Coming Back From A Relapse

Sobriety is rarely a linear progression. There will be ups, and downs, setbacks, achievements, and yes, there will even be relapses. Yet many people in recovery look at relapse as a failure and they end up berating themselves, or worse, hiding it because they are too embarrassed to ask for help. The latter is especially true for those that had substantial amounts of time and felt they should have known better and suddenly their pride is getting in the way of saying they relapsed.

So much importance is made of clean time—birthdays, chips, and time countdowns—that it often feels shameful to relapse. Nonetheless, “Relapse is common,” writes Dr. David Sack. “Studies suggest that approximately half of all individuals who try to get sober return to heavy use, with 70 to 90 percent experiencing at least one mild to moderate slip. In other words, not many people say, ‘I want to get sober,’ walk into a treatment center, and never use drugs again.”

Another way to look at it is an addict and alcoholic’s natural state is abusing substances. Their unnatural state is sobriety. Everyday that they are not using and drinking is an incredible gift. But it is very likely that they could possibly slip. However if they do they should get back up, dust themselves off, and jump back into recovery.

Now none of this means that everyone gets a free pass to relapse. The objective is and always will be staying sober. But what it does mean is the addict and alcoholic need to be vigilant and proactive. “People will slip because they don’t have the tools to overcome certain emotional situations,” writes Buddy T., an anonymous founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee. “They may have had a horrible day and use that as a justification to start drinking again. Alternately, they may be overwhelmed by cravings that frequently occur during early recovery.” Or as Dr. Sack reports, “Typically, addicts who return to drugs nearly always do so in response to drug-related cues, such as seeing drug paraphernalia or visiting places where they once scored drugs.”

The above situations are all labeled as triggers. Which MentalHelp.net defines as, “External events or circumstances that may produce very uncomfortable emotional or psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, panic, discouragement, despair, or negative self-talk. Reacting to triggers is normal, but if we don’t recognize them and respond to them appropriately, they may actually cause a downward spiral, making us feel worse and worse.” For the addict and alcoholic this “downward spiral” almost always ends in relapse.

Yet it isn’t just triggers that create the perfect storm for a relapse. The addict and alcoholic must also stay vigilant for the subtle and seeming innocuous moments that can precede a relapse. Such as having surgery, getting prescribed pain meds, and not telling anyone. The addict and alcoholic may reason, “It’s not my drug of choice, so it won’t be a problem.” But really that’s their addiction talking and the hard truth is that once that addictive urge has been awoken by a mind altering substance, the addict’s inhibitions are down and picking up their drug of choice is then all the more easier.

However, for the majority it’s a much more subtle process. “Relapse is a gradual process that begins weeks and sometimes months before an individual picks up a drink or drug,” instructs Dr. Steven M. Melemis. “If individuals do not practice sufficient self-care, eventually they will start to feel uncomfortable in their own skin and look for ways to escape, relax, or reward themselves.” Further stating his position Dr. Melemis suggests that, “recovering individuals need to learn to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. They often assume that non-addicts don’t have the same problems or experience the same negative emotions. Therefore, they feel it is defensible or necessary to escape their negative feelings. The cognitive challenge is to indicate that negative feelings are not signs of failure, but a normal part of life and opportunities for growth.”

Dr. Stephen Taylor, the medical director of the Player Assistance/Anti-Drug Program of the NBA, similarly advises, “even if you know you consciously made a choice that you knew better than to make, bottom line is that you make a mistake and then get past that. Move forward. Learn what you did right, and what mistakes you made leading up to your relapse. That’s valuable time; you don’t throw that away.”

While Buddy T. takes a more proactive stance, “The best way to prevent a slip from becoming a relapse is to act immediately. It is something you cannot do alone, and the seriousness of the slip should never be downplayed by you or those around you. However ‘serious’ or ‘minor’ the slip may have been, it is a clear sign that something is wrong and that there are issues that need to be addressed so that the slip doesn’t happen again.” Dr. Melemis takes this concept even further stating, “Recovery involves creating a new life in which it is easier to not use. If individuals do not change their lives, then all the factors that contributed to their addiction will still be there.” So living, breathing, and having a strong program of recovery is the best plan of action.

Yet the bottom line is, “Your recovery doesn’t have to end because of a relapse,” writes journalist Elizabeth Brico. “Your value is not defined by your drug use, even if that drug use is ongoing. You are a human being who deserves love, care, and respect. A friend once said this to me and now I’m passing it to you: take a break from being strong if need be, for as long as you need—but remember to get back up and keep fighting when you’re ready. You deserve a life you love.”


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