You’re clean and sober. You’re headed in the right direction. And the most important thing now is to stay that way, heading up the road to recovery and a life without addiction.
While everyone in recovery wants to stay in recovery, relapse can happen to anyone. In truth, recovery is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute journey away from dysfunction. Relapse is only a heartbeat away.
But you can keep it there if you know the signs of impending relapse, and ways to avoid falling into its traps.
Post-Acute Withdrawal (PAW) There are some things you should understand—really, truly grasp with head and heart—if you are to beat the relapse monster into shape. These include post-acute withdrawal and the stages of relapse. Let’s look at each one in turn so you can arm yourself with valuable knowledge and empower your road to recovery.
Post-acute withdrawal lasts for roughly the first two years or so of your recovery. That’s a long time on one hand, and a short blip on the other. Why? Because when you are in the midst of an episode, it can feel like forever. However, when the first couple of years are over, it’s a thing of the past. Post-acute withdrawal is caused by the brain and body coming back into a normal state of being. Addiction and dysfunctional behaviors like eating disorders truly do a number on your body chemistry. It can take a long while to get back to status quo. In the meantime, you can expect to unexpectedly find yourself experiencing:
- Mood swings
- Problems sleeping
- Problems concentrating
- Energy highs and lows
- Feeling “blah” or tired
These will start off changing by the hour, and then gradually subside until they disappear for weeks, or even months at a time. They will usually last for a few days. If you can accept the challenge and hang on to your recovery for a few days, things will even out again and you’ll be fine. It’s like surfing—the wave isn’t going to last forever. Just ride it out. If you can hang on for the two or so years it takes for post-acute withdrawal to disappear altogether, you’ll have a much better chance at real, long-term recovery.
The best way to deal with post-acute withdrawal is to be patient. Be patient and realize that you’ve had a lot more good days in your recovery than bad. Be patient and take care of yourself. If you’re having an episode, don’t try to do too much or to carry on as if nothing is happening. Be patient and know that after a couple of years, you won’t have to go through these acute episodes anymore. Be patient with yourself and with your symptoms. Accept that it is a part of recovery, and that there’s nothing you can do to make it go away, just as there was nothing you did to make it come back. Be patient.
The Stages of Relapse
We discussed post-acute withdrawal before getting to relapse itself because it is a huge factor in many relapses. There are three stages of relapse, and post-acute withdrawal can be a trigger for the first, which is emotional relapse.
1. Emotional Relapse
In emotional relapse, you aren’t really thinking about returning to your old ways, but your behaviors and emotional state are setting you up for it. You’ll find yourself:
- Isolating yourself
- Not seeking help
- Not going to meetings
- Not sleeping or eating well
- Suffering mood swings
Sounds a lot like post-acute withdrawal doesn’t it? That’s because, in a way, it is. That’s why knowing and recognizing the symptoms is vital to avoiding relapse. And the earlier you can pull back from relapse, the better and easier it is. So, practice self-care. Be patient and go with the flow, but don’t go it alone. Seek help. Get out and amongst friends and supportive folks. Get over the hump of a few days of post-acute withdrawal and get back to the business of happy, healthy living.
2. Mental Relapse
The second stage of relapse is mental relapse. This is when you start thinking about falling back into your old ways. Part of you wants to, but part of still wants to stay clean. You’ll find yourself doing the following:
- Associating with your old “habit” buddies
- Thinking about relapsing
- Fantasizing about your old behavior
- Glamorizing your old behavior
- Planning your relapse around someone else’s schedule
- Thinking about the people, places, and things associated with your old behavior
The best thing you can do to avoid relapse at this stage is to play that fantasy through—and don’t cut out the unglamorous parts of it. Play that mental tape all the way to the credits, and remind yourself of just how ugly your past behavior really was. Then, find some support. Call a friend, a sponsor, or a therapist. Talk to someone. Distract yourself with something other than thinking about your past. Also, make sure that relaxation and patience are part of your daily routine. Remember, recovery is a day-by-day, minute-by-minute thing. Be patient and those thoughts will go. Relax and those stressors might not come around at all.
3. Physical relapse
Physical relapse occurs when you actually physically make the choice to partake in the addictive substance again. Catch yourself before it’s too late. Stop the train before it plunges off the broken bridge. Recognize that you are the only one who can, but not the only one who can help. Be patient. Love yourself. You can get through any early relapse. You can pull back from any mental relapse, too. And if you do succumb to physical relapse, it doesn’t mean it’s over. It just means you start again. You only fail if you stop trying. But you don’t have to let it get this far.
If you are an addict who is currently experiencing emotional, mental, or physical relapse, there is hope. Reach out for help and give yourself the same compassion and support you would give to someone else in need—someone you love.
Although the waves are rough, ride them out and you’ll be guided safely to shore…
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