What is relapse prevention for addiction?
In a lamp lit room, a group of six casually dressed people sit in chairs which are arranged in a circle. All, but one, seem to be engaged in two or three different conversations as a more formally dressed woman enters the room. She sits in one of the vacant seats of the circle as the people in the room gradually turn their eyes toward her. “Good morning,” she says, “you guys are a bubbly group this morning.” She smiles wryly as a tall gray-haired man in the group says, “Well, Amy started it.” He turns his gaze onto a thirty-year-old blonde woman sitting to his left who smiles as she begins to explain, “I picked up my six-month chip last night. It’s the longest I have been sober since I started drinking fifteen years ago.” Members of the group all offer her their congratulations in various ways. John, the quiet one, glances up quickly and says in a flat voice, “Keep up the good work, Amy.” “You don’t seem yourself today, John. What is going on with you,” asks the more formally dressed woman, a therapist facilitating this relapse prevention therapy group. Looking down at the floor, John reveals to the group that he used yesterday.
Like everyone else in this therapy group, John is an addict. Most of the people in the room have at least 90 days clean and are now working on relapse prevention skills. If they are not actively using drugs or alcohol, why are they still in treatment? What are relapse prevention skills? And, what is a “relapse”?
One reason to remain in treatment after discontinuing the use of substances is because the physiological addiction is only part of the challenge. Long after the individual has ceased substance use, the psychological and behavioral elements of addiction remain. Many addicts struggle with how to cope with stress, celebrate, socialize, or even go to sleep without relying on a substance. These elements of addiction need to be addressed or most addicts slip right back into substance use.
Another aspect to consider is that “withdrawal symptoms” can actually last for up to two years after cessation of use. While the acute symptoms may alleviate within a few weeks, there are “post acute” withdrawal symptoms that follow. During this time, changes that occur in the brain, as the brain is adjusting to no longer having the effects of the substance use, can trigger a person to want to use. It can even cause them to have very vivid dreams of using that are so real, the individual may have trouble telling the difference between the dream and reality.
This is what happened to John mentioned earlier. He awoke one morning having had a “using dream.” It felt real, as if he had used his drug of choice and actually felt high. Realizing this was a dream, he tried to put it out of his mind, but he just kept thinking about it. He didn’t share his struggles with anyone, feeling like a dream was a silly thing with which to trouble his sponsor and other friends. Later that day, he received a call from an old using buddy whose car had broken down and who needed a ride. John picked up his friend, and when he dropped that friend off, the friend repaid him for his help with his drug of choice. John tried to decline, but his friend left the drugs on the seat of the car and waved goodbye. John returned home to an empty apartment and used.
The bottom line is, getting sober is different from staying sober. To recover from substance addiction requires learning a new lifestyle, developing a support system that will help you maintain that lifestyle, and learning how to cope with life on life’s terms… without using. The relapse prevention phase of treatment focuses on achieving these goals. While someone, like John, might slip up and use while in the process of learning such skills, they can remain connected with support and treatment, using the experience as a learning tool, and preventing a complete return to his/her former way of life.
After John shared with the group, they offered him support. Amy said, “John, I know how hard it was to come in here and say that. I know I’d be worried that people would judge me, so thank you for sharing and showing us that it is safe to do so.” Others chimed in and echoed Amy’s commendation. One group member shared, “When I feel like I want to use, I call someone from our group and call my sponsor. I keep calling numbers until I get someone on the phone.” Another said, “When I am craving, I get out of wherever I am and go somewhere safe. I like to walk on the beach. It clears my mind and calms me down.” Then, the therapist facilitated a discussion around the various elements of John’s story and the skills that any group member could use should any of them face similar things in the future.
- I am a Psychologist and Clinical Addictions Specialist at the Chrysalis Center. I have successfully treated individuals who struggle with addiction for eight years. I also treat individuals with binge eating, anxiety, depression, and trauma challenges. To schedule an appointment to see me, please call the Chrysalis Center at 910.790.9500. ~Lillian Hood, LPA, LCAS
*John and Amy are fictional characters used to demonstrate the real experience that individuals under these circumstances tend to face.