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February 5, 2016

Relapse and the Path to Recovery

Just like asthma and high blood pressure, addiction is a chronic disease. And just like people with controlled asthma and high blood pressure sometimes see their conditions flare, so do people in recovery. In recovering addicts, that flare is called relapse.

Relapse is particularly likely in the first 90 days following a treatment program, as the recovering addict adjusts to life on his or her own. This high risk of relapse continues for the first 12 months—a year that often includes a roller coaster of emotions ranging from elation to confusion to depression.

The good news is, the longer you maintain your sobriety, the lower your relapse risk. However, even after the first tumultuous year, the threat of a relapse never fully goes away. Recovering addicts need to be vigilant about preventing relapse for the rest of their lives.

One of the best ways for recovering addicts and their family members to avoid relapse or stop it in its tracks is to recognize the signs. Here are some signs that a relapse may be on the way.

Fantasizing about past drug or alcohol use.

If you notice yourself talking about “the good old days” when you partied or got high, it’s a red flag. Remind yourself that it’s easy to remember the fun parts of drug or alcohol use and to forget all the trouble the addiction caused. Don’t allow yourself to think only about the fun at the beginning. Play the whole scenario through to the end with all of its unpleasant consequences and then ask yourself, “Is this something I want to experince again?”

Overconfidence in your ability to control your drinking or drug use.

Once you’ve established a sober life and gotten things back on track, you may start to feel like you could handle having drink or two or use drugs “recreationally.” But by nature of being an addict, one drink or pill or hit is destined to become many more, and you will end up right back to where you started. Remind yourself that the compulsion to use is normal and a necessary part of your recovery. Use positive self-talk to say, “I don’t need to drink (or use drugs) to be happy.”

Reconnection with old party friends.

You may miss the friends you used to drink or do drugs with, but in order to stay sober, it is a good idea to aviod the people and situations that fueled your addiction in the first place. Preventing relapse requires you to immerse yourself in positive environments and surround yourself with supportive, sober people.

A change in attitude.

If you suddenly start behaving differently, particularly if you feel depressed, lonely, or isolated or start becoming defensive toward your family and friends, it’s a sign you may be headed toward your old bad habits. Other red flags include argumentativeness, lying and a negative attitude toward recovery.

In addition to recognizing the signs, here are some things you can do to help yourself prevent a relapse:

  • Attend 12-step meetings regularly. Twelve-step meetings provide a great deal of networking and support from fellow recovery addicts, which can help give you the strength you need to stay on track with sobriety.
  • Consider getting a sponsor or a therapist you meet with regularly and can call when you feel the urge to use. It’s always better to talk to someone about your feelings than to hold them inside.
  • If you feel tempted to use again, sit down and make a list of all the things that make you happy in your sober life. This will help you appreciate how far you’ve come and remember the reasons you attended a recovery program in the first place.
  • Don’t let a slip-up turn into a full blown relapse. If you slip and have a drink or two, don’t beat yourself up or let it snowball into a major relapse. Call your sponsor, attend a meeting, and continue to do the things that have helped you stay sober up to this point.
  • Recognize that relapse is a very real possibility. Many recovering addicts experience relapse. If it happens, the important thing is that you get back on track. If it is a small slip, start doing the things that worked to keep you sober before. If it’s a major relapse, consider returning to a recovery center for another round of treatment.
  • Distract yourself from cravings. When you get the urge to use again, do something else you enjoy to take your mind away. Go for a long bike ride, read a good book, play tennis, go for a run, watch a movie or spend time with a trustworthy, sober friend.

One of the best ways to prevent relapse is to live in the present and appreciate each and every day. Successful recovery is all about continuing to do what works to keep yourself on track, and living the happy, healthy life you deserve.

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