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How Do I Handle My Fear of Relapse: the Million Dollar Question

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Lucien brings up the question of relapse, fear of relapse, and the family member’s reactions around this. Laurie MacDougall, who has been through this and helped many parents get to a better place, responds to our member.

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“I fall apart each time just in anticipation of a relapse. Things trigger me into anxiety.  When this happens all the tools I have read or learnt seem to desert me. I am then unable to sleep or function normally. What can I do? I need some advice.”

Hi Lucien,

Oh boy, have you hit on the million-dollar question!

Addiction in the family —> emotional turmoil —> irrational behaviors

On my journey I’ve found that the angst and emotional turmoil triggered in us by the possibility of a relapse, is overwhelming and all-consuming. The stomach-churning dread and fear that would well up inside of me launched me into really irrational behaviors.

I came to understand, in part by following the Learning Modules on this site, that these behaviors actually served no useful purpose and were actually pushing my Loved One closer to the edge of relapse, while bringing me much farther into feeling unwell, both physically and mentally. I am very sure that most of the members here at Allies can understand and attest to how debilitating this cycle can be.

When we're stuck in fear and dread, we often do things that don’t help

Oh, the crazy things I have done! The pacing, the snooping through private things, the obsessive looking for signs in his eyes and/or voice, the sneaking up and listening for sounds while my Loved One was in the bathroom, the fishing through the car, the accusing, the questioning, the calling hospitals and the police when he didn’t return home, the calling and texting his phone, the scouring of the phone bill to find numbers I could call, desperately reaching out for some kind of contact… this list goes on and on.

What I can tell you now: not even one of these manic actions ever resulted in anything positive.

NOT ONE. In fact, now, I realize that the message I was sending my Loved One during a very vulnerable time for him was that I didn’t believe in him or feel confident in him, and that he needed me to monitor him and make sure he was doing things correctly.

Looking back now, I was probably adding to the stress that makes relapse a bigger, more real possibility. Actually, I now see that I should have been doing the very opposite.

Despite our fear, we must get these important messages across to our Loved Ones

I should have been on the lookout for any accomplishments and successes my Loved One was having, and instead focusing on those by rewarding any positive behaviors I wanted him to repeat.

The other message I was sending inadvertently was that there was no room for any faltering in his recovery — his recovery had to go off without a hitch. A very unrealistic, unfair and unattainable goal, which I was projecting onto him.

I have since learned that we must leave room for our Loved Ones working on maintaining recovery: for their own struggles, their ups and downs. They (and we) are, after all, only human.

OK but how do I cope with these debilitating feelings of fear and anxiety when I see a relapse coming on?

So, that brings us back to your question of what to do, or how to cope with the feelings that arise when you suspect a relapse coming on and all of the skills you've learned seem to just get lost in the whirlwind.

What you are asking about is possibly the most difficult thing I have had to learn to do. I would also like you to know that it took a tremendous amount of practice and determination in order to both understand and implement.

It is usually during a situation such as you're describing that you'll hear others, with more experience, suggesting: “You have to really take care of yourself!” and/or “self-care is so important!” and then they'll start giving you a list of things you can do: pray, exercise, get enough sleep, meditate, attend an art class, go for walks on the beach, have your hair done, etc…” I remember thinking, “apparently you have no idea how deeply this is affecting me, how out of control I am, and how little I believe that having my hair done or meditating is going to help me!”

These suggestions just seemed so surface-y to me. Now, however, with a little more experience, I understand better what they were attempting to get across. And there is a lot more to it than just finding something to do.

I now see what people meant when they told me "take care of yourself": Here's how I see the process

Here are a few things that I now have a better understanding of, when it comes to coping with my own worries and angst:

1)  I have to let the feelings in. The feelings are going to come up. They are triggered, so unavoidable, and out of my control in the moment. They are incredibly unpleasant and every ounce of me wants to quickly find a way to get rid of them, but difficult situations are supposed to bring on difficult feelings. It’s actually a part of life and the way we're designed. Avoiding these powerful emotions or pushing them down at a time when we should be feeling them serves no purpose but to make us more ill.

2) Take a pause. Feeling and accepting my emotions, without reacting, gives me the opportunity to calm myself and start considering alternatives to my irrational thinking. It’s our thoughts just before a given emotion that actually bring on that emotion, so if I can usher in new ideas and ways of perceiving things, it will help to bring the intensity of my feelings down to a more manageable level. Learn more about this in Module 7.

3) During the aforementioned pause, I find something to do to take care of myself. Now this is where everyone’s encouragement of self-care becomes important. Taking care of myself could be as simple as sleeping on the couch with the TV on to distract my mind/let me sleep easier rather than staying in a quiet bedroom, or taking a long walk. I personally have found that some sort of aerobic exercise works to improve both my physical and mental state.

4) With the calmer me usually comes a much better response, vs. reaction. The pause itself could last a few hours, days or weeks, but I have found that giving myself that space to think and feel allows for a more productive, rational response instead of an impulsive, irrational reaction to the situation.

5) This process is way for me to learn to cope with my intense feelings. It does not mean that those volatile emotions are going away (in fact I can tell you they are not) but, this is a way to help diminish them. The goal is to bring them to a level where they are more manageable.

6) Following these steps may improve the situation but may not keep my Loved One from relapsing. Our Loved Ones are human, and recovery is a learning process. Learning to cope with my own feelings better will definitely create a more conducive environment for my Loved One to navigate their recovery, but I still have to give them space to not be ‘perfect’.

This process can, and does, take time to learn and implement

I do have to share with you, though, that this process took me a long time to understand and to actually get to a point where I could start to implement it.

For me, it was like a very large bicycle wheel with lots of spokes spinning round and round. There would be signs of relapse, I would be triggered emotionally, I would behave irrationally, adding stress to the situation, there would be more signs and heightened tension with my Loved One, increasing the possibility of relapse, and then a repeat, until it ultimately happened. I had to find a way to break the spinning of the wheel, and for me the only way I knew was to take a very large, heavy crowbar, throw it into one of the spaces between the spokes, and stop the wheel!

The "large, heavy crowbar" is representative of the difficult feelings I was struggling with, which I used to try to control the situation. Deep down, and with every ounce of me, I didn't want to have to work at reducing the intense emotions. It would be much easier to just stay with my old patterns of pacing, proof hunting, and being suspicious. I literally had to force myself into this process (feel—pause—self-care—respond). It has taught to be more present and appreciate every moment, both the good and the bad.

As I said at the start, you have raised the "million dollar question" and I could go on and on about it. I hope that what I've responded with here helps. You are not alone in your feelings and I'm sure almost every participant on the Allies website can attest to that.





In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. What do you do when your loved one relapses and the roller coaster ride starts again.
    How do you keep positive and have hope things will get better when the behavior remains the same.
    How do you encourage your loved one when you are just falling apart with fears for their future.
    How do you let go when letting go may end in disaster?

    I’m really feeling overwhelmed .
    I need some advice

    Thank you

    1. Ahhhhh Lucien, my heart goes out to you. If the previous question you raised was the million-dollar question, this is the 10-million-dollar question. “How do you encourage your Loved One when you are falling apart with fears for their future? How do you let go when letting go may end in disaster?”

      “The most important spiritual growth doesn’t happen when you’re meditating or on a yoga mat. It happens in the midst of conflict – when you’re frustrated, angry or scared and you’re doing the same old thing, and then suddenly realize that you have a choice to do it differently…”   — Author unknown

      One suggestion I would make would be to head back to Module 7 and watch all of the videos.

      Module 7 is all about what to do when you find yourself in overwhelming despair and frustration.

      Also, go back to my first response to you and reread what is written under the section I now see what people meant when they told me “take care of yourself” : Here’s how I see the process. This is a description of Module 7 in practice: let the initial feelings in, take a pause, add in alternative thoughts, respond instead of react. Pay special attention to number 5. Remember, none of this will make those intense feelings disappear. It can however, make them more manageable.

      One simple technique in Module 7 to pay special attention to is “awfulizing.” Awfulizing is something every human brain seems to resort to when we’re in crisis and experiencing extremely difficult feelings. It makes sense: it’s a mechanism that could help to protect us in extreme danger. I’m sure you have heard of the “Fight or Flight” response.

      See Laurie MacDougall’s full response to lucien here:

  2. Dear Laurie, Thank you so much for this. It is as if I hear myself. It helps me to know that I am not the only one who act like this and felt bad about it. Working and learning and in crisis doing the same as I did before! The time is helping and leading us in more knowledge. Thats for sure. This blog helps me to see. We are not alone.