Addiction isn’t something you experience once that simply goes away—it’s a chronic disease, one which has a biological basis much the same as any other chronic illness. That’s true whether you live in Fresno, California or Topeka, Kansas.
Said differently, being addicted doesn’t mean you’re a bad or weak person, any more than you’re a bad or weak person if you have diabetes or heart disease. However, as with other chronic illnesses, it does mean you need effective addiction treatment. And it does mean you need to learn all you can about your addictive behavior to avoid the very real possibility of relapse.
“THERE’S NO WAY I’M GOING DOWN THAT ROAD AGAIN”
Most people don’t leave addiction treatment thinking, “I bet I’ll be back here in a few weeks.” Most people genuinely want to get well and will do everything they can to do what their counselor and physician tell them to.
Even so, as Psychology Today correctly points out, for individuals in recovery, relapse is as much the rule than the exception:
“Addiction relapse is common. Studies suggest that approximately half of all individuals who try to get sober return to heavy use…In other words, not many people say, “I want to get sober,” walk into a treatment center, and never use drugs again…As with chemical addiction, patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension frequently fail to comply with their ongoing treatments – relapsing, if you will, oftentimes with dire consequences.”
WHAT THINGS ARE LIKELY TO TRIGGER RELAPSE?
In the first place, avoiding relapse means many things, everything from ensuring you’re truly on the road to recovery before you leave treatment to establishing an effective support network of people you can turn to when you need help. In the second, no two people who struggle with addiction are precisely the same.
And because addiction is different for different people, it’s not enough to understand addiction theoretically. To avoid relapse, you need also need to understand yourself. What specific factors, in other words, contributed to your addictive behavior?
That said, for most people, there are key situations, behaviors, emotions—and even people—that are more likely to trigger addiction than others, including the following 5:
- Locations: addictive behavior tends to be associated with key locations. It could be an apartment where you regularly drank with a friend or a restaurant you frequented where you tended to have “one too many.” Take the time to make a list of all the places you drank or did drugs before your treatment. Then make a firm commitment to avoid returning to those locations.
- People: for some people, addiction is something that happens in isolation, away from friends, family members and coworkers. But for many, it’s a social activity. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that friendships (and even marriages) can be grounded in addictive behavior. And the people with whom you shared alcohol or drugs don’t change simply because you do. Returning to those relationships is among the most dangerous triggers for relapse. To protect yourself, and your recovery, it’s important to explain to those people that you’re fully committed to recovery—and that if they intend to continue with their addiction, you need to steer clear of them.
- Resentment and anger: as anyone who’s read “Alcoholics Anonymous” or been through treatment knows, there are two primary emotions that fuel addiction: resentment and anger. A third is self-pity. It’s important to recognize the roots of your own resentment and anger during treatment, but it’s equally important to recognize them if they return during recovery. Said differently, the only person who can avoid relapse is you. If you find yourself blaming or becoming resentful of others for our addiction, you need to think carefully about the changes only you can make to ensure a successful recovery.
- Stress and anxiety: everyone to some degree experiences stress and anxiety. For someone battling addiction, however, inordinate stress can mean a return to your addiction. Of course, stress is a part of life and you can’t avoid it entirely. What you can do is recognize those situations which tend to cause extreme stress and avoid them.
- Regret: if you’ve spent months or years engaged in addictive behavior, you probably missed opportunities in your career and personal life. Perhaps you lost a job or your home. You might also have become estranged from members of your family. But focusing on the things you’ve lost can inadvertently take you back into the cycle of addiction. Recovery is a time when you need to focus what you still have, and what you can do in the future. Said differently, to avoid relapse, concentrate on the glass being half full—not half empty.
It’s true that about half of people who successfully complete rehab will eventually relapse. But that also means that about half don’t. The difference between those who “stay clean” and those who don’t is the honest recognition of the factors that led to addiction in the first place and a willingness to alter your behavior in the future. The most potent weapon in your recovery arsenal, in other words, is an effective strategy that comprehends the things most likely to trigger relapse, and scrupulously avoids those things “one day at a time.”