What is a Relapse?

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By Roger P. Watts, PhD, LADC, LSW

A “relapse” is a gradual return to behaviors and attitudes that eventually leads to picking up alcohol and drug use again after a period of sustained abstinence.

Now, that’s an abstract and somewhat fancy explanation of something that active alcoholics and addicts know altogether too well. Driven by hundreds of forms of relapse warning signs, triggers, and high-risk situations, many alcoholics and addicts can easily identify the things that cause them to use.

Perhaps you know the signs in the order they usually occur…

  • Difficulty handling daily tasks like thinking clearly or managing the people, places, things, and situations that demand our attention.
  • Denial comes back…a person starts lying to themselves about the need to attend to the signs of relapse with people, places, things, and situations.
  • People avoid engaging with life and people around them and they become defensive whenever anyone mentions that they may be in denial.
  • Some kind of crisis starts to build as the signs of relapse not addressed start to raise themselves up and cause problems.
  • People become frozen and start daydreaming or thinking something magical will come along and solve problems for them.
  • People become confused and overreact to problems which leads to anger and feelings that old ways of coping with unmanaged problems are not working.
  • Depression often sets in and people stop eating well or eat too much, sleep poorly or sleep too much, have a depressed mood and find nothing help.
  • There is a loss of control over behaviors and what they used to do to maintain recovery no longer works for them.
  • When people recognize they have lost control they get more depressed and start thinking about using alcohol or other drugs to cope.
  • Options are reduced as the person finds that nothing they try seems to work well to overcome the loneliness and frustration of not managing problems.
  • People usually start to experiment with controlling their use of alcohol or other drugs by making deals with themselves when it will be safe to use.
  • Shame and guilt often return as they are no longer able to function the way they want to function in life and are frequently embarrassed by their failure.
  • People lose control rather quickly and the life and health problems – unaddressed for so long – return with power to overwhelm.
  • People find themselves at a crossroads – either continue to use or again try abstinence – and the pressure to use mounts.
  • People return to full-blown addictive behaviors of using chemicals and engaging in dangerous behaviors that will only lead to more problems.

Perhaps this scenario is familiar to you. Perhaps you are right now in the depths of the process and dangerously close to the end of jails, institutional commitment, or death that are the only three outcomes for continued use by addicted people.

Or perhaps you are fighting back…resisting the temptation to remain in denial of the reality around you and committed to not picking up alcohol or other drugs that will lead to a full-blown relapse.

Whichever the case, counseling can help by working with you to map out a successful strategy to either stop using or return to a state of handling life on life’s terms. Like the 12 Step program says…all it takes is “Honesty, Open mindedness and Willingness” and you will be well on your way to maintaining recovery.

Roger P Watts - What is Relapse?

Dr. Roger P. Watts is a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who practices as a Chemical Dependency Counselor at The Recovery Academy in Saint Paul MN.

Dr. Watts received his Ph.D. in General Psychology from Capella University in Minneapolis with a specialization in addictions therapy. His dissertation was entitled “The Lived Experience of a Spiritual Transformation in the Everyday Lives of Alcoholic Men New to Recovery: A Phenomenological Study”. He is currently writing his first book entitled “101 Ways to Tell if Your Teen is Using Drugs” and working on development of a psychological simulation game for training corporate customer service employees.