The Different Stages of Relapse

When we think of relapse, we usually associate it with the act of returning to our drug use after a period of abstinence. We think of all the painful emotions associated with it, the disappointment, shame and regret. We think of falling off the wagon and picking up our drug of choice after being so committed to breaking our dependence on it. While this is the part of relapse we’re most commonly aware of, there are actually different stages of relapse that lead up to this point. These phases act as precursors to our drug use, and they include emotional relapse and mental relapse, sometimes occurring long before the physical relapse takes place.

For many of us, relapse doesn’t just happen overnight with one single rash, impulsive decision, although this can happen too. More often, it is a process that happens over a period of time, with mental and emotional indicators that a physical relapse might be coming. We often will feel a build-up, an accumulation of certain thought patterns and emotional patterns, before we succumb to the addictive urge that breaks our abstinence.

When we experience emotional relapse, we often will feel emotions that act as triggers, almost like gateways, to our drug use. We might feel increasingly angry towards a situation or person in our lives. We might feel a depression returning, with all of the anxiety, uneasiness, fear and sadness that usually accompany it. We might lose our appetite or find it hard to fall asleep, symptoms we’re familiar with from our experience with both addiction and mental illness. We might be feeling heightened stress, whether from a problem at work, a relationship issue, or something else we can’t put our finger on. We might not know what to attribute our emotional changes to, or we might know that our familiar depressive cycles are returning. We might feel inclined to isolate ourselves, or to return to toxic habits such as unhealthy relationships in order to try and make ourselves feel better. We feel desperate to escape the difficult emotions we’ve always used our drug of choice to try and numb ourselves to. If we can see these emotional patterns as warning signs that a relapse might happen, we can get help for ourselves or intervene on behalf of a loved one.

Mental relapse often accompanies or follows emotional relapse. We might find ourselves falling into the same thought patterns we used to grapple with, where we feel like we’re battling ourselves. On one hand, we know we want to stay sober, but on the other, we’re feeling this mounting, uncontrollable, overwhelming pressure to give into our addictive urges and temptation. We might try to convince ourselves that we need our drug of choice in order to cope with all of the emotional changes we’re experiencing. We might tell ourselves that we’re capable of using in moderation, that we’re not true addicts after all if we’ve already managed to get sober once before, or multiple times before. We try to make light of our drug use, making excuses for all the difficult things we went through due to our addictions. We start to think of our drug use in a positive light, normalizing and even romanticizing it. We tell ourselves that we were happier when we were using, that the pain we’re feeling being abstinent is not only not worth it but that it’s avoidable, if we can only get our drug use under control and not let it take over our lives again. We forget that it’s impossible for us as addicts to just have one drink, or one night out, and that if we do slip, eventually we’ll find ourselves right back where we started, feeling totally controlled and overpowered by our addictions, watching helplessly as they take over our entire lives and destroy everything we hold dear.  

Physical relapse, the act of consuming the drugs or engaging in the addictive behaviors, is often a choice we make after we’ve been struggling with these mental and emotional factors for some time. We often will deliberate as to whether or not we should give into the urges we’re feeling. We tell ourselves to stay strong. We question our willpower and resilience. We might even ask for help. Often, though, we keep these internal struggles to ourselves. We’re afraid of what people will think of us if they know how close we are to relapsing. We don’t want them to judge us. We don’t want them to worry, and if we do manage to regain control of our impulses, we don’t want to needlessly put them through all the worry and desperation of thinking we’re going to relapse.

We come to learn, after getting sober and then risking everything with the possibility of relapsing, that our sobriety is fragile. Just like with depression, it’s almost as if we’re on thin ice and at any moment the ice could crack and we could easily fall through. Gaining more understanding about the different stages of relapse can help us identify when we’re most vulnerable to falling and to succumbing to the very powerful force of our addictions. Many of us have become vigilant about watching for signs of our depression returning, such as spikes in our anxiety or insomnia for example. We want to be just as vigilant looking out for signs a relapse might occur, and many of these signs overlap with the symptoms of depression, so we want to get to a place where we are taking our overall mental and emotional health seriously and not waiting until it’s too late to take action to help ourselves.

Riverside Recovery is a drug and alcohol treatment center offering a full continuum of care for people suffering from addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Call us today for more information: (800) 871-5440.