At Castle Craig Hospital, we take relapse prevention very seriously. Every person leaves treatment with a detailed Continuing Care Plan which they will have been involved in preparing. It is designed to minimize the chances of relapse by addressing their individual needs for staying clean and sober. It will normally detail that person’s projected daily routine, their priorities to ensure continuing sobriety, the dangers to look out for, the things to do and not to do, and the action they will take when situations arise that threaten sobriety. Each Continuing Care Plan is thus a template for building a new life and should be followed meticulously. But, despite all this, relapse still happens. And a very high percentage of people who relapse after rehab admit to the fact that they failed to follow their Plan. How can this be, when so much is at stake? Once again, it is a demonstration of our ego at work, leading us into false pride, minimizing, and self-deception.
- Recovery is about learning new ways of doing things. Learning anything new takes a bit of time – new habits are said to need at least one month of regular practice to become the default behavior. We need to work at these wholeheartedly, not just so that we may live happily thereafter but because we have an illness that will kill us if we let it. Learn these crucial rules and never, ever, bend them – they could save your life:
- The cardinal rule of relapse prevention is to be proactive. Work at your recovery. If you leave rehab just hoping that things will be ok – they won’t be. Change does not just happen – change is the result of doing things differently on a regular basis. People sometimes leave rehab saying “I don’t want to drink anymore” as if that’s all that’s needed. But successful recovery is not an intellectual concept, it is initially, a lot of hard work and commitment to following practical rules. Unfortunately, the Siren call of addiction seldom vanishes altogether. It might diminish in force but for many, it will never go completely. Bill W, co-founder of AA, said that he never lost the desire to drink.
- Recognize that relapse starts with personal dishonesty. Think about it: you have been through the pain and stress of recovery, perhaps in intensive rehab, understood the consequences, and then committed yourself to total sobriety. There should be no question that you can ever allow yourself to drink or use again. The only way you can justify such unacceptable behavior is by telling yourself a lie – that there won’t be consequences, that you can control it, that you can ‘get away with it.’ The power and the madness of addiction is right there, and you minimize it at your peril. Never let yourself off the hook.
- Understand that relapse is a process, not an isolated event. Knowing this allows you to check regularly for the warning signs – the first little events where your behavior wobbles – because early recovery is a tightrope, make no mistake. These might be not bothering to go to a meeting, seeking the company of people drinking and using, or unexplained feelings of anger, frustration or fear. Check your emotional and mental wellbeing every day.
- Practice making choices on the basis of ‘what is best for my recovery?’ Everyday life is a series of choices, some minor, some more important. We need to get them right because even those that seem trivial can lead us into danger. Choosing to meet an old friend in a bar rather than a coffee shop could have disastrous consequences. Not carrying the number of a sober friend to call when you get a craving to drink or use, could be equally dangerous. Habits can be learned and by following a daily routine of checking your choices, you embed the habit in your lifestyle.
- Think ahead and imagine possible problems – people, places, and things that might upset your equilibrium and start you entertaining the idea of using and drinking. Have a plan for when danger comes, as it surely will at some stage: someone to phone, somewhere safe (ie alcohol and drug-free) to go, or someone to take with you if going say, to a party.
- Stay connected – don’t isolate. There is great power in the example and support of like-minded people. When we see someone showing the benefit of working their recovery correctly, we want it too. We are lucky to have Twelve Step fellowships for that very purpose, so make use of them, go to meetings and collect phone numbers. Stick with the winners.
- Self-care. The simple acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) spells out the big dangers in early recovery. Take good note – the people who conceived these sayings were wise from experience. The old story of the two wolves fighting inside us, one good and one bad is very relevant; the wolf that wins is the one that we feed. Care for yourself and never get into a state of HALT.
- Learn and practice techniques for dealing with cravings – grounding methods, distractions, telephoning, and exercise. Do not think that cravings may not happen – they are highly likely, at any time. When a craving appears, you can employ simple techniques to send it away – count the number of chairs in the room or trees in the garden; make a phone call, it doesn’t matter to whom – the act itself will get you thinking of something other than the craving. Some people always carry a card that has not only a number to call but a reminder of the power of addiction – perhaps a photo of them in the hospital or a drink/drive prosecution letter. Always be prepared.
- Ask for help – it is always advisable to get a sponsor, even a temporary sponsor, as soon as possible. A lot of meetings have a moment where people willing to act as sponsors identify themselves as a way of assisting newcomers. If you don’t yet have a sponsor and you are desperate, ring the AA or NA helpline. It is always better to talk than to struggle alone. Remember: ‘I can’t – we can.’
A useful exercise can be to visualize the most likely relapse scenario for you – perhaps a major argument with a loved one that leaves you angry, frustrated, and resentful. Try to imagine it happening and how you can deal with it in a way that will avoid a relapse. What will you do when your addictive response kicks in? Do you have someone to talk to?
If relapse does happen, do not treat it as a disaster. Tell yourself that you can learn from it. Many long-term sober people look back on relapse as the moment when they finally realized their powerlessness over their addiction and became honest, open, and willing to change.
Addiction is the only disease that kills you while telling you that you don’t have it. Be aware of this, plan ahead, and practice the tools you need to keep you sober when the challenge comes. Make no mistake – it will come, probably when you least expect it. Contact CATCH Recovery for online addiction therapy and support and stay on top of your recovery journey.