Understanding Relapse – The “Danger Zone”

Man passed out with beer bottle in handMany people I work with have often been successful at maintaining some sort of long-term sobriety/abstinence from alcohol or drugs. If you participate in AA/NA, getting your one month chip is often described as exhilarating. There is a boost in self-confidence and hope in one’s ability to regain control of one’s life. But something happens after the one year chip. All of a sudden chips stop coming. You don’t get as much attention and support anymore as you did in the beginning. All of a sudden you are “cured” and/or you are supposed to know how to do this on your own.

How are you supposed to know when you’re in “the clear”? Are you ever? Addiction is a relapsing disease. This means relapse is part of recovery and instead of refusing to accept this fact, it is important to put more effort into understanding relapse, warning signals and ways to prevent it.

Here are some signals I have noticed:

  • Experiencing Withdrawal: You start having problems with one or more of the following; thinking difficulties, emotional overreaction problems, sleep disturbances, memory difficulties, sensitivity to stress, etc.
  • Avoidance and Defensive Behavior: You start avoiding people who you know will give honest feedback and/or you start becoming irritable and angry with them.
  • Being in denial: You stop telling others what you’re thinking/feeling and start trying to convince them (and yourself) that everything is all right, when in fact it is not.
  • Building crisis: You start to notice that ordinary, everyday problems become overwhelming often because you perceive them as insurmountable.
  • Feeling stuck: You start believing that there is nowhere to turn. You feel trapped and sometimes refuse to problem-solve.
  • Becoming Depressed: You mourn the loss of alcohol/drug and you feel the sadness and grief. You naturally miss it. But you start to rationalize your future actions based on perceived inability to handle the sadness.
  • Urges and Cravings (Thinking About Drinking/Using): You start to think that alcohol/drug use is the only way to feel better. You start coming up with justifications to drink/use and convince yourself that using is the logical thing to do.
  • Turning to behavioral, non-substance addictions: You start using one or more of the following- food, sex, caffeine, nicotine, work, gambling, etc. often in an out of control fashion.

As you may notice the list above has much to do with where you are mentally than anything else. I like to refer to this “psychological space” you get into right before a relapse as “the danger zone”. Many times you know you will relapse, you just ignore that fact and either convince yourself that using once won’t make a difference or you set yourself up to fail intentionally.

If you want to avoid relapse when you are in “the danger zone” you want to look out for a few things that may potentially make the situation worse.

  1. Being in the presence of drugs or alcohol, drug or alcohol users, or places where you used or bought chemicals.
  2. Feelings we perceive as negative, particularly anger; also sadness, loneliness, guilt, fear, and anxiety.
  3. Positive feelings that make you want to celebrate.
  4. Boredom.
  5. Getting high on any drug.
  6. Physical pain.
  7. Dwelling/fantasizing on getting high.
  8. Suddenly having a lot of cash.
  9. Using prescription drugs that can get you high even if you use them properly.
  10. Believing that you no longer have to worry or loss of vigilance. A.k.a ‘I can use once” attitude.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And if you do happen to relapse, remember that relapse doesn’t happen because of who you are as person. What I mean by this is that there is no chronic “relapsers”, there is chronic relapse behavior patterns. Different choices lead to different results. Once the pain is gone away, we tend to forget it. Remember the pain and the hurt. Remind yourself why you decided to quit to being with. Many people will say that if you “mentally” relapse you have already relapsed “so might as well get high”. This is not true. Wanting to get high is not the same thing as actually doing it.

What have you learned from your relapses that have been helpful?

© Copyright 2011 by Elvita Kondili, LPC, therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • LA


    July 1st, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    I’ve seen at least two people who did well to kick the addiction but then just slipped into relapse. I think staying away from alcohol is just as difficult as first getting away from it!



    July 2nd, 2011 at 4:50 AM

    I don’t understand why people act like as if a bottle of alcohol has some magical powers to attract them and don’t even wanna look at it.Those that have quit the habit and are free of addiction often behave like this.

    And I would just like to say this-if you’re having so mch trouble and even a sight of it can make you uncomfortable then you really haven’t gotten over it. You need more counseling or AA time for yourself!

  • Vickie


    July 2nd, 2011 at 8:34 AM

    And we have to remember that addicts are more likely to relapse when they do not have a support system in their lives who is just as committed to helping them stay sober as the addict who is recovering is. They can’t do this alone, so the worst thing that we can do is to leave them to fight this on their own. None of us can get through life without effective and strong support; an addict really can’t do that either.

  • dale


    July 2nd, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    I have been an alcoholic and even a binge drinker for most of my adult life. I gave it up and got sober two years ago but for me there is still a daily struggle. I still crave it, and have to say that now I have replaced booze with cigarettes. One really is no better than the other except that now I can think and at least hold a job as a chain smoker, which I could not do when I drank all of the time. I am hoping that this is going to stick. I have to pray really hard that it does because I can’t go back to that lifestyle. I know that some people do not advocate AA and it is not for everyone but it has worked for me. Sometimes I have gone to multiple meetings in a day to get through it but it works, so I can’t knock it. I would like to get to the point where I do not have to rely on the meetings all of the time but I am definitely not there yet.

  • emma c

    emma c

    July 2nd, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    my advice would be that if you are recovering and then find yourself being drawn towards your addiction again then just go back to your doctor,your support group,or just anybody who helped you get rid of the addiction in the first place.I’m sure it’s a lot better that way than feeling helpless and making every day of yours a mission to stay away from your former addiction!

  • MorganD


    July 3rd, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    How many alcoholics do you know that has not relapsed at least once? It is a part of the whole treatment and recovery. There are very few drinkers who have been able to stop and have never had a slip up. But I think that the more that this happens and the more that they are tuned into those things that trigger them to drink the better they and family are at being able to prevent it from continuin to happen. Or at least you have to hope for them that it becomes a lesson learned, not something that they continue to fail at in life.

  • AshLyn


    July 4th, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    There is always the danger in this occuring. But those who want to make real change are going to find a way to work through this. There is danger but that does not always have to mean full on relapse and disaster. To say that it is is just giving them an excuse to fall off the wagon and then say that it was not their fault, that they were destined to do it. maybe so, but I do not think that that is the kind of thinking that is going to lead a drinker to and ultimate clean and sober life.

  • Elvin.B.D


    July 4th, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    Having been an alcoholic for years in the past,I can tell you inncertain terms that I would not have been able to prevent a relapse without the support of my family and the local group.I’ve been tempted many times but the family and support group helped me immensely in every possible way.And now I have a stable job and am happy in my life minus the alcohol.

  • Bronwyn


    July 5th, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    The biggest challenge that I see with past drinkers is that there are too many who think that they have been “cured” like is mentioned in the article.
    There is no cure for alcoholism, there is only the chance to lead a drug free life. But like so many other challenges there is always the chance to fall down and stumble.

  • chloe


    July 5th, 2011 at 10:22 AM

    does a relapse mean failure of the treatment or deaddiction or even the technique used?my answer would be no.because if a technique has worked for a lerson it has worked.no questions asked.but if it has failed at a later stage it is only because of the changing situation and we need to adapt to it.if the adaption does not happen quick enough thats when relapse occurs.

  • L.W. Penn

    L.W. Penn

    July 9th, 2011 at 10:00 PM

    A good way to stay out of the danger zone is knowing your family will absolutely hate you if you go back to the drinking. They will hate you, think less of you, and maybe even finally give up on you after you get drunk a few more times. You need to stop calling it a relapse, and call it “getting drunk again”. Relapse is a word that’s used in medical circles and not how ordinary folks speak. If you’re an ordinary man, think in an ordinary way. Is the bottle worth more to you than your family?

  • B.N.


    July 12th, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    There is no “I can use once” once you’re addicted. I’ve been there, I’ve tried, and I have failed miserably. Your addiction is a poison that infiltrates every cell of your body. The second you succumb to the temptation to touch it again, thinking you can do that and walk away, man it’s over. You can’t fight your addiction nearly as well once you get a taste for the drugs or alcohol again. The simple answer is don’t be tempted.

  • Gino S

    Gino S

    July 12th, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    Having too much money sounds like a good thing. If you have an addiction, it’s not. You need to use that money more wisely and that means tackling your debts and bills first.

    This will also boost your self-esteem while leaving you with less disposable income to encourage a relapse and less access to ready cash to fund your addiction.

    The misuse of drugs for any length of time always leaves debts behind because their purchase took priority. If you have debts to pay, get them out of the way and get them out of your life for good, one by one. You’ll feel more in control than you have in a long time.

    Thanks for tackling a topic we don’t see addressed online often, Elvita.

  • Suzanne Russell

    Suzanne Russell

    July 12th, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    Relapsing is like literally shooting yourself in the foot. Once it’s done you’ve messed up royally. Now you have a problem to deal with all over again and you need to deal with it immediately. It’s your fault that it happened. You cannot blame anyone else. Do it enough times and nobody will lift a finger to help you. It’s better to not go down that road at all.

  • Lynn Grant

    Lynn Grant

    July 14th, 2011 at 1:44 AM

    Moving on to another drug is even worse. Addicts should avoid everything that is potentially addictive. Otherwise you could become addicted to whatever the new drug of choice is. And if you are doing two drugs at the same time, it could have disastrous-read that as fatal-results. You’re doubling your chances of killing yourself.

  • Elvita Kondili

    Elvita Kondili

    July 18th, 2011 at 6:20 AM

    One thing I want to mention is relapse is often dangerous because people tend to go back to using the amount of drug they were used to before quitting, which increases the rick of overdose. Having said that, it is important to remember that relapse is part of recovery, not to excuse it but to accept it and learn from it and not dwell on guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are extremely dangerous to recovery in general. Remember, it’s never too late to seek help. You don’t have to turn a relapse into using everyday and going back to all your old behaviors. You can pick back up and try to do things differently. Recovery can be frustrating but also very rewarding in the long-run.

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