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Relapse Prevention
with John Leadem, LCSW & Shawn Leadem, LCSW

Every Relapse Follows a Predictable Path

GoodRelapse in not an event. It is a process. The process is predictable and once it is learned can be clearly identified and successfully intervened on. An individual’s movement through the relapse process is progressive in nature and will always result in a return to active addiction if it is not interrupted.

Consider the following brief scenario:

John has just been informed that he is being terminated from his job. He feels angry, rejected and embarrassed (Uncomfortable Feelings). He denies any concern when questioned by his colleagues and claims he was looking for a change anyway (Fragmentation).   His dishonesty with colleagues leaves him feeling all alone, isolated – just like he often felt when he was a kid (“Time Travel”).

He quietly gets into his car for the difficult drive home, scared and ashamed because he knows he will have to face his wife and tell her the news (Uncomfortable Feelings). He is remembering the last time he was fired and the ensuing conflict it caused at home (“Time Travel”).

Ironically his phone rings right as he is pulling out of the lot. It’s George, the guy he sat next to at yesterday’s self-help recovery meeting. But John is too upset to talk so he sends the call to voicemail (Eliminating the “Witnesses”). On his way home he drives past a bar he used to frequent before he got sober and thinks to himself “maybe no one will blame me if I drink” (Gathering Justification)…

The above scenario occurs in under an hour. In that short period of time John has moved in and out of five common phases found in many relapses we have seen. In the story we underlined the key words or phrases that contain the clues as to which phase of relapse John is entering into in that moment. The parentheses contain the easy catchphrase nicknames we have given to each phase. One does not need to move through all five phases in order to end in relapse. In this vignette however, John moves in and out of all of them. The five phases of relapse highlighted above are:

  1. Uncomfortable Feelings: By definition, relapse is intended to change the way we feel. Thats it. No other reason.
  2. Time Travel: Our Uncomfortable Feelings don’t always know “what time it is” and we can experience an emotional flashback as if it is happening right now. This is why addressing trauma is crucial for successful addiction recovery.
  3. Fragmentation: When what we feel or think on the inside is not matching what people see or hear on our outside, we are likely fragmented. Successful recovery needs us to become congruent.
  4. Gathering Justification: How we make it “ok” to do what we are doing. How we blame something outside of ourselves for what we are feeling inside. In a relapse there is always a target. A person, a circumstance, or an event to blame.
  5. Eliminating the Witnesses: We successfully keep away the important people in our lives from knowing whats really going on with us. We either stay away physically, or we hide from them in other ways.

Hopefully John will arrive home at the end of this story with his sobriety intact. But if he goes to sleep without intervening in some way on the dangerous storm percolating inside of him he will start the day tomorrow with all of the emotional discomfort of the previous day. It is almost certain that he will wake up in one of, or some of these five phases of the relapse process.

Relapse never just “happens” without provocation or warning. That is fortunate. Anyone in recovery can learn their predictable patterns and begin the process of developing personalized intervention strategies that lead to relapse free recovery.

In our next few articles we will highlight and expound upon each of the five phases of relapse highlighted in the above vignette. We invite you to >CLICK HERE< and participate in this discussion by leaving your own comments or questions for us or for our readers. We look forward to hearing from you.


Every Relapse Follows a Predictable Path

John Leadem, MSW, LCSW and Shawn Leadem, MSW, LCSW

Both John and Shawn Leadem are Licensed Clinical Social Workers in private practice in Toms River, New Jersey.

John has recently celebrated his 45th year in recovery and believes that “service to others is the cornerstone of spiritual maturity.” His professional service to addicted individuals and their families has included the development and direction of addiction treatment services in a full array of modalities from half-way houses to large residential treatment facilities over the past 44 years.

Shawn's lifelong exposure to the recovery culture and his personal recovery experience has left him with a deep personal empathy for the social and emotional suffering endured by others and a strong faith in a person’s ability to change. He has received his certification as a Sexual Addiction Therapist and as a Multiple Addictions Therapist by the International Institute for Trauma & Addiction Professionals.

Together, John and Shawn have co-authored and brought their unique treatment model of relapse prevention, An Ounce of Prevention: A Course in Relapse Prevention, to residential treatment centers across the United States, they have trained therapists at numerous national and international conferences, and most recently have trained many EAP programs associated with many State Unions.

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APA Reference
Shawn Leadem, J. (2017). Every Relapse Follows a Predictable Path. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2017
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