Relapse is not an isolated event, but rather a process whereby an individual becomes dysfunctional or unable to cope with life in sobriety, and thus can no longer avoid using alcohol or other drugs. This process of becoming dysfunctional may lead to renewed alcohol or other drug use, physical or emotional collapse, or even suicide. The process is marked by predictable and identifiable warning signs that begin long before the return to use or collapse occurs. Progressively increased distress levels in any one of the problem areas — physical, psychological or social — can lead to physical or emotional collapse, resulting in relapse. These symptoms increase and intensify unless the individual returns to the use of alcohol or other drugs (HHS/SAMHSA, 1996a). One particular warning in early recovery occurs when a recovering person begins to seek out situations involving people who use alcohol or other drugs.
Given that addiction can be a chronic, progressive disorder often characterized by relapse, and given the fact that women who relapse may be in particular need of intensive treatment and continued support, the opportunity to reenter treatment must remain open. Continued relapse may point to a more serious disorder that was not initially diagnosed, such as post traumatic stress syndrome resulting from past sexual or physical abuse or current abuse. In order to address these and other issues in women's lives, such as stress connected with being a single parent, low income, being identified as a maltreating parent, and having few social resources, any or all of which may bring about relapse, separate attention to these issues is needed — attention that extends beyond the substance abuse treatment process. In order to prevent relapse, the client may have to continue addressing these issues for years after leaving treatment. Formal relapse prevention components that offer means for early detection of relapse and tools for intervention should be included in every treatment program.