In my experience, and in my opinion, the biggest warning sign that an alcoholic or an addict is about to relapse is frustration and anger.
More specifically, this frustration will have a selfish quality to it, which is essentially the person saying “The world owes me something and it is unfair what is happening to me.” Another way that this frustration can manifest is the thought that “everyone else is wrong and I am right, why doesn’t anyone else see this but me?”
So what we want to look at in a practical sense is how to identify when you are slipping into this kind of thinking, and then what can be done about it so that you “catch yourself” and avoid relapse.
So let us look at how this would work out in the real world. How do you catch yourself when your thinking is shifting into negativity, self centered thoughts, and so on?
One way is by carefully monitoring your own thought process, which can be done using one of two techniques that I can tell you about (there are certainly more).
The first is to write in a journal every day. If you force yourself to write down your thoughts on a daily basis, and just do an emotional “brain dump” onto the page, then you will get some clarity about where your mind is really at lately. As you do this every day you will start to become more and more aware of your emotional temperament. You will also notice that if you write down your thoughts and emotions every day then you will not need to worry as much, because you wrote everything down and so your brain does not panic about having to remember everything. Also you will start to notice new connections between the various areas of your life experience that you may not have noticed in the past. You can draw practical conclusions and see the lessons in life much easier if you are documenting your thoughts every day in this manner.
And of course, if you are writing down your emotions every day in a journal then it is much easier for you to notice when your attitude starts to shift into the negative.
Now a second technique that has worked well for me is to engage in seated meditation. When you meditate, what you really do for a while is you sit with your eyes closed and you just breathe, and in doing so you are basically “watching your thoughts.” Now you are of course not trying to think any thoughts in particular, and you are doing the practice to achieve an “empty mind,” but you will notice that random thoughts do pop up. So you just watch them and dismiss them and let them go, and try to return back to the empty mind.
If you engage in this sort of practice then you get a huge benefit from doing so in terms of self awareness. It is much like the benefit that you get from journal writing in that you start to see new connections in your life and you increase your awareness about what is really going on inside of you. As we rush through life and we rush through our day to day tasks we do not always take the time to really feel out our own emotions and get a real sense of our true emotional state. Taking the time to pause and to meditate allows us to get a grip on where we are really at emotionally.
Keep in mind that relapse is not so much an intellectual event as much as it is an emotional meltdown. When someone relapses and takes that first drink or drug, they are emotionally upset and basically saying “screw it, screw everything, I am just going to self medicate now, I don’t care any more.”
Your job in recovery is to keep caring, to keep maintaining the path of recovery and to care about your life and the lives of the people around you. If you stop caring then that becomes your excuse to relapse. So you have to figure out how to keep caring, how to keep a positive attitude, and how to keep a healthy hope for the future.
When you are in very early recovery, especially if you attend inpatient rehab, you are going to hear a lot about the concept of “this being a we program” rather than a “me program.” What this means is that we need other people in order to recover from addiction, and a big part of this is the accountability that we get from having fellowship with others in recovery.
So maybe you go to AA after rehab and you start to hit some meetings and you are learning from the other recovering alcoholics who attend that meeting. But in addition to this you also get direct support from these people in the form of accountability–you know that if you don’t show up they are going to start asking questions, they want to know if you are alright.
Also, as you start to associate with people who are in recovery, you will realize that they have a pulse on your mood and can tell if you are out of sorts. At such a time they will likely confront you about your bad mood, which is exactly what we want to see happening when we are in early recovery. That way, you don’t continue to sulk your way into a worse and worse mood until you are suddenly at the point that you justify a relapse, and instead your peers in recovery can talk to you in a proactive way.
Many times we are too close to our own problems to be able to really see them and diagnose them. Many times our problems that we have, as addicts and alcoholics, that are really self created problems. They may be character defects that we are clinging to, that we are responsible for, that we don’t really want to let go of just yet. And many times our peers can see how we are self destructing even when we cannot see it for ourselves.
This is why we need people in order to recover. This is why we need to have a strong support system, especially in early recovery, so that we can tell when “we are going off the rails” and heading for a relapse. We can try to hold ourselves accountable with things like meditation and journal writing, but in order to truly protect ourselves we need to be involved with a group of peers who gets to know us better and can watch us and hold us accountable to some degree. If we are down and in a funk then we need people who can pull us back out of it. If we are angry and picking fights over every little thing we need people who can detect that chip on our shoulder and tell us to back off and calm it down. And we need people who can grab us by the ear and drag us off to an AA meeting, or just take us out to coffee so that we can talk about the really important stuff that is eating us up inside.
The big warning sign is a shift in your own attitude, in how you perceive the world and to some extent, how you look at yourself. Once you notice that is shifting into negativity, use the techniques outlined here to bring yourself back to positive action. Good luck!