I’ve heard it said, “Relapse is just a part of recovery.” I even saw it on a sweet, serene looking sharable graphic the other day on Instagram, so it must be true, right?
Relapse is not a part of recovery. Relapse is a part of the disease.
There were over 59,000 drug related deaths in 2016 (up 19% from 2015) and that number continues to climb. I’ve lost five friends to addiction over the past two years. Most of them were under the age of 30.
We need to talk about relapse prevention.
During my last couple of weeks of rehab I spent a good deal of time interrogating everyone who had over a year clean. “What are you doing to prevent relapse?” This was the question I asked every person. I wanted to know if they had toyed with the idea, what made them stay, and what gave them strength.
The wisest thing I ever heard came from one of my therapists. “Relapse happens before the relapse, every time.” He went on to explain that we all relapse mentally long before we ever relapse physically. Thoughts become things. There is so much truth to that.
So, what kind of thoughts? That’s what I wanted to know. I wanted to be sure I could avoid relapse. I had too much to lose.
Relapse is Sneaky
A return to the thing that wrecked you.
A return to the thing that sucked the life out of you, broke your spirit and emptied your bank account. When I consider the sleepless nights, stress, legal problems and financial burden tied to addiction there’s nothing in me that’s attracted to relapse…yet it somehow becomes attractive.
I can’t speak for everyone, and I have not relapsed since I went to treatment. It’s been almost three years since I’ve put a drink or a drug in my body, but I’ve recognized some clear warning signs in my life and I want to share them with you. These are the top three things I absolutely stay away from in order to protect myself from relapse.
It’s worked for me so far.
Top Three Triggers for Relapse
Resentments, bitterness and grudges: I remember feeling misunderstood shortly after I returned home from treatment. Internally, I was like a toddler just learning to walk, especially when it came to healthy boundaries and self care. As a business owner I had clients who hadn’t heard from me in three months and now that I was back, so were the deadlines.
- I immediately started feeling angry about a whole list of situations. “Didn’t these clients understand I couldn’t overload myself? Didn’t they know it was dangerous to my recovery?” These thoughts provided the perfect segue into, “Geez, can’t anyone do the dishes or clean up after themselves? Don’t they know I’m trying to balance deadlines and practice self care?”
One resentment, two resentments, three resentments, four. Isn’t it funny how trying to practice self care actually led me by the nose into anger and resentment, which is definitely a trigger for relapse!
I told you relapse was sneaky.
Someone once told me, “The world isn’t going to behave just because you got sober,” and there really couldn’t be a truer statement. I’m in charge of the way I prioritize my day, respond to other people’s expectations of me, and the resentments I choose to build. There’s no more blaming others when you’re walking in recovery.
To protect myself against resentments, I try to always see others in varying degrees of sickness or health. I know, that sounds weird, but it’s easier for me to accept your demanding nature if I simply tell myself that you’re not operating at 100% emotional health today.
Does it work? Absolutely. It’s become a habit for me to view others as fragile people just trying to find their way in life, and sometimes making a mess of things along the way. Thinking this way has allowed me to practice an incredible amount of grace and tolerance for others, as well as for myself.
- Isolation: The thing I love most about recovery is living in community. The thing I love least about recovery is living in community. My opinion flip flops from day to day.
I’m an only child and a have absolutely no problem with being alone. I’ve never been lonely that I can remember, and I don’t get bored. This is very conducive to relapse. Isolation leaves us alone with our own thoughts and our own opinions. This is just fine as long as our thoughts are healthy, but sometimes they’re not.
My mom passed away earlier this year. I thought I was okay. I allowed myself to grieve and I gave myself permission to walk away from deadlines and expectations without apology. No rules.
Before I knew it I was sleeping a lot and I found myself exhausted by mid-afternoon. I stopped answering the phone to my friends. I was overeating. These were all signs of mental relapse for me. Sure, I hadn’t thought about having a drink, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. We are attacked when we’re weak and vulnerable, not when we’re surrounded by a support system and reaching out to others.
Thankfully, I caught it and I started attending Celebrate Recovery (Christian based recovery meetings) and reconnected with the friends I’d been avoiding. Best of all, I started helping others more than I had been before. Getting out of self and back into community is so vital when we feel weak. I would say that isolation has been the one thing that has sabotaged me without fail. Thankfully I am able to see it coming now.
Eating My Feelings: As people in recovery, we don’t have the luxury of putting all the junk in our bodies that other people might get away with; at least I don’t. For me, two candy bars equals cloudy thinking and a trip to Wendy’s wakes up the “comfort food monster” that tries to lull me into a carb coma. It’s a form of self-medication and it will pull many of us right back into the cycle of addiction.
My best days are always the ones that include a trip to the gym, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and my favorite smoothie for breakfast. I use 1 scoop Garden of Life powdered protein, 1 T turmeric powder (for brain health), almond milk, 1 banana and a small scoop of chia seeds. Everyone who knows me personally knows I am the queen of the smoothie. I even bring my Ninja blender with me on trips now. After my shake, it’s one capful of liquid aminos and 1 T organic apple cider vinegar.
I know, I know; if you’re not used to eating clean, that breakfast recipe can seem a bit extreme, but I like to let people in on my personal routine, because it really works for me and it might work for you.
The shake provides me with instant protein and the liquid aminos stabilize my mood and allow me to enjoy a sense of well being without having to fight for it. Since I’ve started working out in the early morning I don’t drink as much coffee as I used to and I find myself with a much lower rate of anxiety. It used to be pretty easy for me to quickly escalate from calm to anxious, but a combination of exercise along with the proper amount of brain fuel keeps clarity levels high and irritability low. For me, falling into patterns of unhealthy eating leads right into lethargy and mental cloudiness, which puts me at risk for getting my feelings hurt, feeling lost and hopeless, and becoming resentful of others expectations…which brings us right back to square one.
I’m telling you, these three things have become the most important to keep me protected. Of course there are so many others, like proper sleep, spiritual health and having a life purpose. Everyone will have their own set of “top red flags” and mine may even change by next year.
We’ll revisit this list after my fourth sober birthday, but for now this is working. I hope this has been helpful to you. Relapse prevention is a favorite topic of mine and I’d love to hear your thoughts on triggers, red flags, and what keeps you far from the thought of relapse.
About Robin Bright
Robin Bright is a published author, professional writer, recovery advocate, and the founder and contributing editor of ThatSoberLife.com. She frequently writes and speaks on the topics of cross-addiction, nutrition’s role in early recovery, repairing your brain and relapse prevention. Currently, she is opening a recovery residence for women transitioning out of treatment and is excited about implementing wellness and nutrition into her program.