The 10 Stages of Relapse: How To Catch It Before It Starts

Stages Of Relapse – What To Expect

Statistics suck.

Why? Because they’re grim.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse recorded 40% to 50% of people in recovery relapse and require further medical attention. 

I’d argue this number is a lot higher – addicts aren’t the best at conveying accurate and honest information.

If we are being truthful, we need to also admit that a relapse doesn’t just sneak up on you, even if it’s contrary to the message often received.

Before I was able to accumulate 10+ years sober, I was a chronic relapser. 

Usually I would scrap together a few months, even hit a year once, but would spiral out of control and be worse off than I was before the clean time. 

I would have sworn to you that just one day I woke up, the thought popped in my head, and I used unthinkingly. 

Now I know better. 

That was just self-deception.

Usually my lifestyle wasn’t compatible with sobriety. If you walk around with a hammer eventually you’ll find a nail. Know what I mean?

Additionally, stress and other environmental factors would contribute to my relapse – stress is probably the biggest factor, or should I say poor stress management.

The following 10 Stages of Relapse can help you anticipate whether your sobriety is in danger or not.

Always be prepared; self-awareness is key.

Moreover, I can’t say with certainty the stages are stringently linear but usually, they closely follow the lines I’m about to present.

The 10 Stages of Relapse 1 Stages of Relapse

Stage One: Denial

This one is a tricky bastard. 

If you know you’re in denial, you aren’t. But if you are, you’re convinced you ain’t. 

How the hell are you supposed to know??

Well, to be frank, the signs are obvious. 

People start to voice their fears and feelings about your behavior or current lifestyle and rather than evaluate yourself you get defensive, angry, deconstruct their character, and dismissive. 

A righteous lifestyle needs no justification.

If you find yourself justifying your behavior this is a telltale sign of denial and it’s the bread and butter of self-deception. 

Once you can’t differentiate the truth from the false, your liable to do anything and it’s no longer within the scope of your control and power.

This is the first stage.

Stages of Relapse

Stage Two: Avoidance and Defensive Behavior

The second stage is the birth child of denial.

Denial starts spinning what I call the “bullshit wheels.”

You now convince yourself that the old habits are impossible to return to. With this irrational convinction and you can convince yourself that the problem must be external. 

Now you pay attention to everyone and everything else to avoid bringing attention to your own difficulties.

The B.S. Wheels can find a problem in every solution. If someone offers a solution, or even hints at a problem in your life, you will become super defensive, sometimes violently so. 

At this stage impulsivity reigns supreme. Habits are larelgy kneejerk and compulsive. 

This is also the stage where people frequently comment “I feel lonely in a room full of people.”

It’s existential dread with a dash of overreaction.

Stage Three: Crisis Building

The next stage that unfolds is what I call “self-induced shitting the fan.”

Sorry for the profanity, but it describes it so well that every addict will immediately recognize exactly what I’m referring to. 

Every problem, no matter how minute, is magnified to colossally unmanageable proportions. We’re talking Biblical flood variety!

It’s classic tunnel vision. Consumed by fear, resentments, self-pity, and the like. 

These thought patterns precipitate low-level depression and panic attacks. 

At this point, isolation is acute. People will try to communicate with you, but you become basically unreachable.

Stages of Relapse

Stage Four: Immobilization

Stage 3 is only tolerable for short durations. Eventually it transforms into pessimism, gut-wrenching-impending-doomism, and emotional, mental, and spiritual inertia.

Its the “all mind, no mobility” stage.

This stage is characterized by hopeful fantasies, psychotic wishful thinking, and fox hole prayers.

In reality, you’ll think the problems are too far along to be resolved. Rather you’ll just spend your time thinking how it could have been or should be. 

It’s the anywhere but here mentality.

Stage Five: Confusion and Overreaction

This stage is what I call “irritation station.” 

At this point, fight or flight is on repeat. Every struggle and inconvenience, no matter how mild, prompts fits of rage and hostility. 

Whether this is actually expressed through arguments and fighting or is simply an inner never ceasing rage, it’s one’s last grasp at control.

Additionally, it’s characterized by bouts of confusion, demoralization, and helplessness.

Stage Six: Depression

I also refer to stage six as “the rhythm disrupter.”

This stage is defined by it’s irregularities: not eating right or regularly, socialization is erratic and random, and sleep patterns are way off.

Usually the mind is racing at light speed and the body is in sloth mode with a heightened exhaustion and lethargy. 

Daily responsibilities start to go out the window. For example, a common one is not showing up for work or being very tardy.

Consequently, deep depression is often the keyword of this stage.

Stage Seven: Behavioral Loss of Control

Stage six naturally transforms into total freaking apathy about recovery and life in general.

If stage six is characterized by the procrastinators “I’ll give a shit later,” then stage seven is the simple “I don’t give a shit.”

Stage six had some hope, but stage seven is the plight of hopelessness. 

Now you’re skipping your AA meetings or IOP appointments. 

You no longer accept outside help and recoil at even the thought of asking for it 

Stages of Relapse
Stages of Relapse

Stage Eight: Recognition of Loss of Control

This stage is the self-pity bonanza.

It’s defined by radical rationalization and justification. It’s where the brain begins to concoct reasons to drink or get high – and it desperately tries to convince you of it’s rationality.

“Don’t worry,” it says, “the same thing that always happens won’t happen this time. No, no, no. This time you’ll control it.” 

Or, it will just completely minimize past consequences. Remarkably, you’ll begin to think the benefits of using outweigh the risk. 

Self-deception will run rampant. Not only are you lying to yourself but you’ll begin lying habitually to others. Any self-esteem you’ve might have retained up to this point, in stage eight it’s blown to smithereens.

Stage Nine: Option Reduction

By stage mine the alternatives to relapse have all but been annihilated.

You’re likely not attending meetings, calling support, nor doing anything really productive.

Everything is driving you back to drinking or getting high.

I’m not convinced this is really even a stage because it appears as if choice is completely out the window. 

Nonetheless, I’ll still extend free-will the benefit of the doubt.

Stage Ten: The Relapse Episode

It all finally comes to a boiling point and the physical relapse takes place.

I say physical relapse because the emotional and mental relapse started on the first stage.

One would think that the guilt after the first use would serve as a powerful deterrent from using a second time. 

Unfortunately, all the previous stages are reinforced and any light of hope feels dashed to pieces as you isolate further into a fixed addictive mindset.

It’s self-centeredness in hyperdrive and a utter spiritual desert; a desolation only few understand. 

The damage is often irreparable and the pain usually inconceivable

Stages of Relapse

It’s Your Story If You Pick Up The Pen

You may have cycled through these stages, experiencing the dreadful emotions and humiliating behaviors.

Heck, you may have been through these stages a handful of times. 

Every story, however, has a hero, a villian, a crisis, and a victory.. 

You are the hero,

The villain is the substance.

The crisis is the stages. 

The victory is your sustained sobriety. 

So, pick up your pen. Rewrite your tale.

The narrative doesn’t end just because you relapsed. Rather, as the NA pamphlet ‘Relapse and Recovery’ rightly observes: 

Stages of Relapse

Neuro-linguistic Programming likewise recognizes the power in learning from our setbacks in their popular slogan: “there is no failure, only feedback.”

As we write this chapter of our lives, we can learn from our mistakes. It’s important to understand that problems are simply the universe demanding our growth.

When our current stage of development doesn’t have the solution, we evolve to the next stage. 

This story isn’t about your downfall, it’s about your evolution.

Stop fighting it. 

==>The 10 Stages Were Adapted from a Mountainside Rehabilitation article