Relapse - Risks and Prevention

Relapse is often a part of early recovery. Because everything we do is to raise our clients up, we don’t think someone who is trying to reduce their dependency on harmful substances or addictive behaviours should be judged or further demoralized because they’ve had a relapse. It can happen to the best of us.

In fact, it happened to me. I was clean for about 21 months, when I took a camping trip by myself. The goal was to have some solitude to relax and think about my future without drugs. Unfortunately, while socializing with fellow campers, I decided to have a few beers, which wasn’t out of the ordinary for my harm reduction plan. But then a few turned into a few more.

I ordered a pizza and when the delivery driver showed up, he looked at me and judged by my inebriation and tattoos that I’d be a candidate for some drugs. My appearance creates that stigma. He asked if I needed anything else and then said he had some really good cocaine. That was his gig, preying on campers while delivering pizza, and at that stage of my recovery, I couldn’t say no.

This shows how quickly relapse can happen. While I returned to my recovery plan the next day, my slide into relapse likely began weeks before, which is common for people who aren’t paying attention to their emotional, mental and physical well-being. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines relapse as “a process in which an individual who has established abstinence or sobriety experiences recurrence of signs and symptoms of active addiction, often including resumption of the pathological pursuit of reward and/or relief through the use of substances and other behaviors.”

Another study shows that between 40 and 60 percent of individuals in recovery experience relapse. The stigma associated with this can often make individuals feel hopeless. But there is hope and steps you can take to reduce your risk of falling back into addictive behaviours.

Understand relapse

There are three common stages for relapse – Emotional, mental and physical. Emotions play a huge role in recovery and wellness. When you aren’t practicing positive coping behaviours or self-care, you are setting yourself up for failure. Emotional issues – such as depression or anxiety – can further challenge your ability to stay clean. From the mental relapse perspective, you might be practicing some positive coping strategies but you’re also denying the harm caused by your past drinking or substance use. The final stage, physical relapse, usually means you’ve had a drink or used and may or may not choose to return to your recovery plan.

Warning signs

  • Idealizing your former harmful behaviours and thinking it wasn’t all that bad
  • Testing the waters by trying a small amount of drugs or alcohol
  • Lying
  • Isolating yourself
  • Missing meetings with your recovery coach or support network
  • Gravitating to people who are still using


  • Avoid high risk situations – This can be places where other users hang out or where you are triggered to return to harmful behaviours. In my case, this included social situations like hockey and football games, bars, even boating trips where alcohol and drugs were always “on the menu”.
  • Make new friends – Some of your old gang may also trigger you. Be open to new friends who may or may not be part of your recovery circle and will accept and respect the sober you.
  • Know who to call when you need support – This may be your recovery coach or someone who knows what you’re going through.
  • Be open and honest – Sharing your recovery journey with friends, family, employers, co-workers and community contacts makes it possible for others to provide support.
  • Have emergency crisis numbers handy or know where to go – This is important if you are ever at risk of harm to yourself or others.
  • Have a recovery plan – This may be a plan for total abstinence or a reduction of the behaviours or substances that are harmful for you. The plan should include who to call if you relapse or are in crisis. We can help you with a plan that’s right for you.
  • Join an addictions support network or Alano Club – White Wolf offers free weekly meetings featuring safe supportive recovery services. This currently includes Christian Recovery, Narcotics Anonymous, and Gabor Mate Family Night.
  • Forgive yourself if you do relapse – Putting too much pressure on yourself because you feel that everyone is counting on you can be a recipe for failure. Remove that pressure and just commit to do your best. It’s not hopeless.

We’re here to help. Call White Wolf Inspired Living 24-7 at 807-465-4196 and we’ll respond as quickly as we can.