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The Rocky Road to Relapse

Posted on September 18th, 2019 by

The winding road…

The road to relapse isn’t an easy road to manoeuvre.

Addiction is a stress related illness whereby your brain has been hijacked into thinking that you need that substance in order to survive, just like the desire to eat when you are hungry, or run away when you see something on fire. As an addict your brain’s response to stress is dysfunctional, it tells you that if you were to just succumb to this urge, in my case alcohol, things would become less stressful and some sort of order would be restored within your body. It’s an urge like no other – even to the point that most of the time you aren’t even conscious of it. It is in essence a deep inability to deal with anything stressful.

The truth is, relapse begins well in advance of the act of picking up your substance of choice. 

The Emotional Relapse

The first stage of a relapse is The Emotional Relapse where the mind goes through various stages of emotional turmoil and struggle, while you might not entirely identify with it – it usually starts with a trigger – this is when your mind starts playing tricks on you. You might find yourself stressing about something completely insignificant niggling away at your peace of mind. You might end up thinking, I want to drink but I don’t want to let my family down and I really don’t want to deal with the other unthinkable consequences that come along with it. The best thing to do at this stage is to share how you are feeling with someone, however pride and selfishness come into play and in a way the little devil on your shoulder is doing its worst work at this point, this is where the devious game your own mind starts to play on you begins… 

In my case I actually did try and address these feelings with my wife, she was already very aware of my heightened emotional state of mind as we had been having heated arguments the weeks and nights before, we were both understandably worried and very aware of what was about to happen. My wife, who is extremely supportive decided to give me the chance to make an appointment with my addiction worker. A day free from my responsibilities of the children, a day to get my head sorted, I played along with it and agreed but it was impossible to escape the battle I was in with my addiction. My heart was telling me to sort myself out but my brain was telling me not to talk to anyone, almost like an abusive partner who doesn’t want you to tell anyone about their behaviour toward you, my brain was craving that relief it so badly needed. I ended up fabricating a story about making an appointment, I was so engulfed by my own inadequacy, the emotional battle with my addiction and being true to my own needs that I just cruised faster and further down that highway to relapse – the emotional turmoil continued… because now I had been dishonest and that only added to my woes.

This phase ( white-knuckling, dry drunk) often displays itself with mood swings and isolation and may even end up with poor sleeping patterns which makes you feel run down and reactive and this often results in getting out the “Blame Thrower” (An attempt to shift blame for your failures) torching the ones you love the most with abuse and reason after reason to pick up [your drug of choice] but not actually going through with the final act.

The Mental Relapse

The second phase is The Mental Relapse this stage is possibly the hardest stage as you are presented with an internalised battle between the rational frontal lobe of your brain and the reptilian survival part of your brain, you know rationaly that picking up a drink is a terrible idea and will certainly lead to an abundance of problems further down the line, however, you are in a monumental battle with the survival instinct within in your brain, a battle, sadly, which is extremely hard to win.

At this stage, you may be in a supermarket, your eye catches the bottles in the booze aisle and your brain is egging you on, like a problem child in the playground wanting you to do something that you know will get you into trouble, but you’re in full consideration despite the negative consequences. The battle is real, and you are able to resist on this occasion, however, it’s not long before we get to the final messy showdown.

The Physical Relapse

The Physical Relapse this stage is characterised by remembering the good parts about your drinking days, glamorising how much fun it was, how relaxed we felt, and of course completely forgetting about that time you were arrested and restrained in your own home by eight police officers, spending night after night in the police cells, missing days off work, making your way through the criminal justice system and possibly worst of all producing a cataclysmic mess of the family home and deeply traumatising the people you love the most, regrettably, leaving them to pick up the pieces. Of course you forget that, your brain is tricking you, you are now in full blown denial and bargaining with yourself. 

Before you know it, you’re planning and thinking about relapsing and it isn’t long before you find yourself in the shop with a six pack of cans in the basket, hidden by a newspaper just incase anyone sees you, looking around like a paranoid maniac just in case you bump into anyone you know who may let out your deepest darkest secret – you’re on the relapse! I even remember feeling shameful around complete strangers in the queue, who in all honesty haven’t the faintest clue you have a drinking problem, the shame is so apparent you feel like you’re being judged – even when you aren’t. Standing anxiously in line, heart racing, hoping things will go smoothly, excited but also weirdly feeling guilty about who you are about to let down, then a counterstrike happens and you’re thinking switches it’s only a few drinks, arrogantly thinking “I can handle this, I can get away with it”.

On the walk home, down the hatch the cans go, all evidence discarded hoping that nobody witnessed your embarrassing and somewhat abnormal behaviour, fifteen minutes or so later the stress and anxiety has all but dissipated, homeostasis is restored, life is seen through rose tinted spectacles once again. You are temporarily happy and at ease with the world around you. Alas, not all is what it seems and a few hours later, like a sledgehammer to the brain “wait a minute” this blissful feeling is disappearing, and its disappearing fast, I DO NOT LIKE THIS AT ALL, panic! Then begins the slippery slope back into my enclave of anxiety, self pity, shame and guilt. Stressed to the hilt – I resist the temptation to go for more for the rest of the evening but the demon has been released from its cage and is stronger than ever. The next morning comes around, hungover, paranoid in bed, the walls crawling, hoping your wife doesn’t kiss you because your breath might stink of alcohol and you definitely don’t want to let the cat out of the bag at this stage. Suffering and on edge all morning, the minutes feel like hours and the suffering is real and unbearable. Unfortunately, the only way to quell this feeling is to drink again. I drum up some random excuses to go to the shop, the clock had just struck 10am. “Anyone fancy a bacon roll?” I blurt out to my wife. Regardless of whether she says yes or not, I’m going. It’s now 10.05 am, which seems like a normal time to go to the shop for bacon, but it’s also the time off sales start. I have £8 in my pocket, “how am I going to get bacon, rolls and some alcohol?” I’m thinking, the nearest shop that sells relatively cheap bacon, rolls and booze is a good twenty minute walk away, I can’t really be bothered but my mind is focused on one thing and one thing only – the joyous sedation of alcohol. Of course the bacon is merely just a prop to my cunning plans, so, much to the inconvenience to myself I decided to start my pilgrimage. By the way, just for reference, the other shop is four minutes round the corner.

Fifteen minutes pass, I’m within striking distance of fulfilling my “ingenious” plan. My phone rings, its my wife, panic sets in and my eyes roll into the back of my head, I answer, just so as to not raise any suspicion “I thought you’d be back by now?”, “Oh, I’m just heading to Lidl because the bacon is cheaper there”, a harmless excuse of course, foolishly thinking to myself that no red flags had been raised, “I’ll be back in twenty minutes”, the other part to my ploy was that twenty minutes gives me enough time to drink alcohol on the way home. Needless to say, things didn’t go to plan. 

This is just a snippet of a long story, but hopefully gives you some insight into my alcoholic thinking. Manipulation is at the heart of it all, but all I really need is to have my urges met, so I will do or say anything to have them met. Even if it is lying to the person I love the most. The only person I was being dishonest with that day was myself.


Back to that thought  “I can handle this, I can get away with it”, well again this is my brain tricking me because I know full well that once that alcohol passes my lips I have lost that all so tedious battle with my reptilian brain, the part of my brain which is involved with primitive drives related to thirst, hunger, sex, and territory. It’s been hijacked and I no longer just need the alcohol for stress relief or enjoyment, I now need it for survival. The phenomenon of craving kicks in and I no longer have a choice but to fulfil my primitive urges to survive. This is what makes relapse so difficult, you can see exactly what it is doing to the people around you but you simply switch off, becoming unapologetically selfish with a deep lack of empathy. Your brain is in survival mode.

The problem with substance abuse is that although the first couple of acts of “picking up” numb the issues you’re experiencing, things quickly escalate out of control and before you know it you’re in full blown relapse and entrenched in your old ways of thinking and coping with the stress, anxiety and all the other problems that life throws at you – then you end up with an abundance of other issues such as hospitalisation, family breakdown and even homelessness.

Things usually get worse from here on in, but I’ll save that for the next part in this series.