If I had to state the fundamental goal of treatment, I’d say relapse prevention in addiction recovery is a vital piece that can’t be emphasized enough. A person in early recovery is often blindsided by so many cues to drink or use drugs because they aren’t prepared, it’s imperative that the person know what to expect and how to handle what we call relapse triggers. Triggers are things in the recovering person’s day to day life that can initiate craving for the person’s drug of choice, or some substitute drug.
An example is a recovering alcoholic in the early stage of recovery. She believes she can associate with her old friends in a neighborhood pub if she just tells them she’s in recovery and no longer drinking. She’s not aware how powerful sight, sound, smell and touch are, and how they bring back memories of previous times. Maybe this pub was where she first started drinking and met her first love. In the beginning, the drinking was fun and the atmosphere of the pub was relaxing, familiar and enjoyable. Her first love affair was exciting and exhilarating. All these associations are rooted deeply in her mind and tied to alcohol.
This pub is a dangerous place for her in early recovery, because it sets off dozens of relapse triggers — the smell, the sounds (laughter, billiard balls cracking, music, the voice of the bartender), the sight of friends and pictures on the wall, all these are triggers firing in her brain as she pretends to be strong willed. What usually happens is the relapse triggers are too powerful and the person goes back to drinking. Maybe after she’s in recovery long enough to rewire her brain and build up a resistance to triggers she can go to the pub with no problems, but in early recovery the risk is great.
This is just one example. Returning to a toxic relationship in which the partner is drinking — cutting grass on a hot summer day thinking about how good beer tasted– there are many triggers. It’s not possible to avoid all these triggers, but the person in early recovery should be aware of what triggers will likely set off the desire to drink alcohol or return to the drug of choice. The person has to also know that just because a trigger is set off and there’s a desire to drink or use, this doesn’t mean they have to give in to the desire. Being prepared in recovery means understanding, more than likely, the desire to drink or use will return at times.
Knowing what to do and having a plan to prevent relapse is what recovery management is all about. Relapse prevention in addiction recovery is the obvious goal, but, what is obvious to the casual observer is not so obvious to the recovering addict. I’ll write more about this later in the week.