It’s never too late to get clean and sober, even after a relapse. Is it better to catch the warning signs early and avoid relapse altogether? Certainly. Rather than let relapse happen, it is advantageous to be well-versed in the warning signs and have a strategy when you see them. This applies directly to the recovering addict or alcoholic, as well as the friends and relatives interested in his or her continued sobriety.
Possible Warning Signs
The person who has been addicted knows better than anyone else if they are tipping ever so slightly towards a relapse, whether they care to admit it or not. At the same time, the people around the addict have a certain distance and objectivity that he or she might not possess. Thus, relapse prevention is a team activity and a multi-faceted approach. No matter which angle you are looking from, it is vital to know the early warning signs and signals. Each person is different, with their own specific triggers and motivations; thus, it is not possible to list any and all possible warning signs, but some of the major ones are as follows:
Medical drugs & prescriptions
One of the chief causes of relapse is the situation wherein a person is prescribed medical drugs for injury, illness, etc. Opiate painkillers administered while in the hospital is one common example. Drugs prescribed for psychiatric reasons is another. A recovering addict might also find drugs in the medicine cabinet at home or at the house of a friend or relative – and it only takes a couple seconds for a relapse to occur. It is, therefore, necessary to be vigilant when there is a higher level of risk.
At the doctor, discuss your options. Opiate painkillers (often called opioids) prescribed to a recovering heroin addict are of particular concern since they are the same general class of drug. Drugs prescribed for mental disorders can incite the user to revert back to former addictive patterns. There are plenty of effective alternatives to mental problems that do not involve drugs. In the current climate where prescription drug abuse is rampant, those very drugs are increasingly suspect, as a cursory inspection of the number of addiction cases will tell you. In the case of an addict, drugs used in medical context should be closely supervised and ceased as soon as possible.
Cravings & triggers
The presence of drug cravings can of course contribute to relapse. These cravings can be physical or psychological in nature, or both. Dealing with cravings must be a part of any relapse prevention program. Physical pain can trigger cravings, as can experiences associated with drug or alcohol abuse. For example, going to a concert and smelling pot smoke in the air can trigger cravings in a former user. Or they would get upset while around a certain person and instantly crave a hit. Any relapse strategy should take inventory of triggers and incorporate steps for dealing with them – even if that means simply leaving the immediate area.
Problems without solutions
When a drug user is faced with a problem that has no apparent solution, they will tend to use drugs as a quick and easy “solution” or escape. While in rehab – if done right – they learn to solve problems in other ways. Life is however full of twists and turns. The former user will undoubtedly encounter new problems and failures – even the same or similar problems they had before. When someone feels the urge to use or drink as the solution, it is the moment to either be effective yourself or get assistance. All persons involved should be aware of this and adopt a proactive approach.
Trauma & loss
A few notches above a “problem” is a traumatic incident or loss. A death in the family, news that someone has an illness, or even a breakup can qualify. Such incidents can act as incentive to use drugs or drink. This is certainly time for friends and relatives to step up and offer support. In such cases, in addition to any purely practical measures, the person would ideally not be left alone for too long, depending on the situation. Taking long walks and making sure the individual eats and sleeps are the most basic steps.
Erratic behavior; aggression; depression
When a person is behaving erratically, acting out in some way, displaying aggression or anxiety, etc., it is time to ask them what is going on. When they deny anything is wrong or retaliate, it is even more of a warning signal. Depression or being morose are signs to look out for. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person has relapsed, but it could be the signal to take preventive action. Getting them to talk about it is the first step. If they go from depressed to angry, they are actually coming up – a good sign. Through skilled two-way communication, solutions will often present themselves.
The person stops communicating. This is one of the most severe warning signs. They stop showing up for meetings, don’t visit anymore, or when they see you they have nothing to say. This one is interesting because it is a NEGATIVE, something NOT being there. It is a telltale sign. Look into it. It may mean they are busy with life, but just make sure their explanation is not perfunctory (carried out with minimum care or interest). Pretending there is nothing wrong is characteristic of an addict. This is not meant derogatorily – it’s just a fact and I speak from personal experience.
Change in sleeping patterns
The person isn’t sleeping or sleep is disturbed. This is a double-edged warning since the lack of sleep can prompt one to seek drugs to relax or deal with anxiety. A person who doesn’t sleep can start to feel rather psychotic. Even the most level-headed individual can start to feel pretty nuts when they haven’t slept. Fortunately, there are many non-drug remedies for insomnia and sleep disorders and I have posted several articles on these.
Missing without explanation
The recovering addict or alcoholic goes missing and has no explanation as to where they’ve been, or their story is riddled with holes and lapses in logic. You say they are secret agent material and their alibi is flawless? Alright, but does it keep happening? There is bound to be something amiss. I’m not saying you have to spy on anyone. When you are not judgmental but are genuinely concerned, you can usually get the person to be honest.
Stealing; dishonesty; criminal activity
Drug addicts may steal from friends or relatives in order to obtain drugs. Stealing or any criminal activities are flashing warning lights. When money or valuables go missing, or drug dealers or other criminal elements start appearing unexpectedly in the area – these would be occasions to act. You should not instantly blame anyone, but again, start communicating.
When a person has been drinking or shows up with alcohol on their breath, it would be a warning sign. Even if their substance abuse problems did not involve heavy drinking, alcohol is nonetheless a drug. Everyone’s situation is different. Some people can drink occasionally, while others simply cannot take the one drink and stop. Whether at a social event, or while alone to “deal with” a problem, drinking is always something to monitor in regards to relapse. If one cannot control oneself in a social drinking setting, better to just not show up. The friends and relatives of a recovering addict or alcoholic should likewise be considerate.
Getting defensive; falsehoods
When you ask a person if they’ve been using, do they get excessively defensive? Do they instantly deny there is anything wrong? Do they simply lie? These are warning signs. There is also a “pendulum swing” where the other person can be unjustly accusative and incite a reaction, but this would be fairly obvious.
When someone is hiding something, they can lash out at those who would discover them – even those that they love. People don’t like being judged. But when you really care about someone, you certainly aren’t out to get them. By being calm and interested, and asking a few matter-of-fact questions, you can often get the truth without too much drama.
Not pursuing their goals
Have they forsaken their goals in favor of a lackadaisical “nothing really matters” attitude? It is important to know that the “nothing matters” attitude is actually a symptom of drug use. If the person had this attitude before they started using drugs, it would only get more pronounced the more they used drugs. A former user can slip back into this attitude when provoked by life in some way. People stack up failures and get overwhelmed. One of the purposes of the recovering addict’s support network is to help them out in these situations, not by “solving their problems for them” but by empowering them to solve their own problems and build their own future.
Old friends & habits
Is the person hanging out with old friends who are still using drugs? Are they spending time at their former haunts where they would make their drug connections? Are they frequenting parties, clubs, etc. where drugs and drink flow freely? These are all serious warning signs.