Sean Murphy is our Clinical Director here at Turning Point Recovery Center. He works with many of our clients on their journey to being clean and sober. I asked him to share his thoughts about relapse and how to plan for the possibility, as well as the after-effects.
Relapse Happens Before It Happens
For someone who is an addict, relapse is a time when they will want to go back to using alcohol or drugs. So if someone has some clean time, 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, whatever it is, and then they go back to using, then that’s considered a relapse.
In our experience at TPRC, what we’ve found is that relapse happens way before someone picks up the drink or the drug. There are cravings that happen. Stressful things that induce cravings. There is a mental obsession with being an addict and the craving reappears in situations where they would have previously gone to their addiction to cope.
They use their addiction to help numb their feelings or make the situation more tolerable so they can get through it.
Relapse could begin a month before, six months before, or even longer before using. When someone is thinking about using or drinking, the relapse mechanism has already been shifted into place. However, just because the relapse mechanism is switched on, it doesn’t mean they will relapse. There are ways for them to work through this stage and get back to a place free of cravings.
Have a Plan of Action
There are certain things that people can do in order to not pick up that drink or drug that they are thinking about. We like to focus on relapse prevention. When someone is in treatment, one thing we have them do is fill out a relapse prevention plan.
For example, if you are at a party where people are drinking and using and you begin to feel like drinking or using, what can you do?
Leave the party
Call another recovering addict
Drive yourself there so you can leave if you need to
Get a sponsor and tell them about it, have some accountability
Work with others, keep busy
All of our Turning Point clients are required to attend 12 step programs. After they complete our program we encourage them to continue in our aftercare program. They are no longer living the life they had been living and sometimes they need help learning how to live a new life without the coping mechanism of using.
We have our clients write out their plans and share them in group. This solidifies those steps in their minds so that they know they have options, even when the cravings make them think there is only one option.
However, if you do relapse, it’s not the end of your recovery. Don’t let the relapse control your life. Sometimes you might struggle with disappointment or pride, but don’t let those things stop you from getting help after a relapse.
The people who admitted to a relapse and sought help greatly reduced the risk of a second or third relapse on their path to sobriety. They recognized that they weren’t prepared and they increased their planning for next time.
Vacations, Holidays, and Other Excuses
We are never going to get away from alcohol in our society. It’s legal. It’s in every grocery store. It’s all over the place. It’s promoted on St. Patrick’s Day and many other holidays and events. You won’t be able to get away from that completely. But here are some ideas for dealing with it.
Don’t knowingly go where you will be triggered.
example: if your friend always has a St. Patrick’s Day party where there is a lot of drinking and you’ve always gone, choose to make a new tradition this year.
If you can’t avoid it completely, at least don’t linger there.
example: avoid the middle of the grocery store because that’s where all the booze is. Go around the edges and get your fruits and vegetables and meat, etc. You have no reason to be in the alcoholic beverage section of the store.
Choose your entertainment wisely.
example: if you are watching a show and drinking or using is shown and you start feeling that desire to do it, then turn it off or change the channel. Don’t tempt fate.
We are seeing a lot of younger people between 19-22 trying to get sober, which is right around the time when many of their peers are exploring that world and drinking quite a bit. Just because many of your friends are doing it, doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to have fun or to celebrate a special occasion.
Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups have a lot of events and even meeting marathons where you can find a meeting no matter what time of day or night it is. These are held in an effort to teach addicts how to reframe their concept of celebrating and living life.
There are many ways to have fun that don’t involve alcohol or drug use. And there are many people choosing to do things that way instead of using. You just need to find your community and support and help each other.
Just a Day
What relapses and these “special occasions” have in common is that they are just one day. One day out of your month, your year, your life. There’s nothing special about that day. It is only standing out because of what you are choosing to do with it. Choose before you even face it that you will say no. That it will be a sober day, just like yesterday was and just like tomorrow will be.
But that day isn’t insignificant.
If you are having cravings, remember that it’s just a day. You can knuckle down and get through them.
If you do relapse, remember that it’s just one day and you can do better tomorrow.
However, when you take all those clean and sober days and put them together – you have a life. What will your life look like?
~ Sean Murphy