Slipping off the Path of Addiction Recovery

Posted on March 18, 2014

Anatomy of a Relapse
~Josh King, PsyD, Center for Motivation and Change

TetherRelapses (and lapses and slips, whatever you want to call a return to old behavior) are frustrating events. Sometimes it feels like you’re (finally!) on the path you want to be on, and then, out of the blue, you fall off of that path and feel like you are back at the beginning (and that is sometimes what people tell you!). While it can feel like a lapse happens without much warning, it’s best to think of it as a process that happens over time. The reality is that people tend to drift towards a relapse, like a boat that has lost its mooring and is drifting out to sea. The movement can be slow and can go almost unnoticed until you are already adrift. By knowing what is “mooring” you to sobriety, or the changes you want to make, you can be more aware of when the “mooring lines” are getting cut and you are drifting into a lapse to old behavior.

Change-Supporting Activities

When you change your use of substances (either stopping or reducing), you might notice that there is often a lot of time to kill. Time that was formerly spent getting drugs/alcohol, using, and recovering from use. Now, it’s all just free time. When people first change their substance use, they tend to fill that free time with different activities. Some people go to self-help recovery meetings. Others start exercising and getting in shape. Perhaps the time is filled by reconnecting with or strengthening ties with family and friends. However that time is filled, it tends to get filled up with “change-supporting activities.” These activities take up space (emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical) and help you to maintain the changes that you want to see in your life.

As you embark on making significant life changes, you should make note of and track your change-supporting activities. Maybe it’s going to the gym every day, or talking to your close and supportive friend once a week. Maybe it’s seeing your therapist and going to a group, maybe it’s talking to your sponsor, maybe it’s going to church on the weekend. As you think about the activities that keep you tethered to your goals, be very specific about the frequency and people involved. You want to be specific so that you can later on identify if you are moving away from the activities that are competing with your old behaviors (use of substances).

Relapse Drift

Relapse drift occurs when you start skipping/missing your change-supporting activities. It usually starts in a seemingly harmless manner. You grab pizza because you’re running late to a meeting and then skip the gym because the meeting ran long and you want to get home (because, naturally, you’re exhausted from the day!) This, however, breaks two mooring lines for you of eating healthy and going to the gym daily. On its own, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to relapse. But, when that happens three times the next week, and you later stop going to the gym altogether (because it doesn’t fit into your schedule), you’re drifting further and further from your change-supporting activities and increasing the odds that a return to old behavior is in your future (e.g., because when you feel sluggish and bad about yourself, a substance might be the perfect thing to tune it all out and help you relax.)

How to Identify Relapse Drift

Identifying relapse drift requires a lot of self-discipline but it’s worth it!!! First, define your change-supporting activities and then create a log or calendar where you track your engagement in these activities. “Going to the gym” is a good change-supporting activity, but “exercising for 30 minutes every day” is a measurable change-supporting activity that you can easily track. There are a number of great tracking apps you can find, but paper and pencil also works! At the first signs of missing your defined change-supporting activities, try to re-establish your routine and keep away from the drift!

Noticing when you have stopped or reduced your engagement in change-supporting activities can alert you to the sign that there is now more room in your life for negative behaviors to reappear. If you can identify relapse drift, you may be able to stop it, return to shore, and continue on your path to change.


Source: Center for Motivation and Change, used with permission.

Dr. Josh King is a psychologist at the Center for Motivation and Change (CMC) who has specialized training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness based therapies, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI). In his position as Director of Clinical and Digital Service Integration, Dr. King oversees CMC’s social media presence and website, and is working to develop ways to expand CMC’s digital services with the specific goal of increasing access to CMC’s services to all people. You can find out more about CMC and their digital resources at http://motivationandchange.com and you can get free updates and digital content at CMC’s Facebook page or on twitter.

14 thoughts on “Slipping off the Path of Addiction Recovery

  1. Brian

    This is an outstanding idea. I kind of had this concept in my mind already but this really helped me attach some words to it to make it more relevant. Change supporting activity will be a term I carry with me from here on out. Thanks!

  2. Gary

    Really appreciate the info on relapsing. I have fallen of the wagon a few times over the years and it really does come down to filling in the void with healthy, interesting pursuits. Recognition of the drifting has been something I would refuse to acknowledge assuming it would be ok but let me say this; don’t fool yourself recognise it and alter course toward that sober port (pardon the pun).
    Great people and help I have discovered here, thank you.

    1. Josh King

      Thanks for the reply Gary. Recognizing the drift is very important. If you are having trouble recognizing it, or accepting that you are drifting, it is often helpful to be actively tracking your change supporting activities. This way, you have more concrete evidence of your drift, and it might be easier for you to drift back.

  3. Kim

    I had a recent relapse and I truly welcome this post. I beat myself up enough and I really can’t stand it when people are like, “Now start back at the beginning..” No! I’m dusting myself off and trying to see where I slipped and not where I fell. I love living sober, I could feel myself slipping though where I was taking on too much and not going to the gym, which was a part of my routine when I first stopped drinking in 2010. I have had several relapses and they have been shorter in length. I have to give myself credit for the days I didn’t drink as opposed to the days that I did.

    1. Josh King

      Hi Kim. Thank you so much for sharing that, and what a wonderful and positive way to look at this. It’s great that you were able to identify the areas you drifted in (exercise, making sure you weren’t taking on too much), so now you can really focus on keeping up with those things regularly. If you haven’t already done this, I would recommend that you make yourself a chart to track going to the gym, and any other change supporting activities that you have. It’s a great way to help recognize drift quickly. I would also recommend that you schedule in a small amount of time each week, maybe just 30 minutes, to really review how much you have on your plate, and what you can realistically handle. Scheduling that time will help ensure that it actually happens, and that kind of weekly review is very helpful to keep yourself on track.

      Give yourself a lot of credit for the positive changes that you have been making, and for talking about this in a public forum (hopefully your comments will help a lot of people!).

  4. jeffrey

    Excellent… learning consciousness and adherence to specific regimen or routine is fundamental… Thank you for the insight and support.

    1. Josh King

      Thanks Jeffrey. Glad you found it helpful. And yes, routine is very helpful. It doesn’t have to be a very strict, very intense routine, but knowing those things that help you, having them in your life with a certain degree of regularity, and checking in to make sure that is staying steady is enormously helpful!

  5. Hugh

    Very helpful and positively written 🙂

    Especially recognising where change supporting activities are off the boil!

    1. Josh King

      Thank you for your feedback Hugh. It is so important for everyone who is working on making changes in their lives to be able to recognize when their change supporting activities are starting to fall off. The first step is to figure out what activities are actually supporting the changes you’re trying to make, and then to figure out how to check in with them regularly so that you can recognize when you are drifting.

      I’m glad you found the article helpful!

  6. Natalia A

    Thank you so much for posting this. As it happens, I have been felt myself drifting recently, more specifically in the last week and this gives me practical tools I can use to help me. So, thank you.

    1. Josh King

      Natalia, it’s so great that you were able to recognize that you were drifting, and I’m really happy that this article was helpful to you! Staying aware of your change supporting activities, and checking in with yourself to recognize if/when you are drifting is an essential step to staying with the changes you’re trying to make!

      Great job being aware and good luck keeping it up!

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