Guest blog: How to recover from a lapse
Nurse, blogger and mental health advisor, Sarah Jane Palmer, shares how to prevent and recover from a lapse when you have stopped drinking due to alcohol dependence.
7th June 2022
After 3.5 years of sobriety, I lapsed in April 2021. It has not been an easy journey since, with several other lapses too but I am now committed to long-term sobriety and have come out of this having learned a lot.
If you have just lapsed and are feeling overwhelmed by guilt, don’t be disheartened. It shows you care about yourself and your commitment to sobriety – but if you don’t show enough love to forgive yourself it is more likely to happen again, as you won’t be in a good frame of mind.
Forgive yourself and act
Practice forgiveness towards yourself and recognise your vulnerability. Maintain that assertion that there are good reasons you chose the sober path. See this as a sign that there are changes you need to make and try not see it as a failure or weakness.
The first thing to do is make a prevention plan so another lapse or full relapse can be avoided. This should include ideas for managing your triggers. It’s also a good idea to contact your nearest alcohol recovery service. I did not choose AA although this does work for many. Instead, I enjoyed wild water swimming and Zumba, I got a key worker and had some counselling at a recovery service run by a charity. I used sites like Drinkaware and others like it for advice, as well as buying plenty of books on alcohol addiction and recovery.
Reshape your thinking
I have a realistic view now that it is not always about the long-term number of days sober. Although it’s a wonderful thing to watch the sober days, months and years go by – if this is your main focus, you can lose sight of your triggers and tracking other areas of your mental health. A fixation on the number of sober days can also increase pressure on yourself and should not replace the fact that lots of little activities are what keep those sober days in place.
When I became anxious and depressed from being bullied at work, I lost my routine. I stopped bothering with exercise, became overwhelmed with anger about how things were, and failed to ensure that I slept enough. I kept thinking, ‘at least I’m sober – I am so proud of my long-term sobriety.’ However, this became all I had to be proud of and I was no longer working at it, I was just proud of the number of days, and that was it.
Ways to manage stress
It is so important to know what can trigger you to drink again. It’s also a good to think about what help you can get to manage your emotions. Ask yourself if your thinking started to change in any way? What stress were you feeling at the time? Write it down and explore what counselling might be available if possible. What can you put in place to change your responses to stress? And what stress can you remove from your life? Reading up on boundaries can also be helpful – managing these can often be difficult and you may have been taking too much on in your personal or work life. I downloaded apps to both help me maintain my sobriety and access an addiction service straight after my first lapse.
Know your triggers
Challenge any thinking that implies a lack of control. I was careful not to blame anyone or anything for my lapses – I saw various situations as triggers, but I maintained that it was my decision, and my lack of lapse prevention planning as I became complacent, investing less time in maintaining my sobriety and what got me there.
Challenge catastrophic thinking too. Having a lapse is not ‘too late,’ they can be overcome – it is just a sign that something has gone awry. Refocus and think about what led you there and how you can treat those triggers. Remember, a lapse or full relapse can be stopped right now.
How to deal with alcohol cravings
It’s essential to prepare for intense cravings that could be worse than before a lapse by creating a lapse/relapse prevention plan.
Managing cravings is vital – especially after a lapse. You know you don’t want to drink but become overwhelmed by a physical or emotional feeling that induces all sorts of thoughts about wanting to drink again. You may start to forget why you went sober. You need to react quickly to notice when these cravings set in. It is all very well knowing prior to the craving why you do not want to drink anymore, but management of the craving itself is crucial. First, remember it is just a feeling and you can live with the discomfort, it will pass.
H- If you’re HUNGRY then eat, a sugary snack can be good
A-Feeling ANXIOUS or ANGRY? Call a friend, write in a journal, seek nature, meditate, or anything that works for you
T – If you’re TIRED, allow yourself to rest. A good night’s sleep can have a positive impact on your mood and overall mental health
Alcohol and mental health
It’s important to pay attention to your mental health before and after a lapse. Take notice of your moods. Create a mood and cravings diary to look at patterns you can challenge and address any emotional triggers that led up to the choice to drink.
If you are struggling, you can also speak to a health professional at your local GP surgery, a local addiction service or self-refer for counselling, to help avoid another lapse. There are also various community activities and social groups you can get involved with, as I did. And remember, that drinking is isolating.
When you’ve stopped drinking, you may find you glamorise the past, this is known as euphoric recall. Catch euphoric recall each time it happens, and always play the tape forward. Try and always bring the imagined ‘fun’ into reality at the end of the night, because with addiction, once you pick up the first drink, you lose control, and nothing is guaranteed. It is highly unlikely you will have ‘just one’ – so be realistic. Write a reflection of what euphoric recall memories may have led you to your lapse, and write down the reality of each memory, and what happened in your lapse.
A lapse recovery checklist
- Forgive yourself but always remain aware
- Find tasks and hobbies to work on that bring you joy
- Create a plan to prevent another lapse and to deal with another lapse should it ever happen again
- Reflect on what your triggers are, how specific they are to you in terms of thoughts and feelings and how to manage them
- Use the wide range of resources available, both online and in-person services such as SMART Recovery, AA and other alcohol support services
- Keep a good understanding of how your brain can misfire and know to differentiate yourself from your urges
- Remember you have a choice, and you are worthy of a happy life that can be developed in sobriety. Have patience, this too shall pass.
Find out more
- Office for Health Improvement and Disparities 2021. Available at: gov.uk/government/statistics/substance-misuse-treatment-for-adults-statistics-2020-to-2021/adult-substance-misuse-treatment-statistics-2020-to-2021-report
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