How do you know if you’re at risk for an alcohol relapse?
In sobriety, there is always a fear of the dreaded relapse. Am I going to screw this up? Will I end up back where I was?
In fact, according to Alcohol.org, 40-60% of us will relapse at some point in our recovery.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to be one of them. The even better news is that even if, like me, you’ve already had a relapse, it doesn’t mean you have to go through one again.
First, you need to understand common relapse warning signs so you can create a relapse prevention plan to help you get through it.
What Is Relapse?
This could be considered an issue of semantics, but it’s important to distinguish between a slip and relapse. A slip is a mistake or one, maybe two, time(s) thing.
It’s accidentally taking a swig of rum in the piña colada after you explicitly requested non-alcoholic. That’s not your fault and if you left it at that, you’ve had an unfortunate accident but it doesn’t have to mean anything else. Your sobriety is still intact.
Then there’s the kind of slip that IS your fault. It’s having a glass or two of wine at your sister’s wedding and now you’re racked with guilt. Whether or not you decide that your sobriety has to restart is entirely up to you, honestly. That’s not important.
What IS important is that you treat it with the seriousness it deserves and immediately contact your sponsor or support person to put some serious mental work into understanding why you had that drink.
If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for a relapse.
A relapse is returning to active addiction or drinking (whatever word you want to use for it). It’s diving right back into the lifestyle you spent so much hard work escaping.
11 Warning Signs of Relapse You Should Know
Listen, if you thought getting sober was tough the first time, just WAIT until you have to try again after an extended period of sobriety.
It sucks. It’s way harder. And I do not want that for you or your loved ones.
1. You’re struggling to deal with difficult emotions.
Your emotions feel severe.
You’re overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, or grief and you no longer feel like you have any control over your internal world.
In short, you’re spiraling.
It feels like too much and you don’t know how much more you can take.
Tip: Get support immediately.
First thing’s first. Do not drink.
It’s possible that these emotions are a result of post-acute withdrawal symptoms. They are raw, they are difficult, but they will pass.
What you need right now is support. Contact your sponsor, support coach, or counselor. If you do not have one, get one immediately.
Drinking is not going to solve any of these emotional problems. In fact, it will only exacerbate them. Drinking and mental health problems do not mix well.
Now that you’ve stripped away from your chemical crutch, shit’s getting real and you don’t feel like you can do this. I get it.
You CAN, and you need help to do it. Reach out. It will be okay.
2. You aren’t handling life’s ups and downs well.
Your recovery has been going well up to this point. You’ve got your tools, your routine, and your support systems in place. Everything is fantastic! Until it isn’t.
Life is going to throw us curveballs whether we are drinking or not, but you’re having trouble accepting that right now. Maybe it’s the first time you’re dealing with a lot of this stuff without alcohol and it’s testing your resolve.
Your landlord is giving you a hard time. Maybe your boss is a total asshole. You just experienced a breakup.
All those old, familiar emotions are flooding back. You can’t do this. You can’t handle this. Everybody else gets to go to happy hour after work to deal with their boss being a dick. Why can’t you?
As a matter of fact, if your boyfriend/girlfriend thinks they can walk away, just wait and see what happens! You’ll start drinking again and punish them for causing you pain. It’s their fault honestly.
Tip: Allow yourself the space to process and ask for help.
When things get difficult, we tell ourselves all kinds of lies to find permission to drink again. It is easy (and common) to convince yourself that you can’t handle these problems sober. In fact, the first big test in sobriety can be terrifying.
Take a moment to breathe. Assess the situation with a clear head, and if you can’t, refer back to the first tip. Ask for help.
It is okay to admit you are in over your head. We all experience this. How powerful is it to say to yourself, “I’m not going to destroy my sobriety over this, but I’m not sure how to get through it.”
I know it’s a bit redundant from the first point, but having those sobriety support systems in place beforehand can be the difference between relapse and maintaining your sobriety.
Once the overwhelm of the situation subsides, you know that alcohol cannot possibly improve the situation. It’s harder to see that at the moment. We develop a “fuck it” attitude and make some truly destructive choices in the process.
Set yourself up for success and avoid further calamity.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.
3. You’re overconfident.
De’nile ain’t just a river in Egypt, my friend.
If you think you got this sobriety thing down pat and you could never, ever, ever, relapse, I got some bad news for you.
People with twenty years of sobriety and access to better resources than you and I have fallen victim to relapse, often with deadly consequences.
This is not a game.
I am GLAD that you feel good right now. I do too. I can’t imagine any circumstance that would compel me to drink, and YET, I continue to work in order to keep my sobriety every day.
Nobody is immune from slipping back into destructive habits and behaviors.
I’m not suggesting you walk around on pins and needles, constantly afraid of a relapse, but I AM suggesting you stay rooted in reality.
Tip: Guard against complacency.
Have a slice of this humble pie.
Years of heavy drinking harm our brains. You don’t want to risk reintroducing alcohol into a brain and body that used to be psychologically and possibly physically dependent on it.
It doesn’t mean you have to wear a scarlet A on your chest as a forever alcoholic and have it define you, but you need to safeguard your sobriety as vehemently as you would any other achievement.
Are you going to spend two years developing a fitness habit and healthy eating routine only to one day say, “Welp! My body looks good enough. Let me just start eating McDonald’s a few times per week again.”
No. (At least, I hope not.)
Protect your progress.
4. You’ve lost your commitment to recovery.
You’re just not that into it anymore. The meetings? Snooze-fest. Counseling? It’s not doing it for you. In fact, you’ve already started skipping some meetings and appointments. You have better things to do with your time.
This mindset is exactly how people fall back into old patterns and ways of behaving, which inevitably leads back to drinking.
Tip: Find out WHY you’re letting your recovery plan slip.
Proactively step back and ask yourself, “Why am I so put off by this now?”
Has something about the meetings changed for you? If it’s the same as it’s always been, what about you seems different? Has your mood or attitude changed?
Maybe your current counselor isn’t a good fit. Can you schedule with someone else?
Figure out what is turning you off of your recovery plan and commit to handling it. There is no rule that you can’t update your recovery plan or support systems throughout your life, but you cannot abandon them altogether either.
Speak with a sponsor or recovery friend about how you’re feeling and force yourself to keep your commitments while you work through this process.
5. You’re visiting your former drinking spots and hanging with old drinking buddies again.
If you find yourself dipping your toe back in the local watering hole, red flags should be popping up everywhere. In fact, if you find yourself returning to any old patterns formerly associated with your drinking, please understand that you are test-driving your relapse right now.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you can never go back to the ole pub or see your drinking pals again. This isn’t that.
If you’re trying to finagle your way back into your old drinking world, chances are you WILL join in and end up right back where you started.
Tip: Stop going to old drinking spots immediately and get support.
What’s pulling you back to this place and these people? What’s missing that you’re trying to fill?
You need to reach out to your support systems, check-in with friends and family who are supportive of your recovery, and get to the bottom of what has you stalking your old stomping ground like some creepy ex.
Sometimes sobriety isn’t the liberating, happy life we hoped it would be. Drinking was terrible, but at least we weren’t alone. Sobriety is too hard. You don’t want to feel like this anymore.
These are major relapse warning signs, my friend, and I promise you can get through it and find your place in this new, sober world.
This is why isolation is so dangerous and why finding your new sober tribe is a key aspect of a healthy recovery.
6. You’ve got a major attitude change and it’s not a good one.
You used to be very gung ho about this whole recovery thing. You went to meetings and therapy sessions. Every day, you stuck to your routine. You were a shining star in your Facebook Group.
But that pep in your step? It’s gone.
It’s being replaced with resentment and bitterness. You don’t want to attend these meetings anymore. Counseling? Why should you have to keep doing this? NORMAL people don’t have to do this stuff? In fact, it’s pissing you off that you’re still doing this shit.
You’re beginning to hate all of it.
Tip: Acknowledge that something is going on with you.
One of the most powerful tools in sobriety (and life) is the ability to step back from yourself, recognize that something is different, and commit to changing it.
If you notice that your attitude has shifted, don’t just ride the wave. Check yourself. Why are you acting like this? Did something happen? Are you dealing with some depression right now?
Even though it runs contrary to EVERYTHING you’re feeling right now, reach out to your support systems, even if you hate all of them.
I guarantee you somebody in your group, your sponsor, or counselor knows exactly what you’re going through.
People have been where you are right now and got through it. Let them help you.
7. Your routine is starting to change.
In your early sobriety days, you had a whole new routine geared towards health and wellness down to a science.
You made some critical lifestyle changes and completely restructured your day and free time in ways that supported your sobriety and long-term goals.
But now? Things are slipping.
You’re skipping meals. Maybe you’re going to bed later or sleeping in till noon. That cool cycling class you’ve been keeping up with? You haven’t gone in two weeks.
Whereas we’re all guilty of skipping workouts or ignoring an alarm here and there, it should be taken as another relapse warning sign if it’s becoming the norm.
When we start giving up the things that are good for us, we naturally gravitate back towards things that are not. In this case, drinking.
Tip: Get back on track immediately.
Pay more attention to your routine and force yourself to recommit to this new lifestyle. If you need to start over by slowly reintroducing healthier routines back into your life, then do that. The important thing is to reprioritize your healthy routines.
If you feel like you can’t, you’re resentful of your life all of the sudden, or angry about eating well or getting up early, there’s something deeper going on there that you need to address.
Check-in with your support systems right away.
8. You feel out of control.
If you are experiencing extreme overwhelm and hopelessness right now you are at risk of relapse.
If you don’t get a handle on what’s causing you to feel this way, you may find yourself giving in and getting wasted just to feel better.
Extreme emotional fluctuations are serious. Ask for help. Rely on your support systems and don’t try to white knuckle your way through it.
I’m not going to add an additional relapse prevention tip here, because this boils down to recognizing when you need help and asking for it, which we’ve talked about several times already (notice a theme?).
9. You’re romanticizing your drinking days.
Ooohhhhh, this is a juicy one!
Have you caught yourself feeling a bit nostalgic lately? Are you frequently engaging in conversations with others (or yourself), reminiscing over the wine-filled girl’s trip to Italy or the raucous Hurricane-fueled New Orleans trip last March?
Do you find yourself longing for a nice, stiff drink and a cigarette on the patio?
If so, you’re in a bit of trouble, my friend.
There is nothing good awaiting you at the end of this trip down Memory Lane. Nothing. Nada.
We often start fantasizing about our drinking days when our current life is lacking the satisfaction we want out of it.
Maybe you’re bored. Or perhaps you feel like you’re missing out on all the boozy adventures your friends are having without you.
It could also be that you think you’ve got this “problem” beat and can start drinking moderately. Whatever the case, this is something you need to deal with, and FAST.
Tip: Play the tape forward.
Whenever I find myself thinking fondly of my drinking days, I remind myself what happened AFTER the good part. Sure, the first few puffs on a cigarette and sips of a drink feel AWESOME.
Like, really, really, really good.
And then after a while, you start to feel congested. Maybe you’re coughing a little. What started off as an engaging, riveting whiskey conversation is devolving into messy foolishness.
In fact, you’re having an out-of-body experience where you’re running your mouth a mile a minute, telling people things they have no business (or interest) in knowing.
Whoa. Is that your phone? Who are you messaging right now? Oh, the ex! Smart.
It’s later in the night and your head is spinning. You just threw up and are now shoveling nachos into your mouth because, why not? Caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, and YIKES! No matter. The party won’t stop!
Until it’s bedtime and you have the spins. So. Bad.
You’ve lost count of how many times you have thrown up and in the morning you know you’ll have the hangover from hell.
Do the good ole days still seem good?
Always play the tape forward. Human beings are woefully good at filtering out the bad parts of our memories and focusing on the “good.” You have to force yourself to remember all aspects of your drinking in order to protect your sobriety.
10. You’re pushing people away.
You’re not entirely sure why, but your friends and family are getting on your nerves.
Everyone who has been there for you and supported your sobriety is annoying you. If your cousin, who picked you up from rehab, sends you another “Hey! How you feeling!” message on WhatsApp you’re going to scream!
In fact, you’ve already started ignoring a lot of these people and are spending more time alone. You don’t respond in a timely manner to your mom when she reaches out and you’ve set your phone to Do Not Disturb so that Anthony from boot camp can’t reach you when it’s time for class.
If you find yourself rejecting your friends and family, it can be a sign that you’re preparing to relapse.
Whether you realize it or not, distancing yourself from the people who are most supportive of your sobriety and wellness is freeing yourself up to go back to the bad habits and people of your previous life.
It’s like breaking up with someone because they’re just too nice and going back to your douchebag ex. In other words, you’re self-sabotaging.
Tip: Be honest with people about what you’re going through.
For whatever reason, you’re acting like you don’t deserve positive people in your life right now and that’s something you need to work through.
Recognize that this could be a sign you’re about to mess up and then ask for help. Be honest with people. Even if you don’t understand why you’re feeling like this, you can at least recognize that these people have been there for you in the past and deserve your transparency.
Hey, I don’t know what’s up but I’m not feeling like myself lately. I know you’re trying to look out for me. I appreciate it. I’m working on it and don’t want you to take it personally or as a rejection.
Call up your counselor, sponsor, or attend a meeting. Open up about what you’re going through. We find so many ways to let resentments fester. Commit to working through whatever you’re experiencing with people who are outside of the situation.
It really does help.
11. You’re becoming self-absorbed.
Early on in sobriety, you were actively participating in and supporting your recovery brothers and sisters. You volunteered. You even offered to housesit for your sister and take care of her cat while she was away.
Not so much.
These days you have nothing to talk about that doesn’t revolve around you and your feelings. In fact, you rarely think of much else. These feelings you can’t escape? They aren’t good ones.
You’re disappointed with your life. You feel bored. You’re not happy. Nothing is going the way you want it to go. You had a vision for your life up to this point and you haven’t lived up to it.
It’s gotten to the point now, if someone tries to talk to you about their stuff, you expertly manage to turn the conversation around back onto you and your sad feelings.
An inability to connect or empathize with other people and a tendency towards self-absorbency is a common characteristic of alcoholism.
It’s something we have to actively work on. If we don’t, we continue to retreat inward which often leads back to drinking.
Tip: Work on your mental health.
You could very well be dealing with depression right now and should act accordingly.
If you’re not already seeing a mental health specialist or therapist, find one now.
I guarantee that whatever you would spend on getting trashed on the regular would be much more than the cost of online therapy. Give it a try.
Isolation is so bad for our health and sometimes we need another person to help us navigate the roots of our withdrawal from friends. I’ve had many times in my life when I just could not get out of my own head and had no idea why.
These are the moments you need to get help.
What to do if you’re experiencing signs of relapse.
If you found yourself nodding your head “yes” to any of these warning signs, you need to take it seriously. I’m not suggesting there is a five-alarm fire in your life, but there could be some smoke.
You’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this point. Even if you’ve only been sober one week or one day, you put in some serious effort to get there.
It’s not worth giving up so easily.
Sobriety and recovery are hard. No two days are alike. The important thing is to have your support system in place and to recognize the warning signs that you may be headed for a huge mistake.
If you feel you need immediate help, please reach out to an alcohol support line.
As always, if you’d like more support, we have an incredible, private Soberish Facebook Group you are welcome to join.
I am rooting for you!
If you’re struggling and don’t know where to turn, please contact a dedicated addiction hotline for support and resources.
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