What are the Warning Signs of Relapse?

I’m an Addict

First, I’ll just put it out there: I’m an addict in recovery. I certainly don’t fit the societal profile or images conjured up in people’s heads about what that means. I’ve never lived on the streets, never lost a job, never drank straight out of the bottle, never sang strange songs in the middle of the night on a major city street, and I’ve never had a DUI or DWI. I have a college degree, a graduate degree, come from a respected family. I drive a mini-van with my three kids. I am a social worker. I even used to be a therapist at a hospital. Whew, okay, that secret is out now. I feel better.

I’m in Relapse

Now, if I were to say: “I’m in relapse,” you’d think I was actively drinking or drugging again, right? That’s what most people envision; even addicts themselves have this misconception. The truth is, a relapse starts way before that first drink or drug. It’s a process that can develop gradually or fairly rapidly. Most addicts aren’t aware of this. They think all is well if they’re successfully abstaining from their drug of choice. But they may be unwittingly on the road to relapse. Relapse happens before using the substance, so it’s imperative one looks for the warning signs or relapse cues before the actual use occurs.

Changes in Thought

The following are common examples of thinking errors an addict on the relapse path may have:

  • “I will never drink again.” You may be thinking that sounds like a good, positive thought indicative of one’s commitment to recovery and lifelong abstinence. Unfortunately, thinking one’s immune and cured causes a lack of vigilance. The addict might begin to see less of a need for a daily recovery program.
  • Patterns of denial may kick in with thoughts like: “I really wasn’t that bad. I never got a DUI, I never went to jail, I didn’t drink all day long, or “I deserve a break for one day. I can have just one drink, and it won’t hurt.”

Changes in Moods and Feelings

Many, but not all addicts, experience what’s called a “honeymoon” period after getting sober. Everything feels wonderful, and the sober life is novel. They feel great physically: no more hangovers, they’re getting restorative sleep, they have more energy, their thinking is clear. Life is good. They don’t have the guilt, self-hatred, embarrassment, blackouts, and regret after binging. However, after being sober for a while, the novelty effect wears off, and they’re left with feelings they weren’t prepared for. Feelings resurface that might have been masked with substances for years. They may feel depressed, angry, lonely, negative, useless, and rejected.

These feelings will differ from person to person, but they usually originate from the honeymoon period ending and old thoughts and feelings reemerging. Unsolved relationship issues will undoubtedly resurface. Old life stressors come back into play. Untreated anxiety and depression disorders will rear their ugly head. Life on life’s terms strikes again, and the addict is unprepared. Being sober now feels normal and maybe not what one bargained for.

They have continued difficulty in managing their feelings and emotions. They fluctuate between overreacting and underreacting. They can experience emotional numbness and are even unable to explain or understand how they are feeling. The emotional roller coaster causes mood swings, depression, anxiety, stress, and fear. As a result, they begin to find stuffing their feelings easier.

They may experience powerful shame, guilt, and hopelessness. They begin to think they are inherently flawed as humans, emotionally disturbed, crazy, and not normal. As a result, they hide these feelings from others that serve to heighten and exacerbate these emotions culminating in the belief they are hopeless.

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