8 stages of addict relapse and what to do

8 stages of addict relapse and what to do
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Relapse and the Addict

Exact figures are impossible to determine, but somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of all addicts relapse at least once before achieving permanent recovery.  So 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do is a big deal. Confusion of the addict and family is always the first BIG mistake we make when it comes to relapse. No, we have to know what to do, to the letter, long before the event ever occurs, so wrote that stuff down, or you may be getting lost before you even get started. The Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous is direct about the situation, as Richard Dunn describes in his article here:

If we relapse, we may feel guilt and embarrassment.  Our relapse is embarrassing, but we cannot save our face and our ass at the same time…  It is better to swallow our pride than to die or go permanently insane.  (page 79)

Slips, falls and relapse are usually facts of life in the recovery process.  Only a few recover fully on the first try, so knowing 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do is mega important.  Addiction does not develop overnight, nor does recovery.  Relapse can be devastating to the recovering person, friends and family.  The general response is to snarl out loudly an equivalent of that tired accusation:  “Once a junkie always a junkie”.  After all, everyone elevated their hopes and warmed themselves around the promising fire of early recovery, only to have their worst fears realised.  For relapsers and their loved ones it is one blow too many.

In some ways relapse is more difficult to accept and work through than was the discovery of chemical dependency.  Read that again. The constant threat of relapse is intimidating and unpredictable, dangling over the heads of everyone involved.  The stark reality of relapse is an obscene intrusion, like a tragic death in the family.  People typically respond with anger, cynicism, resentment and a deep sense of failure and depression.  It reopens the wounds that were finally beginning to heal.  The first reaction is defeat; the addict cringes, allowing relapse to violate him or her like a rape.  They feel like helpless victims.  But these are temporary feelings, not permanent realities. 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do will help addicts and families get their acts together far sooner than any conversations will. The avoidance in the conversations, the minimizing, the last chances and the nonsensical rubbish that we blurt out to stay in relapse can boggle the best of minds. It is a cunning, baffling and super powerful disease. 

8 stages of addict relapse and what to do
+27 44 533 0330 for help with relapse and drug prevention

Paradoxically, relapse is often the best teacher the addict will ever have.  Many learn a potent lesson from relapse which apparently can’t be learned any other way.  8 stages of addict relapse and what to do will set the addict straight, and it will remove all doubt of what to do next, which must be immediate if you want less pain and drama. The NA Basic Text says:

A relapse may provide the charge for the demolition process.  A relapse and sometimes subsequent death of someone close to us can do the job of awakening us to the necessity of some vigorous personal action. (page 72)

Some of the best recoveries are achieved by relapsers.  They can’t submit passively to relapse; they must stand and fight.  Relapse is the fire that separates pure gold from impurities.  Addicts are notorious for learning everything the hard way.  Why should recovery be any different?

How the 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do was studied

Insight into 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do was gained through in-depth study of 202 relapse addicts, who are now straight.  Their experiences were shared with generosity and conviction in the hope that others could avoid the same pitfalls.  The relapsers formed a cross section of both sexes and many races, ages, sexual orientations and social classes.  What we discovered from them was the identification of ten relapse triggers which are embedded in an eight-stage relapse process.

The Ten Major Relapse Triggers

  1. Loneliness (even in the physical presence of family and friends)
  2. Stress and conflict at home and within the family
  3. Boredom of lack of challenge at work (or unemployment)
  4. Anger and the feeling of being trapped (accumulated resentments)
  5. Secret disappointment with the straight life (‘secret’ is the important word)
  6. Not ‘right with God’ (meaninglessness)
  7. Euphoric recall of being high (screening out the negative memories)
  8. Depression (worse with women than with men)
  9. Reactivation of denial (a variation on the old theme)
  10. Secret thoughts of drugging or experimenting with a new and different chemical)

The 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do process:

Relapse can be compared to a train that makes designated stops.  The train is expected to make all the announced stops because it is programmed to do so.  The momentum toward relapse is progressive, just like the addiction which preceded it.  Once an addict boards that train and settles back for the trip, it will inevitably deliver him or her to its final destination of relapse.  The only way to stop the progression is to get off that train.

Over and over relapsers said the same thing:  The return to the drug ‘just happened’.  They felt programmed to use again and relapse seemed automatic when it occurred.  Researchers conclude relapse is the inevitable consequence of boarding the wrong train in the first place and it is the last stop in the process.  Getting high may even be the least important detail in the process, because relapse really begins while addicts are still straight, dozing on that train.

If an addict finds him- or herself passing through the danger stations, he or she must jump up, pull the emergency cord and get off that train.  Otherwise the addict will be like the parachutist whose chute did not open and who, during the freefall, remarked:  “Well, everything is all right so far”. 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do sets that issue straight.

Stage One: Beginnings of Secret Dissatisfaction

This stage of the 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do occurs within the mind of the recovering person and may not be immediately apparent to others.  Disappointment with the straight life creeps in, but the person doesn’t think it wise to talk about it, so frustrations are kept quiet.  Things get dull and fatigue is often experienced.  The recovering person had somehow expected more from being straight and that ‘more’ seems very slow in coming.  Perhaps it never will.

Usually this secret dissatisfaction is a gradual process that sneaks into thoughts.  “Why lay this on others?”  the addict ponders, so his or her thoughts remain unspoken and begin to fester.  These thoughts seem innocent and inconsequential at first.  Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when recovering people try to speak up, others get uncomfortable and urge them to ‘count their blessings’, dismissing their fears.  The recovering addict’s inclination to keep quiet is reinforced by others’ negative reactions.  Nevertheless, disappointment should be candidly discussed to confront the danger of secret dissatisfaction.

 Stage Two:  Stress and Conflict at Home

As secret dissatisfaction begins to ‘leak’, others sense it.  This realisation may bother others and tension grows.  Everybody thought the straight life was going to eliminate this tension, but unhappiness and old resentments surface within the family.  The recovering person secretly frets over his or her family’s expectations.  “After all, I am straight, working and doing something constructive.  How much more do these people expect of me?  What does it take to satisfy them?”  The family may start to resent NA, interpreting NA involvement as a rejection of them.  Meanwhile the recovering person may be grateful to get out of the house, and NA is a great way to do that.  Personal relationships, sex, money and NA involvement can become raw issues in this stage.  The family is walking on eggs again, even though that stress was supposed to have ended when the using stopped. 

Stage Three:  Boredom or Lack of Challenge at Work

As the family situation deteriorates, it is natural to direct more effort into work and expect more from it.  Generally work improves, but the recovering person has expected even more progress.  Some vocational progress was anticipated with recovery, but this advancement also increases stress.  Now that the addict is straight, he or she notices more aspects about the job that had not been bothersome while getting high.  And there is scepticism among fellow workers about the person’s addiction; some were never convinced he or she was truly addicted (often they like to ‘get off’ themselves).  Others believe the person is an addict, but they are sceptical of his or her recovery.

Confronting these attitudes with the 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do is frustrating and insulting.  The recovering addict doesn’t feel growth and notices more boredom and lack of challenge than anticipated.  Part of the problem involves the celebrated addictive impatience.  When the addict was getting high, he or she did not develop coping skills or patience.  Many addicts can relate to this joke shared at NA:  “When the average person gets a flat tire, he calls the auto club; when a recovering addict gets a flat tyre he calls the suicide prevention hotline”.

Stage Four:  Reactivation of Denial

Initially, the addict’s greatest stumbling block is overcoming denial.  Once denial is overcome, good things start happening, but denial remains a wily devil that fools the recovering person for years with clever disguises and manipulations.  The person believes he or she has tackled denial, but it is never completely defeated.  Denial lurks, looking for opportunity to intrude.  When the recovered addict gains confidence and achieves sobriety, denial starts looking for a chink in the armour, a vulnerability to capitalise on.  Sadly, the recovering person never finishes confronting denial.

8 stages of addict relapse and what to do

Denial gets in the way any time the recovering addict forgets what he or she has learned at such a great price.  ‘Euphoric recall’ occurs when a person remembers only the best part of the drug use experiences, while forgetting the ugly consequences.  He or she recalls with fondness that lovely fifteen minutes at the beginning of the high, but represses the next fifteen minutes (or hours, weeks, months and years) when he or she paid the price.

The recovering addict becomes ‘programme wise’ and learns what to avoid saying to NA sponsors, counsellors or loved ones who will be tipped off to his or her flirt with denial.  Finally, the person secretly wonders if he or she was truly addicted in the first place.  After all, addiction is characterised by loss of control and the person has felt in control for some time now.  He or she is a sitting duck for denial’s new ruminations and its predictable outcome. SO use the 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do vary carefully. It may be the only guideline that brings sense and practicality to relapse and what needs to be done when it happens. 

Stage Five:  Emotional Drift from Significant Others

As loneliness takes centre stage, the recovering person becomes more isolated.  He or she spends more time alone, gradually withdrawing.  This emotional withdrawal is marked by the abandonment of honest talking.  As words are rationed, the recovering person offers less to those he/she cares most about.  Frustrations are not articulated, fears are not confided and hopes are not expressed.  Loneliness builds, isolation deepens and withdrawal progresses.

The bedroom tends to be a primary scene for this drama between spouses and lovers. Sexuality becomes rushed and sensuality all but vanishes.  There is a decline in talking, touching, kissing, holding and lovemaking.

If the recovering person is still active in NA, the drift from the Programme is predictable.  First, interest declines in the Twelve Steps.  The recovering person retreats from their sponsor, interrupting the fellowship and meeting attendance dwindles.  Most relapsers are high again within a month of ending NA involvement.  The emotional drift is complete when the recovering addict curtails communications with the family, NA, the sponsor, co-workers, him- or herself and the Higher Power.

Stage Six:  Anger

Human beings are the only species who can conceal anger and people are often out of touch with this emotion.  Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed anger to be the back side of depression; anger explodes and depression implodes.  Anger can be the source of back pain, stomach trouble, headaches, constipation, ulcers and fatigue.  Eventually the accumulated anger will erupt in traditional ways.

Stage Seven:  Depression

Depression appears to trigger relapse, particularly among women.  Depression, which is the outcome of the previous six stages, drives the recovering person to despair.  Depression drains his/her energy and motivation, grinding its message of hopelessness, discouragement, disappointment, withdrawal and defeat.  Nevertheless, recovering addicts must realise that elimination of all depression is impossible in the human experience.  Consequently, they must sharpen their coping skills to battle depression.  A common result of depression involves the belief that getting high will make the person feel better.  This belief, as many addicts can verify, is the big lie.  But depression nags the recovering addicts to get high.  As they increasingly repress their thoughts, vulnerability sweeps them toward relapse. Recovering people can combat relapse in rehabilitation, if they discover themselves dozing aboard the relapse express, moving toward its dreaded destination.  

Stage Eight:  Acted out Relapse

Once the chemical is used, the relapse cycle is complete and will continue until abstinence is achieved after rehabilitation.  Each person’s drama unfolds uniquely, but the relapse generally follows the previously outlined process. Addicts will minimize, lie, avoid, wait, slow down, fight, argue, kick and scream – to keep using the alcohol or drugs or both! Families are more often than not the biggest hurdle for addicts to get back into treatment, as they buy into the avoidance, they fund it as well, they help keep the secrets of relapse, making the shame worse in the end and they ultimately sit in a hole with the addict. This is why Rehabilitation, as the 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do clearly says, is immediately essential. 

For more help with the right drug rehab center experience, where we are relapse experts, dealing with 90% of clients who have been to five or more centres before they see us, then get in touch. Learn more about 8 stages of addict relapse and what to do as you progress. Call +27824424779 or email