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Preventing the Relapse Process, Part 1

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Relapse is a terrifying experience for an addict or alcoholic to go through. And what seems to be most terrifying, is not being able to see it coming. Hindsight will recognize a few obvious mistakes, but often there is a haunting question: “What am I missing?” Learning to understand relapse and how to prevent it are essential pieces to the recovery puzzle. Relapse doesn’t have to be part of recovery, but recognizing the process when it occurs is essential.

Gerald finally agreed to admit himself to an addictions treatment center. He had relapsed into active drug and alcohol use two years ago after having eight years of abstinence. At the time of his relapse, he was the manager of a sober living residence that housed 10 to 12 men who needed a supportive living environment in early recovery. He didn’t recognize any one thing or event that triggered his relapse. But the guilt after picking up was more intense then he imagined was possible. He was the guy at meetings who always said he put his recovery first.

He acknowledged he had been going through the motions for a while. But that had happened to many others he knew who didn’t pick up. There was the usual recognition of slacking off on going to meetings and growing more impatient with others asking him if he was “all right.” But he honestly couldn’t pick out any one thing or a series of events that led to his relapse.

He had wracked his brains trying to think of what he should have done differently, but he couldn’t see where he went wrong. Privately he was terrified. What if it happened again and he didn’t see it coming that time either? He was afraid he wouldn’t make it back again.

There is no better place to start helping Gerald than with the resources developed by Terence Gorski for understanding and preventing relapse. His Relapse/Recovery Grid has been one of my most regularly used tools when I work with individuals to address their alcohol or drug problems. You will find it in at least two places. The first is within his book, Passages Through Recovery and the second is in his booklet, The Relapse/Recovery Grid. Another helpful resource is Terry Gorski’s Blog, where Terry has made a wealth of his material available. I haven’t seen a reproduction of the 8 ½ by 11 inch Relapse/Recovery Grid available on his blog, but in several articles like “Understanding Relapse and Relapse Prevention,” you will get a good synopsis of the Relapse Process summarized on the bottom half of the Relapse/Recovery Grid.

Gorski said relapse is like knocking over a line of dominoes. It is a process of one unresolved problem leading to another, and then another and another—until you have a major crisis, where using alcohol or drugs to deal with the pain seems like a reasonable choice. “The answer to avoiding relapse is to learn how not to tip over the first domino, and take care of the little problems in life.” If the dominoes have already begun to fall by the time you realize what’s going on, then you want to stop the chain reaction quickly, “before the dominoes start getting so big and heavy that they become unmanageable.”

One way the domino analogy is not always accurate is in the amount of time involved in a relapse process. Someone with stable recovery can take a long time to move through the stages of a relapse process before they ultimately use drugs or alcohol. By stable recovery, I mean someone who is in what Gorski calls the Maintenance Stage of the recovery process. This is where the person is maintaining a recovery program, coping effectively with day-to-day issues in life, continuing to grow personally and spiritually, and coping effectively with the crises and transitions that occur in life. I’ve known an individual who said her relapse process started four years before she actually used drugs again.

Perhaps a bit counter intuitively, this longer time for relapse to result in active drinking or drug use can be helpful IF the person recognizes the problem (or stuck point in Gorski’s discussion of the relapse process) and copes effectively with it. This necessitates the use of RADAR to address the stuck point: Recognizing there is a problem; Accepting that it’s normal to have problems and get stuck in recovery; Detaching or backing off to gain perspective on an unsolved problem; Accepting help from others—asking them for help with your problem; and Responding with positive action will help you get over the stuck point and avoid a further slide into the relapse process.

Failing to address a stuck point leads to ESCAPE: Evading or denying the problem or stuck point; failing to cope with the Stress that comes with evading the problem; turning to Compulsive behaviors to cope with the pain and stress; Avoiding others, especially those who see and tell you about your ineffective strategies for dealing with the problem; developing new Problems from the process of stress, compulsive behavior and isolation; and ultimately Evasion and denial of the new problems—see how it’s been working so well for you so far.

Instead of recognizing you are stuck and need help, you try to tell yourself everything is okay; you are coping effectively. But there is a buildup of pain and stress that can result in using other compulsive behaviors to cope.

To cope with the pain and stress, we begin to use other compulsive behaviors. We may begin overworking, over-eating, dieting, or over-exercising. We can get involved in addictive relationships and distract ourselves with sex and romance.  These behaviors make us feel good in the short run by distracting us from our problems.  But they do nothing to solve the problem.  We feel good now, but we hurt later.  This is a hallmark of all addictive behaviors.

Then something happens. Usually it’s something you would handle without getting upset. But this time you’ve had it; you’ve hit your limit and something snaps inside. Gorski said one person said it was like a trigger going off in your gut and you go out of control. But this is not actively drinking or using … yet. “When the trigger goes off, our stress increases, and our emotions take control of our minds. . . . When emotion gets control of the intellect we abandon everything we know, and start trying to feel good at all costs.”  There was just one too many stressors that weren’t addressed, so a trigger event initiates the internal dysfunction of the Relapse Process.

The Relapse/Recovery Grid lists several high-risk lifestyle factors that increase the likelihood of something triggering the Relapse Process. “These high-risk factors don’t cause relapse; they simply increase the likelihood that it will occur” by making you vulnerable to trigger events. The high-risk factors include personality stressors (perfectionism; or controlling); high-risk lifestyles (trying to do too much or doing too little; or doing the wrong things); social conflict and change; poor health maintenance (poor nutrition, a lack of exercise, relaxation or socializing) or other illness; an inadequate recovery program. “The ‘wrong things’ could be occupations, activities, and people that don’t fit with natural preferences and talents.” Gorski said these high-risk factors were identified from research into the lifestyles of people who had relapsed.

The trigger events listed in the Relapse/Recovery Grid include: high stress thoughts, painful emotions, painful memories, stressful situations and stressful interactions with others. Gorski said that just about anything could become a trigger event, but these five things trigger internal dysfunction more than others.

Some recovering people put themselves under increasing amounts of stress, and they keep adapting to it as they go along. As their tolerance goes up, they block their awareness of stress. Suddenly they hit their limit. They experience one stressor too many, and become dysfunctional.

Irrational thinking is the most common trigger. All-or-nothing thinking, black-and-white thinking fits here. When something goes wrong, you think Nothing ever goes right. If there is a risk of failure in doing something, you quit before it happens. This kind of thinking is irrational.

Emotional pain can point to something wrong with how you are thinking or acting. It signals “a need to examine what is wrong.” If you dismiss painful emotions for too long, they often come back with a vengeance.

People will often experience stressful or traumatic events in an active addiction that cause them extreme emotional or physical pain.  Being reminded of these events can lead to disorientation, confusion, anxiety or other symptoms for no apparent reason. This will then increase stress and trigger internal dysfunction.

“Any situation that a person is not prepared to cope with may be stressful.”  Recognize this reality and seek to avoid them, if at all possible, by being prepared. The level of stress is inversely related to your preparation: it goes down as your preparation goes up. In situations where you can’t be prepared, learn some stress reduction skills, such as relaxation breathing. See “Using Stress Management in Relapse Prevention Therapy (RPT)” and  “Stress Self-Monitoring and Relapse” for more on this.

Stressful interactions with others are common for recovering addicts and alcoholics. They often have high stress people in their lives, meaning people who cause them stress. Often these high stress interactions occur with family members or people the addict or alcoholic is close to. Their stressful behavior, ironically, is often caused by their fear of a relapse with the addict.

This is the first part of my article, “Preventing the Relapse Process.” Part two will describe the four phases of the Relapse Process and it can be found here (after it’s published).

I have read and used Terence Gorski’s material on relapse and recovery for most of my career as an addictions counselor. I’ve read several of his books and booklets; and I’ve completed many of his online training courses. He has a blog, “Terry Gorski’s Blog”, where he graciously shares much of what he has learned, researched and written over the years. This is one of a series of articles based upon the material available on his blog and websites.