Relapse Autopsy: Get Our Guide

Relapse Autopsy

Using a Relapse to Assess and Renew Your Recovery

We know it sounds grim, maybe even a bit scary. But a relapse autopsy – despite its gloomy name, is a learning tool that helps people in recovery get back on track if they have slipped up and used (or drank) after being clean and sober for a continuous amount of time. Gaining this understanding of what contributed to the substance abuse can help someone avoid repeating the mistake or falling back into active addiction.

While you may think it feels a bit like homework, it’s a tremendous opportunity to recommit to sobriety and avoid future relapses!

Purpose Healing Center recognizes the need for everyone in recovery to develop a strong relapse prevention plan. However, coping mechanisms included in an aftercare treatment plan may need to evolve with the person. When someone has relapsed, it often means that triggers and emotions leading up to substance use need a tune-up.

Read on to learn how a relapse autopsy can help you identify what choices contributed to relapse, and offer ways to avoid the negative consequences of repeated relapse!

Five Steps of a Relapse Autopsy: A Mental Health and Relapse Prevention Tool

Steps of a Relapse Autopsy

Relapses don’t usually happen just because someone had a bad day. Specific events usually cause the behavior, whether immediately following participation in local drug rehab programs or even years into recovery. Mastering the five-step relapse autopsy process can help identify the patterns that cause the judgment lapse.

If you are an individual struggling with substances, understand that there’s not a “right” or “wrong” answer as you complete this exercise. You don’t need to share the results of the relapse autopsy with others unless you want to.

Relapse autopsies help you manage the behaviors that lead to relapsing. They’re valuable self-evaluation tools that can keep you on the path to clean and sober living. These five categories of self-reflection can help you forgive yourself—you don’t deserve the suffering.

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Are You Supporting Someone Who Has Relapsed Recently?

If you’re not the person coping with the relapse, it can still be helpful to continue to read this information. You will be more attuned to their feelings – from denial to despair – and help them continue recovery. Be patient and give them space.

Most of all, be understanding if your loved one doesn’t want to share their relapse autopsy with you right away – that will come in time. They don’t owe you any justification about why they’re not ready to share.

Step One: Identifying When, How, and Conditions That Contribute to Relapse

To start the relapse autopsy, you must track when and how things went wrong. You’ll record the date and time. Easy right? Then, you will need to think back and determine what you were doing before the relapse. Record that information.

Understanding these aspects can be very helpful. For example, if you have relapsed in the past and have again recently – look at the time of day.

Are you making mistakes at the same time?

We have had clients who live alone tell us they feel the most vulnerable after eating dinner when sitting quietly. They feel alone and a little bored, creating desires or cravings. Some clients immediately realized that they needed evening routines and strategies to keep themselves occupied, such as hitting the gym or visiting with friends.

Step Two: What Interactions Happened Immediately Before the Relapse?

Next, it’s time to zero in on the people, places, and specific events that increase the risk of a slip-up. These events are not a justification for the relapse, nor are they a denial of accountability. Rather, better understanding your specific triggers can help you prepare when dealing with them is unavoidable.

For instance, one past client told us about a toxic co-worker who used the client’s past addiction issues against them. She was passed up for a special project that had bonus money potential because she was in treatment. The co-worker publicly aired that information, causing great distress to the client.

The client eventually saw that the person’s opinion didn’t matter and became non-responsive to the constant criticism. Once the co-worker could not pick a fight, he stopped the passive-aggressive behaviors.

Step Three: Behavioral Analysis Reveals How Poor Decisions Can Lead to Recovery Setbacks

Behavioral Analysis to Improve Recovery Setbacks

Before we discuss this section, let’s be clear that you can overcome setbacks. Relapsing does not mean you are a failure. Instead, it’s like a hole in your safety net—something you can patch once you realize it exists.

This third step gives you valuable insight into how your reactions to the world around you and subsequent decisions reveal the need to improve your relapse prevention plan.

This step means you must ask yourself some hard questions like the following:

  • Did you see symptoms or warning signs that you were craving your drug of choice?
  • Did you ignore those cues?
  • What other habits might have worsened those symptoms?

A good example is smoking cigarettes – a habit we urge people to quit. We once had a client who had smoked her entire life and then stopped during recovery. She stayed clean for over two years until she had that “one cigarette” with an old friend. The alcohol drinking that she associated with smoking bubbled to the surface, and she triggered her alcohol use disorder.

She called her therapist right away and worked hard to squash the desire to drink. Today, she avoids all substances, including nicotine.

Step Four: Emotional and Psychological Factors That Compromise Sobriety

The next part of the relapse autopsy means writing down how you felt just before relapsing and during it. Did you argue with your relationship partner? Were you disappointed or lost hope in an expected outcome?

Emotions and behaviors share close links, and you may have reverted to using your drug of choice to soothe your feelings.

Consider our client whose mother passed away unexpectedly just two months into his sobriety journey. He started to revert to addiction behaviors, forgetting the relapse prevention strategies he had learned. He didn’t need to begin from scratch when he returned for more intensive outpatient treatment near his home in Glendale.

His counselor helped him develop additional tools to help him deal with those nasty surprises life often sends us. The client was able to arise from the ashes and was able to overcome addiction with those additional skills.

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Step Five: Development of a Prevention Plan

The last phase of treatment means creating a relapse recovery plan. Remember that earlier we mentioned that plans change – including your aftercare plans. Every life has twists and turns, which we often cannot predict.

Your aftercare plan might have worked well right out of recovery. But as you reintegrate into life, you must update various aspects of it along the way. Learn from the relapse. Ask what you can do better in the future to avoid another relapse.

Can you change your environment to support your recovery more fully? Is there a new habit or behavior that you must establish?

Prevention planning looks different for everyone. What is vital is that yours addresses the triggers to keep your recovery on course.

A Relapse Triggers Worksheet Can Help You Return to Sobriety

Completing a relapse autopsy can give you a clear picture of what contributed to the mistake. It’s not an excuse or justification for the relapse but a deep exploration that can help you find solutions and avoid further mistakes.

Download Our Relapse Autopsy Worksheet

Relapse Autopsy Worksheet - Purpose Healing Center

Get Structure and Support at Purpose After a Relapse

A relapse can happen at any stage of recovery, even decades later. Relapse is not an ending to a sober lifestyle, it’s just a temporary roadblock.

If you need additional recovery support, both our residential programs and outpatient program options like PHP and IOP at Purpose Healing Center can give you the boost you need and help you recommit to your new sober life.

Make the confidential call and connect with us today – our caring team can help!