Relapse Prevention & the Five Rules of Recovery

October 25, 2023

5 mins

Jackie Rosu


Following the 5 rules of recovery, an individual can simplify the recovery process into more manageable steps.

From the outside, recovering from an addiction seems very complex. There are so many questions to be answered. How does someone manage to avoid falling into old habits, especially when their brains keep reminding them of their substance? 

There are answers to these critical questions. Following thirty years of experience working with patients, therapist Steven M. Melemis published an article detailing five basic rules for recovery. Simply put, by following the 5 rules of recovery, an individual can simplify the recovery process into more manageable steps.

Beginning with the first rule of recovery, to change one’s life, the rules of recovery address old habits that lead to addiction, and push individuals to create new, healthy habits. That way, they can avoid relapsing and even an overdose.

What is an Overdose?

An overdose is when a person takes a toxic amount of one or more drugs, which overwhelms the body by messing with its normal functions. People can overdose on many substances, from Tylenol to alcohol to dangerous drugs like opioids. Depending on the substance, a person will experience symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, severe stomach pain, chest pain, unresponsiveness, loss of consciousness, and even death.

An overdose is one of many possible outcomes as a result of relapse. The 5 rules of recovery can help a person avoid that risk altogether.

Rule One: Change Your Life

According to Melemis, clients and families often begin recovery with the hope that they won’t have to change their lifestyle. The addict’s desire is to return to their old life, without substance abuse. Unfortunately, this primes the patient for relapse. Just because relapse prevention requires some change to a person’s life, doesn’t mean they will have to completely reinvent themself. Realistically, there is a small percentage of the lifestyle that must be changed

A person must change negative thinking patterns. These thoughts lead to anxiety, depression, and subsequently addiction. Negative thinking is a risk factor for developing an addiction and for relapse and includes all-or-nothing thinking or negative self-labeling. For example, if a person thinks that they are unlikeable, that life won’t be fun without using, or that they are too damaged to ever recover or find happiness, then they are trapped in negative thought patterns. These are commonly treated using cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, a therapy that teaches people techniques to unlearn these harmful patterns.

A person must avoid people, places, and things associated with using. For example, a friend who often encouraged that person to use can trigger a relapse. Avoiding places like bars or restaurants where a person would use, meet up with friends to drink, and even paraphernalia related to drinking can go a long way towards avoiding relapse. 

Finally, Melemis recommends that a person incorporates the five rules of recovery into their lifestyle. In doing so, they will be able to develop a healthier life with a better chance of success in sustaining sobriety.

Rule Two: Be Completely Honest

When struggling with addiction, a person will often lie about buying drugs, hide the drugs, deny the consequences, or plan an intentional relapse. Eventually, some individuals even begin lying to themselves.

When patients feel they cannot be completely honest, it is a sign of emotional relapse. On the other hand, it is important to know that complete honesty doesn’t mean sharing what is ‘wrong’ with other people. It means looking within and self-reflecting, not deflecting attention to others.

Complete honesty is about being honest with oneself. As well, patients are often encouraged to develop recovery circles, groups of people including family, doctors, counselors, self-help groups, and sponsors where they can be entirely honest and feel comfortable.

“Self-help groups help people overcome the guilt and shame that often accompanies addiction.”

Rule Three: Ask for Help

Recovery should never be lonely, but many people try to go through recovery alone. However, joining a self-help group is proven to significantly increase the chances of long-term recovery. 

Benefits of active participation in self-help groups include:

  1. Individuals feel that they are not alone
  2. They learn what the voice of addiction sounds like by hearing it in others
  3. They learn about other people’s recovery journeys and successful coping skills
  4. They have a safe place to go where they will not be judged

Self-help groups also help people overcome the guilt and shame that often accompanies addiction. These negative emotions can obstruct recovery, as people may feel damaged by addiction and undeserving of recovery and happiness.

While asking for help can be difficult, these self-help groups provide a non-judgmental and understanding environment.

Rule Four: Practice Self-Care

Often, people use drugs and alcohol to escape, relax, and reward themselves. Practicing self-care means finding a way to take care of oneself that doesn’t involve self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. When a person takes the time to relax and take care of themselves, they decrease feelings of irritability, exhaustion, and discontentment that can lead to relapse. 

Self-care can be as simple as eating healthy food and developing good sleep habits. When a person is hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, or “HALT”, they are in a high-risk situation. Learning to practice self-care in those moments can help a person avoid relapse.

When considering self-care, many individuals worry about being selfish. However, there is a clear difference. When a person is selfish, they take more than they need. Self-care is when a person takes as much as they need. In fact, addicted individuals typically take less than they need and become exhausted or resentful as a result. For these people, addiction is a way to relax or escape. Learning to practice self-care will stop these negative emotions before they develop.

Rule Five: Don’t Bend the Rules

The final of the five rules of recovery is the most simple. When and after recovering, a person needs to follow these five rules. If they look for loopholes in recovery, they will end up resisting or sabotaging change. 

For example, relapse after five years of abstinence is very rare. At the same time, milestones such as recovery anniversaries are often seen as reasons to use. Many people have relapsed by planning to use at such a milestone.

One warning sign of relapse is when clients ask for professional help but consistently ignore the advice. When a person stops caring about the rules of recovery and about avoiding relapse, they are more likely to return to their old habits.

By committing to following the rules, a patient has a far better chance of staying safe and sober. Creating a new life without any factors that led to addiction will help someone avoid relapse.

Stay Sober and Unashamed with Never Alone Recovery

The rules of recovery break what looks like a complex project into simple parts. By transforming their life, being honest, asking for help, practicing self-care, and sticking to these rules, an individual struggling with substance abuse can protect themselves from relapse.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, Never Alone Recovery can help. Offering free online support such as addiction consultants, can help you find recovery communities that follow the 5 rules of recovery. Call our toll-free number today to see which services are right for you.

5 rules of recovery, rules of recovery

We're On Medium!

We're sharing the recovery stories of our community members. Be sure to check out Never Alone Recovery on Medium to read those featured stories.



Check Out Our eBook
Surviving Your Loved One's Addiction


$19.95 Value
Inside spread with pullquote