Michael Weaver, MD
Medical director, Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction
Dr. Weaver has disclosed that he has no relevant financial or other interests in any commercial companies pertaining to this educational activity.
I first met 32-year-old Miranda after a drug relapse that followed a stay in a residential addiction treatment facility. She had begun experimenting recreationally with prescription opioids in her early 20s, but her use escalated after she was involved in a car accident a few years later and a doctor began prescribing opioids for pain. Because of her increased use, Miranda decided on her own to enter a 28-day detox and rehab, but relapsed immediately upon discharge. Several months later, she made an appointment with me to discuss opioid agonist treatment. I prescribed buprenorphine, and for the first few months of treatment she appeared to be doing well.
Addiction treatment often begins with high hopes and apparent success, but it’s important to remember that addiction is a disease with a relapse rate of 40%–60% (McLellan et al, JAMA 2000;284(13):1689–1695; Dawson DA et al, Alcohol Clin Exp Res 2007;31:2036–2045). Be realistic: Expect that patients will go through cycles of relapse and recovery. Learn the warning signs for relapse, the measures you can take to prevent it, and what to do after it has occurred.
There are a number of clues that someone has relapsed—or may be headed that way:
Reduced eye contact during a session
A more anxious demeanor than usual
Less engagement, or a sense of holding back from the treatment process
Exacerbated emotional distress or worsening co-anxiety or depression
Vague answers to questions
Reduced attendance at 12-step programs or therapeutic groups
Missed visits with a psychiatrist or other caregiver
None of these red flags individually spell impending relapse—instead, it’s the pattern of behavior that tells the story. Your patient may not actually have used yet, but (wittingly or unwittingly) is starting to go down that road. This is known as desire thinking (Martino F et al, Addict Behav 2017;64:118–122), and in 12-step programs, it’s called “drinking thinking.”
After three months of buprenorphine treatment, I began to notice worrisome signs of potential relapse during one of our sessions. Miranda’s answers to my questions were more vague than usual, her eye contact faltered, and she seemed a little more anxious. Before that session, we had started talking about smoking cessation, but that day she didn’t seem interested.
At that point, I told Miranda I would need a urine sample. She hemmed and hawed for a minute, then admitted that she had started using again within the past few days. She had been spending time with her sister, who also abused a variety of illegal and prescription drugs; while there, her sister had told her, “I know you can’t use opioids, but here are some benzodiazepines. Why don’t you try those?” Miranda acquiesced, and that quickly escalated to use of marijuana and finally opioids.
Miranda’s story is fairly typical. Pressure from peers not in recovery, or simply spending time with old friends not in recovery, is cause for concern. In fact, if a patient divulges spending time with past friends to you, this can be a clue that’s just as telling as poor eye contact or unusual jitteriness.
The marijuana Miranda’s sister provided only complicated things more. For many people, using marijuana or alcohol provides a false sense of confidence. They think, “I can smoke some pot or have a couple of drinks because they aren’t my problems, and I can handle them.” But these substances are called gateway drugs for a reason—they can impair judgment and lead people to the very drugs they want to avoid.
Proactive is better than reactive It’s much easier to prevent a problem than to treat one, so I spend a lot of time teaching patients how to identify their own risk factors for relapse. The key is reminding patients that any unusual event can reduce their resolve because if they are caught off guard, it is hard to stay focused on abstinence goals. Examples of such events include things like visits by a disliked in-law, a chance meeting with someone from the patient’s drug-using past, and waylaid plans for a vacation.
I find it helpful to talk to patients about potential challenges they might face, and then help them cope with the stress of such situations by rehearsing responses and planning tactics. For a troublesome in-law, for example, you can encourage the patient to express concerns to her spouse and to explain the need to keep away for much of the visit. You can do some role-playing to simulate a chance conversation with a past friend who still uses so the patient has a script that will make saying “no” easier and more automatic. Responses can range from, “No thanks, I’ve decided not to use because I don’t want any problems at my new job” to, “Maybe another time,” which is non-judgmental and helps avoid confrontation.
Relapse triggers are often situational. For instance, if everyone from work is going out for a drink, a patient might feel obligated to drink too. Walk the patient through a discussion about whether attending the event but not imbibing alcohol would actually affect his job security. For example, if he nursed a club soda rather than an alcoholic beverage, would anybody really care?
To help patients deal with temptations, I encourage them to write daily in a journal, even if it’s only half a page. This helps them identify what might be troubling them, put the issues in perspective, and work out solutions. (Ed note: For more information about relapse prevention skills based on cognitive behavioral therapy, see Cognitive Behavioral Skills Therapy Manual: A Clinical Research Guide for Therapists Treating Individuals With Alcohol Abuse and Dependence: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/ProjectMatch/match03.pdf.)
If a relapse is already in progress You can’t always capture the problem before it has occurred. If your patient has relapsed, the most important task is to help minimize the severity of the relapse. Substance-using patients often slip into an all-or-nothing attitude, in which they say to themselves, “I’ve relapsed; I’ve failed treatment. My abstinence is over, so I might as well give in to the drugs and forget about treatment altogether.” (For more information on cognitive distortions in substance use disorder, see Beck A et al, Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.)
In such cases, it’s important to reassure patients that a relapse doesn’t mean the end of the world—in fact, it doesn’t even mean the treatment didn’t work. Just like any chronic disease process, addiction treatment involves remissions and exacerbations, and sometimes all that’s needed is a change of approach. I will often give patients the analogy of treating an infection: “Say you have an infection that requires oral antibiotics. If the infection comes back, you don’t decide that the treatment was worthless. Instead, you talk about it with your doctor, who might need to prescribe stronger oral antibiotics, or even recommend a hospital stay for intravenous antibiotics. It’s the same thing here. Our first approach to maintaining recovery only worked for so long, so now we’ll try a different approach.”
How do you step up your treatment game to help a relapsing patient? There are many next steps, depending on the circumstances:
Seeing the patient more frequently on an outpatient basis
Requiring more frequent urine testing to keep the patient accountable and provide an incentive to think twice about using
Having the patient go to more 12-step meetings or more group or individual therapy sessions
Increasing the dosage of medication-assisted therapy, such as an opioid antagonist
Having the patient undergo a brief inpatient stay for detox
After Miranda’s relapse, I increased her dose of buprenorphine/naloxone from 12 mg/3 mg to 16 mg/4 mg daily to help with cravings and prevent any withdrawal from her recent opioid use. I also asked her to commit to seeing her therapist more frequently. We worked on some of the issues that led to the relapse; specifically, I talked with her about avoiding contact with her sister. In this case, I didn’t suggest 12-step meetings, because she wasn’t particularly interested in that approach. However, because her depression had started to worsen, I made an adjustment to her antidepressant medication.
These steps worked. Miranda went to see her therapist more often, and she responded to the adjustments in her buprenorphine dose. She also stayed away from her sister for a while and worked on refusal skills: “I know you’re trying to be helpful, but it’s not what I want or need right now. Please don’t offer me anything.”
Miranda was highly motivated—more than many other patients. But this doesn’t mean she’s immune to problems leading to other relapses (hopefully short-lived ones), even months or years down the road. That’s often part of the process of recovery—it doesn’t always happen in a straight line.
Like what you just read? Dr. Weaver’s new book, Addiction Treatment, is replete with practical tips for helping addicted patients yourself rather than losing them to follow-up when referring them elsewhere. The 14 brief chapters contain detailed instructions on how to frame sensitive questions to elicit honest answers, user-friendly charts to help you describe what drugs to prescribe in which circumstances, and much more. Feel great about helping your patients pull their lives together. Go to https://thecarlatreport.com/AddictionGuide for more information.