ThedaCare: Relapse is not an event, it’s a process

Compulsive Behaviors Indicate Potential for Relapse

September is National Recovery Month, and it’s an opportunity to learn more about what it means for a person to seek help for an addiction and the challenges he or she faces to attain recovery and stay sober. In my work as a substance abuse counselor at ThedaCare Behavioral Health, I have a special interest in helping people in recovery to prevent relapse. Many people think that a relapse, or return to using drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety, is an in-the-moment decision; however, relapse is generally not a singular event. Most often, it’s a process that takes place over a few weeks or months, and sometimes even years. Research shows that people in recovery start to exhibit thought patterns and behaviors far in advance of their actual return to using. For people in recovery, their families, and counselors, the key is to recognize these behaviors and intervene before active addiction begins again.

Many behaviors that hint at a potential relapse are compulsive in nature. These behaviors—compulsive shopping, exercise, sex, work, or use of other drugs including “safe” drugs like caffeine or nicotine—are indicators a person is feeling uncomfortable and increasingly susceptible to relapse. It is a good idea to develop new interests and friend groups, especially if a person is separating from friends or routines that involve using. The key is to engage in new activities in a healthy way, where the person in recovery maintains free choice and control over his or her activities. When a person seeks pleasure in a new interest, like cooking, exercising, or even redecorating, the objective is to engage in these activities as positive outlets. A positive outlet is different from a compulsive behavior because it is a healthy, moderated pleasure that does not result in pain after-the-fact.

The pain-producing process can go like this: an interest in cooking could turn into a food addiction, and redecorating can lead to unrestrained shopping and spending. A person who begins to exercise can develop a substitute addiction that results in an obsession that rivals the same harmful addiction he or she once had to drugs or alcohol: time away from family, excessive spending, and feelings of moodiness and withdrawal when exercise is not possible or accessible. When the individual in recovery, or his or her family, sponsor, or counselor recognizes the development of a compulsive behavior it’s an indication that a relapse could be on the horizon.