It starts with a sign

So much for having less to say…

A close friend told me that a man from my regular recovery meeting relapsed after five years of sobriety. She saw him at another meeting and was humbled by how proud he was to be celebrating Day 6…again.

I cringe at stories like this because they seem hopeless at first glance. Why bother with sobriety if we’re all bound to relapse? The relapse rate is somewhere around 50-90%, although it varies according to gender (women are less likely to relapse than men), the severity of addiction, length of treatment, support systems in place, etc. Every time I hear about someone who seemed to “get it” relapsing, I remind myself that doesn’t mean I have to.

The topic of relapse isn’t talked about often, probably because it’s so scary. When I first got sober, I was seeing a therapist.  Once I remember telling her I was nervous about a party we were throwing in my first month of sobriety. I told her my husband had picked me up some non-alcoholic beer to have on hand, just in case. She asked me “Do you think drinking them would be a step towards or away from relapse?” Opinions differ greatly on non-alcoholic beer in recovery, and I personally don’t have a problem with someone else drinking it (why would I?), but for me the answer was clear. I could tell myself I used to drink beer because I liked the taste, but the truth is I only liked the really boozy beers. I never liked and rarely drank light lager, which is what non-alcoholic beer reminds me of. So I didn’t drink the fake beer and I always kept her question in the back of my mind.

I also learned from this therapist that relapse isn’t simply picking up a drink one day. It’s a gradual, often slow process that happens so discreetly we may not notice the signs. This is the reason I wish it was talked about more. Here is a basic primer on relapse warning signs based on research by Gorski. The warning signs that struck me most are feeling stuck in the recovery process and denying that this and other stressors are getting to us. I am the queen of denial. Always have been, trying hard not to be, but it’s easy to fall back into that pattern of clamming up when stress piles on. Everything is not fine. Admitting that is a step away from relapse.

I can definitely see myself in some of the 11 warning signs. I tend to isolate normally because I’m an introvert, so this is where I need to tailor the list to fit me. I know if I start finding myself keeping secrets and bottling up frustration and fear, that’s a sign I’m getting closer to a relapse. If I stop making time for the things that help me feel good (morning runs, for example), that’s a big red flag. Everyone is different, so that’s why I really liked my old therapist’s advice: if you’re not sure about doing something, ask yourself if it’s a step closer to or away from a relapse. If you’re still not sure, get another opinion, preferably someone you know has your best interests at heart or a friend in recovery (often one and the same!).

Recovery is like marriage…it’s hard work. Some days I’m breezing along, enjoying the hell out of it, appreciating my new, better life. Other days I question everything, expect I should have more than I do and generally feel like I’m doing it all wrong. When I get like this, something is wrong and that’s a sign I need to dig deeper. I am pretty out of touch with my feelings after a lifetime of practice, so I need simple signs to look for. Not everyone is this dense, fortunately.

I’m glad the guy from my meeting came back. No matter what happens, if we do relapse we always have the choice and chance to come back. There is hope in this too.

12 thoughts on “It starts with a sign

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  1. I love this simple, but powerful suggestion, “if you’re not sure about doing something, ask yourself if it’s a step closer to or away from a relapse.” We have to be so ridiculously careful about not going down the wrong path. Thanks for this!


  2. What a great, great post. i’ve been sober 19 months now and every time i hear a relapse story in the Rooms, i always pay close attention because i don’t ever want to get to a point where i become blasé about my recovery. That link was certainly food for thought, as were your personal observations because i, too, am an introvert who tends to isolate. Thank You!


  3. I shouldn’t read that list – like when I read medical sites, in two seconds I’ve diagnosed myself with the worst form of the condition possible! However it is a good pointer… yes you know one thing without a doubt I’ve become a bit isolated from my regular recovery friends – I need to fix that one.

    Secondly I often thank those that come back after a relapse – they are a) very brave b) helping me not go there as they come back and say “You know what, it was as bad as ever before”… I need to hear that stuff from time to time


    1. Yeah, my intention was not to put any ideas in anyone’s head, for sure. The reason I’m so fixated on relapse signs is because I personally have been struggling. I don’t even think I realized how much. Nice to hear from you.


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