Relapse is not an event – it is a process. It is very rare for an individual who is working hard at his or her recovery to one-day stop and think, “You know what? A drink sounds reasonable.” When we first enter into recovery, we are taught to do several things on a daily (or near-daily) basis – things that will ensure our continuous sobriety and protect us from going back out. Go to meetings, work the steps, help others, pray and meditate, call our sponsor and other sober supports… these are the actions we know we must take in order to remain spiritually fit.
When we stop taking these actions, or when someone near and dear to us stops taking these actions, it may indicate a problem – serve as a red flag, if you will. If we watch a close friend drift further and further away from his or her program of recovery, we are able to step in and say, “Hey friend, I noticed that you haven’t been to homegroup in several weeks. Want to go to a meeting today?” If we notice that we ourselves have not been picking up service commitments, or haven’t done a written 10th step in months (or years), we can take the necessary actions to get back on track. Some relapse warning signs are pretty obvious, and nipping a potential decline in the bud is no problem.
7 Telltale Relapse Warning Signs
However, spotting a potential relapse from a mile away is not always so straightforward. Some relapse warning signs are more difficult to detect, but it is just as important that we are aware of them (seeing as they are almost always good indications of a return to old, unhealthy ways). Over the course of my time in recovery, I have seen quite a few of my friends go back out. I have picked up on and made note of several telltale relapse warning signs which I have consistently seen my friends display months or weeks before their return to drinking or drugging.
- Noticing drug deals (or believing that drug deals are taking place).
If someone close to you becomes hyperaware of drug deals, it may be a good indicator that his or her mind is honing in more on relapse than on recovery. I have had more than one close friend relapse after displaying this strange (but common) warning sign. If someone you care about begins to notice drug deals on every corner, try redirecting the conversation to something more recovery-oriented. Say something like, “Yeah, well, it’s an unavoidable scenario unfortunately. But hey, I just started chairing this meeting on Thursday nights. When is the last time you shared your story?”
- Suspicious levels of optimism.
While some people are just naturally super stoked on life, unrealistic levels of optimism may indicate overcompensation. In my experience, people who are always ‘fine’ and ‘doing well’ and ‘sooo grateful’ are often masking the truth – which is that, just like other human beings, they struggle from time-to-time. People who admit when they are struggling are the ones that tend to stick around the longest. There is no shame in having a tough go of it. If someone close to you seems to be having a hard time opening up about where they are emotionally, do what you can to lend a nonjudgmental and compassionate ear. Try saying something like, “Listen, I know that you keep saying you’re fine and okay, but I get the sense that something is going on with you. Want to grab lunch and talk?”
- Watching videos of people getting high (or watching actual people get high).
If someone close to you is making a point to spend time with people who are actively using, or watching videos on the internet of people getting high, he or she she is probably on the road to relapse. Engaging with the disease in such an unjustifiable and intimate way is one of the biggest red flags one can throw – take heed! This behavior is not normal. He or she may make excuses, like, “I wanted to be with my friend while he shot up to make sure he didn’t overdose.” No. Not good. Try bringing to his attention the fact that this is never necessary, and again, redirect the conversation to one that revolves around recovery.
- Reaching out to old friends.
One of the coolest parts of recovery is the ability to form a whole new circle of friends – real friends; friends who are supportive and unconditionally loving and understanding on a deep and authentic level. When someone begins avoiding his or her new friends and begins reaching out to old friends (who are still actively using drugs and drinking), it is a good indication that relapse is looming on the horizon. When the disease of addiction begins rearing its ugly head, it will try to convince us to steer clear of those who genuinely care about our well-being.
- Increased defensiveness.
If you bring up a change in behavior to your loved one and he or she reacts with anger and defensiveness, it is not a good sign. Defensiveness typically indicates an unwillingness to look at the truth – it is a form of denial. The best way to combat a defensive individual is by communicating in a compassionate and non-accusatory manner. Try to avoid pointing your finger; instead, bring certain behaviors to light in an understanding way. Rather than say, “Hey, you haven’t been to a meeting in 2 weeks – what’s the deal,” say something like, “Hey, I’ve been slipping up on meetings lately – how do you feel about holding one another accountable? I want to try and go to at least four per week.”
- Paying far more attention to the problems of others.
It is always easier to focus on others than it is to take an honest and searching look at ourselves. And from time-to-time, we are all liable to get intertwined in some drama that is truly none of our business. But if someone close to you is focusing all of his or her energy on the problems of others, it is a good indication that relapse is slowly becoming an option. Try to redirect conversation back to self, and to your friend. “That’s too bad… but how are you?”
- Unreasonable resentment.
A telltale sign of impending relapse is the re-adoption of the infamous ‘victim role’. If everything is suddenly everyone else’s fault, and the world is suddenly cruel and punishing, relapse may be imminent. If resentments are unreasonable, try to gently point that out. “Yes, it was wrong of her to steal your peanut butter… but it can easily be replaced, and in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t that big a deal.”
Relapse is Not a Prerequisite
Relapse is NOT a prerequisite to recovery. When the signs are noticed and acknowledged, relapse can be successfully nipped in the bud and avoided. If you notice any of these warning signs in yourself or in others, take the necessary actions to bring them to light and reverse them. And if you have any of your own relapse warning signs to add to the list, please feel free!