you’re supposed to do, or what happened yesterday, or last week, or last month.
- Crises deepen – You’re no longer able to deal effectively with a crisis when it happens. Even things that you should be able to handle as a matter of course go off in the other direction. In no time at all, you’re overwhelmed by pretty much everything and can’t seem to sort out what to do or even when. You just want to escape from your problems and thoughts of using come back to your mind as a solution.
- Thinking becomes impaired – All the reasons you’d normally pay attention to your recovery routine, being responsible and productive and in control of your daily agenda go away. You find that your thoughts are frequently jumbled. You’re unable to figure out the answers or determine solutions to your problems. Even if the answers are readily apparent to others, you have difficulty figuring out what to do.
- You avoid friends – Although when you feel like you’re falling into relapse, you need your friends more than ever, what often happens is that you do everything you can to avoid being around them. You know they’ll recognize what’s going on and you don’t want them to see you. Steering clear of them isn’t going to help you, only hurt your efforts to get it together again.
- Denial becomes second-nature – You tell yourself that you don’t have a problem, that you can handle whatever is going on with you. But deep down inside, you know this isn’t the case. The more you deny that you’re in trouble, the more apparent it is that you’re most likely to relapse.
- Don’t care about remaining sober – One of the most obvious warning signs of an impending relapse is when you start saying that sobriety isn’t that important to you. If you begin to tell others that you don’t care about staying sober, you’ve probably already made up your mind to use again.
There is a solution, a way to prevent relapse, and it’s a fairly straightforward one. You need to cram your schedule with activities and interactions that are more helpful to your recovery. One of the best ways to do this is to attend more 12-step meetings. Immerse yourself in them. Attend them more frequently than once or twice a week. Go twice a day, if you find that helpful. Do whatever it takes to find the support you need. Talk with your sponsor. Do things with your group members. Participate in workshops and seminars. Listen to others at the meetings and lend your support as well. Reaching out can benefit you by taking you outside your own concerns as well as helping the other person in need. Here are some more practical suggestions on how to prevent relapse – and help you get it together again.
- Stay focused on your recovery. You need time to get yourself together, time to get stronger.
- Avoid situations where you feel bored. And, definitely avoid isolating yourself at home alone.
- Make sure you recognize your incremental achievements. Reward for achieving a goal of one week of sobriety, or one month without gambling, for example, is a great way of recognizing your achievements and spurring you on to your next goal.
- Get support and help often. Keep in close contact with those who are most helpful to you. This may be your family members, close friends or co-workers. It should definitely include your 12-step group sponsor and other group members with whom you share similarities or friendship.
- Change your routine. Switch the way you drive to work, the order in which you do your exercises, the variety of cuisines you eat or prepare. This keeps things from getting stale and creates an aura of excitement, of something different, something new each day to look forward to.
- Don’t see relapse as failure. Never give up on your goal of recovery. Instead, look at relapse as a brief return to addictive behavior. It doesn’t mean that you’re destined to fail if you’ve had a relapse. You may need to go back into treatment and/or intensive counseling so you can get back on the road to recovery.
- Get support immediately from a person or group that you trust if you feel in imminent danger of relapse.
- Make yourself wait at least two hours before acting on a craving or urge. This is often long enough for the urge/craving to dissipate.
- When you identify or find behaviors that are helpful in curing cravings/urges, modify these to incorporate into new behaviors that can help in other stressful situations. Nothing succeeds like success. If it worked before, make use of it again.
- Always have new goals to strive for. Look toward the future, the way you want your life to be a year, 5 years, even 10 years down the road. Make plans that you can put into motion to achieve those goals. Remember, the rest of your life begins with the steps you take today. Your recovery begins now.
Remember that preventing relapse requires knowledge and awareness of triggers and cues. Once you’ve identified the risky situations, toxic emotions, worked out all the potential stressors that could catapult you into relapse, the rest is up to you. Ask yourself the following two questions:
- Am I willing to do something about it?
- What am I willing to do?
- Then, do it – making sure that you avail yourself of all the resources and help that are available to you. Will it be easy? No, it probably won’t be. Some days will be more difficult than others. But, over time, you will become stronger, more self-confident, and more capable of addressing the stressors, triggers, issues and problems that come your way. And you’ll be able to do so without triggering a relapse.