The Four S’s of Practical Relapse Prevention

If it were easy to “just say no” after you had been saying “yes” for so long, there would be no need for a solid relapse prevention plan.

Rachel Noble on Relapse PreventionSheer will could power you to move forward in life and never look back on that dark time when everything was dictated solely by the foreign chemicals you injected, snorted, or smoked into your body. But anyone that has successfully made it through a struggle with addiction knows that there is nothing passive about preventing relapse. It requires a proactive approach full of continual action, commitment, and integrity- all of which should ideally be in place long before you reach that imminent moment of temptation. This article is intended to provide some practical, action-oriented ideas on how to plan for a successful, sober future. The ideas fall under four main categories that will be referred to as “The Four S’s of Practical Relapse Prevention.”


“S” Stands for: START OVER- The story of the old dresser

First things first.  Before you can do anything, you will have to accept the fact that, in many regards, you are going to have to start over. We call it a “wipe out,” as opposed to just a simple “wipe off.” You will understand what we mean as we compare starting over to a strange bedroom dresser. You can see from far away that this is no usual dresser. The clothes seem to be growing out of the drawers, and the weight of them is causing the wood to stoop and the dresser to lean heavily to one side. The nails are popping out and the attached mirror is warped and covered with a film that makes it impossible to see a reflection. Upon closer inspection, you may realize that, in addition to clothing, the drawers are full of various random objects that were never intended to end up in a dresser drawer- a set of 15-lb dumbbells, several paperweights, a heavy toolbox with no tools, and indeed, a rat’s nest. The smell is interesting to say the least. It comes not as a surprise to see that there is a thick layer of dust resting on top of the disheveled heap. Now let’s pretend it is your job to refurbish this lost piece of furniture and to reestablish it back to its original purpose. What would you do? Well of course you would just get a little rag, dust it off, and call it good right? No! We know that a simple “wipe off” would never be enough for this poor, battered thing. This dresser is going to need a good “wipe out” – and we do not just mean taking a wet rag with some wood polish to it. We mean a literal “wipe out,” which is going to require that we get rid of everything that does not belong, strip it down to its original frame, and start over.

After a bad run-in with substance abuse, you may feel a little bit like this sagging, useless dresser. After someone has helped you remove your heavy burdens, wiped off the film so you can actually see your true self again, and cleared away anything unhealthy or unwanted, the last thing you would want to do is go and grab your old rat nest friends or your heavy paperweight drug-related environments and put them back in your delicately renewed self!

So, first things first. No relapse prevention plan, no matter how comprehensive, will help if you store it inside a dirty, uncommitted dresser. Your substance abuse spring cleaning is going to involve wiping out old friends, old contact information, old Facebook buddies, old habits, old environments, and old ways of thinking. And remember that once something is wiped out, it must quickly be refilled. Choose to refill your life with healthy habits and structure- exercise, consistent sleeping patterns, time with healthy family and friends, volunteer work, developing a talent. Make a chart and post it on your fridge, or get a planner app on your phone.  If you are committed to wiping out the old and have already taken steps to start filling your life with the new, then you are genuinely ready to create an awesome relapse prevention plan and to move forward towards sobriety!


“S” stands for: SCHEDULE SELF-INVENTORY- It’s really okay to talk to yourself

The first part of creating a relapse prevention plan is to pre-schedule a time for self-inventory. Decide when you will consistently sit down with yourself and honestly answer some questions about your progress. Then fully commit by putting it in your iPhone calendar! We would suggest that this occur at least weekly (if not daily, especially when you are first starting out on your road to recovery!). Be sure to write up a list of questions before you get to your moment of crisis and include them in your Relapse Prevention Toolbox (a significant part of your relapse prevention plan explained in more detail below). Here are some questions you can ask yourself. Feel free to come up with some of your own!

 -Am I sober in action? and in mind and heart?

-Have I been honest with myself and others this week?

-What triggers did I experience this week? How did I respond to them? Did my response lead me

farther along- or away from- my path to recovery?

-What did I do to daily progress towards my goals? (Maybe record a list of short and long term

goals to review here!) Where could I improve?

-What action will I commit to this week to help myself along my path of recovery?

 We would also recommend that you post a list of relapse warning signs in a couple of places you will see often- maybe the bathroom mirror or the refrigerator. This way you can count on benefiting from random self-inventories that sneak up on you in normal life moments, such as brushing your teeth or getting a midnight snack.


-Isolating from others

-Increasing difficulties at work, school, or home

-Hanging out with old friends

-Lying, losing your temper, or being extra pessimistic

-Spending more time thinking about drugs and alcohol

-Assuring yourself you can control your drug problem alone

-Not talking about your feelings

-Forgetting to self-evaluate, check in with sponsor, or attend meetings

-Blaming others for your problems


“S” stands for: SOLIDIFY SUPPORT – It’s really okay to talk to others, too

Make a list of those you can trust and turn to for support. Be sure to include family, friends, church leaders, a sponsor, a counselor, and a support group. Write down their contact information and talk with them NOW about what they can do to reach out and support you during both the easy and hard times that are sure to come. Schedule at least a weekly check in with a counselor and/or sponsor and keep that commitment whether you have been doing well or not. Find an AA or other support group you feel comfortable attending and, again, attend consistently whether you are struggling or not. Consistency and both getting and giving help will assist you in staying on track over time. Commit to accepting feedback. When a friend suggests to you that they are starting to smell something funny coming from your “dresser,” investigate and dispose of it together! Spring cleaning is so much easier and more productive when you have someone to help you!


“S” stands for: STRATEGIZE FOR SETBACK – It’s time to pull out the good ol’ toolbox

Remember that empty toolkit that used to be weighing down your dresser? Well, it is time to fill it up and store it somewhere where it will serve as a constant reminder of why you ever decided to be sober in the first place. So, it is time to be creative. Go find an old shoe box, some unwanted magazines and newspapers , and some glue. You are going to make yourself a relapse prevention toolkit. Cut out pictures of things that you love, things that make you happy, and things that make you laugh. Glue a picture of your favorite dessert, a hilarious cartoon, or a beautiful sunrise right there on your box. This way, before you even open it, you will be reminded of the reasons for why life is so great sober! The next step will be to collect tools to put inside your toolkit. Here are some ideas:

-A letter to yourself that gives encouragement and a reminder of why you decided to get sober

-Pictures of family, friends, pets, happy memories

-Some notes of encouragement from loved ones

-The list of your support team and their contact information

-A journal for getting out how you feel on to paper

-3x5 cards with uplifting quotes or affirmations

-A small box of tissues

-An inspirational book or reminders of healthy things I can do to distract mysel

-Lucky trinkets or charms that remind you of loved ones, happy memories, or your commitment to sobriety

-Your AA Sobriety Coins or any certificates of achievement

-A relapse crisis plan (include who you have committed to call and what you have committed to do in case you have already relapsed)

-And… of course… some candy. Because sugar helps. It just does.


On the inside lid of the box, write down your safety plan steps. For example:

Before relapsing, I will go through the following list:

1-     Call Aunt Jo. She will make sure I am in a safe place and send someone to spend time with me.

2-     Review the contents of my toolbox.

3-     Write my feelings down in my journal.

4-     Take my dog for a walk.

5-     Call Aunt Jo again to let her know what I have decided to do.

The old, disheveled dresser had to be cleaned out, cleaned up, and refilled in order to fulfill the purpose for which is was created. It is the same for each of us. Choose to let others help you to discard of your unnecessary baggage, to assist you in removing the film that covers your eyes and keeps you from seeing who you really are, and to restore you back to the amazing, happy person you are intended to be. Then choose to prepare for relapse before you find yourself triggered so that you will have quick access to helpful tools and supportive colleagues. We recognize that relapse is a normal, expected part of recovery, but it does not have to be a continual part of your life. Look forward and commit to an exciting, happy future because it is definitely coming your way.




Rachel Noble, LCSW is the Director of Outpatient Services West Ridge Academy


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