A drug relapse occurs when, at some point during a person’s addiction recovery, they end up using drugs again. Usually, a relapse refers to the abuse of drugs often leading to a full-blown ‘bender’, or an excessive use of drugs and a regression in emotional and physical progress.
When a person who has gone through a recovery program relapses, they usually don’t end up only drinking one shot glass of whiskey or taking a single tab of Adderall. They go over their limits, regressing to old habits, often putting their bodies under tremendous pressure because of the changes they’ve made during sobriety.
After a relapse, recovery continues. That includes more withdrawal symptoms, more time spent working with a therapist to figure out what went wrong, and oftentimes, a sense of dread that it might happen again, or an overbearing feeling of guilt that it happened at all.
However, relapses are surprisingly common. Most people relapse within the first year after completing addiction treatment, while only 15 percent of people relapse after five years of sobriety. It takes time to recover from drug use, and a relapse or two may be part of the journey. However, relapses can pile up and turn into a chronic problem if not properly addressed and avoided. When you enter rehab or start your recovery process, it’s important to be wary of the common pitfalls that can lead to a relapse.
Withdrawal Symptoms and Post-Acute Withdrawal
The first thing that makes people relapse is early recovery itself. Withdrawal symptoms can range from unbelievably unpleasant to downright fatal (only in cases of an addiction to depressants like alcohol and benzos), and while people experience fits of nausea and even occasional shivers while going through the withdrawal process, powerful cravings are also a part of the experience.
When the brain meets an addictive drug, it is essentially confused. Our brain relies on chemicals called neurotransmitters to delegate and complete various functions, from feeling sleepy, happy, angry, or sad, to sweating and proper hormone regulation. However, drugs mimic these neurotransmitters, most often mimicking certain neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine.
As we continue taking drugs, the brain begins to get used to the effects the drugs have on the brain and body, either by learning to metabolize the drug faster or because the drug loses effectiveness on a cellular level, because of heavily repeated usage. So, we take more drugs. Over time, these drugs don’t only induce powerful highs, but begin to cause serious negative changes in a person’s brain and body.
Abruptly stopping drug use after a person has built a tolerance to the drug and has been regularly consuming it for several weeks can cause a sudden shift in the body’s overall equilibrium, and it fights to readjust to the new drug-free norm. Many of the symptoms experienced during a drug withdrawal are the result of adjusting to sobriety. Others are indicative of the damage done by the drugs, with any indication previously numbed by consistent and repeated highs. The urge to use again as a way to stop the symptoms and bring back that sense of euphoria is very high, and it’s during withdrawal that many addicts fail to get sober.
Sober living homes and rehab facilities help addicts stay sober during the entire withdrawal period, providing medical help to reduce certain symptoms and prevent fatal withdrawal symptoms.
Old Friends and Memories
Anything from driving down a road you used to drive to pick up some drugs to hearing a certain song, being in a certain place or hanging out with certain people can serve as a ‘trigger’. While you do build a tolerance for these triggers over time, they can be very dangerous in early recovery and serve to remind you of what it felt like to be addicted. It’s important to recognize that no matter how committed you feel you are, these triggers are overwhelming and should not be underestimated in the first few weeks of recovery.
Try to avoid your old life for a while – take different routes to work, avoid restaurants and establishments that remind you of getting high, and most importantly, stay away from friends and acquaintances that are still using drugs. This last rule might last the longest, especially if your friends don’t feel obligated to respect your sobriety or your fight for recovery in any way.
Staying in a sober living environment is one way to avoid triggers, but another is to make new friends and work with your family to arrange a temporary living solution to help you stay away from things that trigger you. Not everyone shares the same triggers, and you shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of any one aspect in your old life. However, treat coming back into your old life with caution, and be aware of what you feel might be your limits. In other words, be careful not to tempt yourself.
‘Testing’ your Limits
If you have been sober for a while, it can become tempting to try and see if you’ve reached a point where you might be able to handle ‘anything’, including hanging out with old friends or heading to a club or bar without ordering a drink. While it’s certainly possible for recovering addicts to hang out at parties and stay sober, it takes time to get to the point where you can truly get around in a social setting without the urge to drink or engage in the kind of party behavior everyone else tends to engage in.
If you’re going to test your limits, do it one toe at a time, and with the help of a friend. Don’t just jump straight into your biggest conceivable challenge all alone. If you’ve got a sober friend, head out to a party with them and stick together. If you’re in a 12-step program, talk to your sponsor if you feel confident enough in your sobriety to see if you can enjoy yourself around other people drinking and partying. But don’t do it alone.
New Responsibilities and Challenges in Sobriety
Perhaps the biggest pitfalls to prepare for are the changes you will experience when transitioning from a rehab environment into the challenges of everyday life. Sober living homes are the perfect stepping stone, keeping you in a drug-free environment while tasking you with finding and maintaining employment, managing your own finances, keeping clean, making new friends, seeking out new interests and hobbies, and more.
All of these pitfalls can either be avoided or approached with the help and support of friends, loved ones, and professionals. While you can rely on yourself more and more over time, never to forget the importance of knowing that the people you care about have your back, and that you can always ask for help without judgment. Don’t feel pressured to progress at a faster rate than you’re comfortable with – recovery takes time, and as long as you’re staying sober, you’re doing things right.