3 Serious Warnings Signs of Relapse

Relapse in the sober world is a lot like a presidential election. Choose the wrong candidate and you're in for years of crap. But many recovery folks don’t know relapse warning signs. If you don’t know what to watch, then you’re likely to get caught in the clutches. The picture above (me on the far left) shows what I looked like in the midst of a relapse. That was on a good day too. In just a few months, I'd be in treatment. My nickname was the "Unabomber" - a generous term at the time.

Relapse is to recovery what the “f” word is to the ordinary world. In fact, for those who are sober, relapse could be a synonym for a variety of curse words. Fortunately for us soberites, researchers have provided a library of information on the wretched “r” word.

Insights of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous never cease to amaze me when referenced against modern addiction research. The original sober manual states that, “Resentment is the number one offender.” So it seems anger and its negative companions, like frustration, fuel the desire to drink and drug once again.

Relapse Prevention: An Overview of Marlatt’s Cognitive Behavioral Model confirms the suspicion of the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous. This research discovered that, “negative emotional states…are associated with the highest rate of relapse.” But what are the tangible behaviors that occur when someone is at risk to fall off the wagon?

Before I give you the list, I’m going to make a confession. I’ve been exhibiting some of these symptoms. At the time of this article’s composition, I’m closing in on 2 years sober. The first year presented a few challenges, however, nothing too serious. For reasons still undiscovered, I hit a wall during the transition to post-1 year sober.

Maybe that’s why I chose to sit down and write this essay. I hope it will offer the kick-in-the-butt I need to light the fire of sound, sober willingness. Here is a short list of events and conditions I’ve noticed that precipitated my relapse symptoms:

1. Relationship breakup

My girlfriend and I broke up. Our breakup was surprisingly amicable, a welcome change from years of shouting matches and he-said-she-said. But I haven’t developed an entirely healthy set of tools to triumph over life’s difficulties… yet.

My go-to behavior when the world throws a curveball consists of lying on the couch, thinking about all the bad things I’ve experienced in my life. In one minute. An overwhelming anxiety accompanies this morbid practice. I don't recommend it for the newly sober.

Unhealthy as my penchant for couch contemplation sounds, I appreciate the fact that I can recognize my own internal shortcomings. The first step towards change rests in acknowledgement of a problem. And I am obviously dealing with a serious problem.

2. Professional Setbacks

I won’t go into too much detail here. Addiction recovery jobs are stressful by nature. I work in a wide variety of areas at Discovery Place, and some ideas I had for development were either delayed or criticized.

I react to criticism like the cowardly lion in Wizard of Oz. My instincts as an alcoholic and drug addict encourage me to isolate in the face of adversity. So isolation conspired with loneliness to support a sense of delusional disillusion. Thoughts like… what’s the point of what I domaybe they don’t appreciate me like they should… started to seriously affect my professional life.

3. Breakdown of a Recovery Program

This is the hardest element for me to admit because I work in the addiction recovery field. If I’m rigorously honest, and that’s what I’d like to be, my program of recovery didn’t evaporate altogether. But it did begin to fade, almost like I was shaking an etch-a-sketch of the 12 steps.

Areas of my recovery experienced cutbacks as though a Congressman was trimming my 12 step budget. Morning meditation went from 30 minutes to 10 minutes or less. 3 or more 12 step meetings a week? I was lucky to get to more than one. As this process develops, resentment settles in. Subtle at first, discontentment with my life disrupts relationships I have with others. 

The cycle is exponential. My recovery program cutbacks fuel internal anger. My anger fuels isolating behavior. And my isolating behavior fuels more recovery program cutbacks.

Reversing the Process-Recognize Relapse Sypmtoms

Now that I know I’m travelling down the rocky road to relapse, it’s time to get serious about recovery recommitment. This week, I’ll go to three meetings before Wednesday. I met with my sponsor, and I’m about to let him know via phone what’s going on.

Willingness is the difference between relapse and sobriety. It’s the positive quality that powers an engine of recovery, without it, my clean and serene will pitter-patter to a stop on Relapse road.

Serious Relapse Warning Signs

Isolation

I heard one of the best isolation analogies in a 12 step meeting. A lady far wiser than I stated that isolation was like sitting on a warm park bench. It’s nice, initially, until you realize someone else’s rear-end gave the bench its warmth.

That’s exactly what I’ve noticed in my own patterns of isolation. Staring at the television for hours on end, shutting out the world’s social stratosphere, gives me a sense of comfort… for a time. Unfortunately, loneliness is the caboose on isolation’s comfort train. It isn’t long before depression emerges. And that’s when a drink or drug starts to appear mildly attractive.

Internal feelings of discontent, frustration and anger

There are days when that moron mounting my car’s bumper doesn’t bother me. Then there are days when I wish I had a James Bond type vehicle, equipped with machine guns and missiles, to blast that tailgating blowhard off the freeway.

What makes the difference between my zen-Buddhist and road-rage reaction? It’s simple. I’ve probably meditated for at least 15 minutes that morning.

Or maybe work has got me feeling like Milton from Office Space. My boss just stole that ruby red stapler, and my schedule changed for the second time in as many months. I’ll have one of two reactions. First, I might, like Milton, consider burning the place to the ground. Second, I might view adversity as an opportunity to grow. The second, healthy perspective allows me to strengthen spiritual qualities like perseverance and patience in the face of day-to-day challenges.

One reaction highlights my nature as an alcoholic and drug addict. The other demonstrates the principles of recovery in action. Only those spiritual principles supply the necessary foundation for a life free from relapse.

Delusional thinking

I’ve got to remember a magic magnifying mind like mine produces fanciful delusions on a daily basis. When problems pop up, my brain starts to create elaborate daydreams where an incredible stroke of luck comes along and erases all dilemmas.

Perhaps I win the lottery, buy a house fit for MTV cribs and sail away to Neverland on my new yacht. Or is it fly away to Neverland? I’ll never know because that’s not going to happen. I don’t even play the lottery.

Yet I’m entirely capable of doing this for minutes, hours and sometimes days. It prevents me from addressing predicaments with constructive actions. Self-pity is also an inevitable side effect of magical thinking. Why doesn’t anything good ever happen to me?

This habit is fairly common in those afflicted with drug addiction and alcoholism. My sponsor tells me to focus on the solution and watch for the times I drift into delusion.

The 1st Step in Relapse Prevention

In my opinion, the first action you can take to curb a return to drinking and drugging is honesty with your sponsor. Talk to him or her about what is going on and ask for suggestions. But more importantly, follow the suggestions. Even if you don’t feel like it.

Remember, your life depends on it.

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