The road to recovery is rarely smooth and easy. It’s highly uncommon for a person to decide they’re going to quit, immediately do so, and then never touch the substance that they abused again. More commonly, there will be relapses along that road, but knowing some of the most common triggers for these relapses can help an addict avoid them or at least prepare for them.
What Exactly Is a Relapse?
Before we get to the triggers, we should probably talk about what a relapse actually is. Is an alcoholic having a sip of beer a relapse? Or does he need to go on a bender for it to “count?” Does the addict need to be completely clean before a relapse can occur, or is it a relapse if someone uses more often when they’d been “cutting back?”
While these questions get asked a lot, ultimately the answers don’t really matter much. It’s mostly a matter of semantics. How often is a recovering alcoholic going to have “a sip” of beer? If an addict has just “cut back,” are they really clean? And what’s the point of a distinction between the two?
The goal of a recovering addict is to break free of actively using the substance that they’re addicted to. A relapse is simply when they’ve succeeded for a period of time, and then go back to using. The amounts before and after are really irrelevant – the goal is no usage at all.
Does Every Addict Relapse?
A common misconception about addiction is that it can be cured. This simply isn’t true. While it most certainly is a physical affliction in the ways that it affects an addict’s body and neurological chemistry, it is not a disease that can be cured. An addict can manage the symptoms and see marked improvement in their ability to resist their addiction, but it’s not something that will ever fully go away.
That being said, not everyone relapses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that around 50% of addicts relapse after undergoing treatment. Learning that about half of all addicts relapse can be disheartening for some as they begin treatment – but it’s too easy to look at the negative side of things. These statistics tell you that nearly half of all addicts that undergo treatment don’t relapse at all! For such an enormous change and something that can so drastically improve your quality of life, that’s absolutely worth the effort. And if there’s a relapse, that just means it’s time to try again.
Common Relapse Triggers
Now to the matter at hand – what are some of the common causes of relapse?
1) Proximity to the substance.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but often people think that with enough willpower they can continue to live their lives exactly as they did before, just without using. But simply being around the substance that they were addicted is usually too much temptation. Even when not around it, an addict (even a long-time recovering addict) will still feel cravings for the substance. When close enough to it to see it, smell it, see other people partaking in it – that multiplies those cravings exponentially.
2) Being around people associated with use.
When an addict is using, they often form social circles that center on that particular substance. They form strong associations between these people and usage to the point where simply being around them can trigger strong cravings, even if they are not using at the time. Not to mention that being around people that are still using almost guarantees that one of them will offer to join at some point – and active temptation like that can be extremely difficult to resist.
3) Being in places associated with use.
This one is much like number two, but even absent people associated with use, just being in places that remind the addict of use can trigger relapse. Alcoholics often have a particularly difficult time with this one, as there are no shortage of bars to be around. Drug users on the road to recovery can have a difficult time with travel, though, as drug use is very often associated with hotel rooms, and simply being in one can trigger an emotional response and a need to use. Often the places that can trigger these feelings aren’t even something the addict actively thinks about, but they can be powerful triggers.
4) High Stress.
Stress is one of the most common triggers of relapse, because it is almost impossible to completely avoid. The act of recovery itself can be stressful, which is why one of the most important parts of any recovery attempt is to build a support system to lean on when times get hard. Stress may have been what drove the addict to use in the first place, and if that’s been their long-time coping mechanism for difficulty, it’s imperative that they find new outlets for those situations.
This is a tricky one, because aren’t feelings of elation and joy exactly what we’re trying to increase with recovery? Of course they are, but often an addict has strong associations between celebrations and using. Weddings, birthdays, etc. can create a strong desire to use again, often rationalized as a “one-time reward” or a “special occasion.” While an addict shouldn’t be trying to avoid celebrations altogether, these are times where going in with a plan and a support system already in place can be imperative.
These are just a few of the most common triggers for relapse in addicts. There are countless others, and often the addict won’t even know that they exist until they encounter them. But being aware of what may trigger a relapse can help plan for, avoid, and mitigate their effect in daily life.