By: Marilyn L. Davis
Understanding Red Flag Warnings
“Accept that the addiction exists not because of yourself, but in spite of yourself. You did not come into life asking to be programmed this way. It’s not personal to you—millions of others with similar experiences have developed the same mechanisms. What is personal to you is how you respond to it in the present.” ― Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
Although Red Flag Warnings usually signal weather conditions critical for wildfires, this also applies to us as addicts.
It seems as if “one spark” can set us off, and then we can be in a full-blown relapse. However, if we review the days or weeks before a relapse, we can see that there were Red Flag Warnings that we might be heading towards a relapse.
Learning what activates our desire to use or the situations to avoid, or the motive for our use is critical to our long-term recovery.
Am I Heading for a Relapse?
Relapses can also occur because people stopped doing something, like letting up on daily recovery maintenance, or might not have anticipated a desire to use it from an activity or encounter.
Some people just get overwhelmed by all they believe they have to do to sustain their recovery and just say, “To hell with it.”
Because relapses have such a devastating effect on the person, their families, their freedom, and their lives, it is important to look closely at the red flag warnings for each.
The four aspects are:
Learning relapse prompts will help us be able to spot them and make other choices than to use. While there are predictable triggers for all people, digging deeper and discovering what activates our addiction will make them personal and authentic for us.
Having alternatives ready when we think about returning to our use will help make sure that a relapse doesn’t “just happen.”
1. Emotional Red Flag Warnings
Many of us had numbed feelings in our active use. We avoided feelings, didn’t acknowledge them or used to mask them, but they are still a part of our make-up. If we imagine these emotions as being “held in check” much like a jack-in-the-box by our use, it is easy to understand why they can come flooding back without warning in early recovery.
Many of these emotions will resurface, and sometimes they seem inappropriate to the situation. These feelings can be confusing, overwhelming, frightening, and “crazy-making.” We may not understand where many of these feelings are coming from and do not have the coping skills to deal with them.
Some predictable feelings resurface in early recovery that can be difficult and relapse-provoking when we have limited coping skills to deal with them. Some of the most problematic ones are:
However, it’s any emotion that causes thoughts about using that is the problem. It’s not just anger, guilt, or sadness, but it can be joy and happiness as well. Learning to deal with our emotions is an essential element in long-term recovery.
2. Mental Red Flag Warnings
Mental traps for relapse are addicted thinking that can sometimes precede a relapse. There are typically five problematic traps or some variation on these. We should explore the mental traps that set us up for a rationalized/justified relapse.
- Glamorizing our past – friends, lifestyle, things we did during our use
- Fantasizing about using
- Figuring out ways to control our use
- Denial or ambivalence about the severity of our problem
- Playing “What If” games about the use that do not end with an adverse outcome
3. Physical Red Flag Warnings
Pain is the number one physical reason that people relapse. Many things cause physical pain in our recovery. Some of the predictable ones are:
- Post-acute withdrawal symptoms
- Accidents or Injuries
- Dental issues
- Ongoing chronic health issues
There are safe medications that addicts and alcoholics can take. Still, it is necessary to discuss your addiction with the primary or ER doctors to make sure they know about your addiction and prescribe accordingly.
Don't be embarrassed that you're an addict or alcoholic, either. Telling the doctor or staff the truth may save you from a relapse. Click To Tweet
Many people have ended up in full-blown relapse, thinking that taking narcotic pain medications for just a few days would not be a problem. Unfortunately, it is often the beginning of a more significant problem.
4. Behavioral Red Flag Warnings
Simply put, behaviors are actions that we do and do not do. So what are the risky behaviors versus safe behaviors?
- Not going to meetings vs. Enough meetings to reinforce recovery
- Going around using friends vs. Establishing a social network of recovering people
- Dating vs. Putting a relationship on hold
- Letting up on recovery routines vs. Planning activities
- Not having a plan for stress vs. Learning techniques to lessen anxiety
- Being close-minded vs. Listening to people about recovery
Unavoidable Triggers and Relapse Prompting Encounters
Even with our focus on recovery, unavoidable triggers, people, and situations will prompt us to think about using. There will be times that we are focused on our recovery and doing everything we can to keep up our focus, but a chance encounter, a feeling, or a thought of using will happen. It might be:
- Hearing a particular song
- Running into an old using friend at a store
- Seemingly innocent movies that end up reminding us of our use
If we notice that we are engaging in these activities, having these emotions, or demonstrating a negative attitude, we should be mindful of a potential relapse. Each of us in recovery needs to be aware of the Red Flag Warnings Leading to Relapse.
Relapse Prevention Knowledge is Readily Available to Us
There are many components to a relapse. Most of these are predictable. Therefore, many people have come up with safe, effective alternatives to relapse.
For instance, going fishing and being isolated from all temptations may not work for you, but it works for others. Be open to their solutions, and you may find that some of them will work for you.
Do not hesitate to ask in meetings, groups, or your treatment provider for practical, creative approaches to preventing relapse.
We all know that certain situations, people, feelings, and thoughts will result in thinking about using. If we take the initiative to study and find more alternatives to relapse and use these resources, we are less likely to relapse.
Most people are willing to share what has worked for them in relapse prevention techniques. The methods for not relapsing are going to be as varied as the people who use them. Click To Tweet
Create a Relapse Prevention Card and Reminders on Your Phone
Remind yourself what would happen to your goals, how you would feel, where you can go for help and who you can call. Having a relapse prevention card in your wallet or purse means that when an urge hits, you’ve got resources. Having this paper copy and one on your phone means you’re always ready if you need the support of others, so you don’t relapse.
When You Keep Your Focus on Your Recovery
When we focus on our recovery, pay attention to the Red Flag Warnings, and don’t relapse, we create ways to keep us safe.
We’ve overcome that lying voice that says it’s okay to use. We don’t buy into the justifications that we’ll feel better if we pick up. We remember the pain of use.
If we stay on track and focus on our recovery goals, we’ve weathered a potential setback.
Give yourself credit. It’s okay to feel proud. It’s okay to claim that you hit your goal for the day; after all, you’ve got another day closer to your goal of long-term recovery when you don’t relapse. Good for you.
Writing and recovery heal the heart.
Marilyn recently published her memoir, Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate, available on Amazon. To help others write an excellent memoir, she published, Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, also available on Amazon.