Understanding and Avoiding Relapse
A Simple Truth
A simple truth of recovery is that it never truly ends. Once our bodies become addicted to something – be it a substance or a feeling – we remain addicted to it for life.
To someone in recovery, this can be burdensome. It’s as if one’s past transgressions are forever following them around like a silent specter, just waiting for them to slip up. And slip up they do. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 40-60% of those with substance abuse disorders will experience relapse at some point in their recovery. For alcoholics, that number jumps all the way to 90%, and that’s just in the first four years after receiving treatment.
In fact, the prevalence of relapse has even opened up some schools of thought that suggest relapse may actually be part of the recovery process. Yet relapse is never a certainty and remains something to be avoided by everyone in recovery.
In all likelihood, the attempt to cast relapse as a natural part of recovery stems from the need to destigmatize it.
Usually, relapsing individuals will experience a great deal of guilt for what they view as a personal failure. They may believe they let their friends and family down, and will often feel anger towards themselves for “being weak” or “giving in.”
Unfortunately, this feeling is all too often reinforced by others. Family members, for example, may rush to judgement that the relapse is “proof” that treatment has failed. Even friends who are in recovery themselves may look down upon a relapsed individual, in hopes that their condemnation will somehow strengthen their own resolve somehow.
The result can be devastating. Should the recovering individual accept their relapse as “proof” that their treatment has failed, they may well give up on recovery altogether, and plunge themselves back into the depths of their addiction. Absent hope, that plunge is likely to be worse than the addiction was before treatment.
For those with substance abuse disorders, this can be life-threatening. After a few months in recovery, the tolerances that had been built up with repeated drug use prior to treatment are no longer there. So, even trying to use with the same dosage as before, there is a good chance they may still overdose.
If You Relapse
The most important thing to remember if relapse does occur is to not give in to despair. It does not mean that your recovery has “failed.” Rather, you should view it as nothing more than it actually is: a setback.
It’s completely normal to feel shame, hopelessness, and often anger toward yourself or your addiction. It may well seem as though your relapse has undone all of the hard work you’ve put into your recovery so far. But it hasn’t. As long as you remain committed to your recovery, you can, and will, overcome it.
In many ways, recovery is like learning to walk for the first time. After a few steps, you may stumble and fall, but you will just get up and keep trying. And you keep getting better at it. Even once you learn how to walk and become comfortable with it, you may still stumble and fall from time to time. But it never means that you have failed at walking.
Get the help you need to regain your sobriety, and then do an honest assessment of what caused you to relapse in the first place. Was it a complacent attitude toward your recovery? Do you need to attend support meetings more often? Perhaps additional therapy will help you improve your coping skills or give you a better channel for safely discussing your emotions. It’s possible that you are still suffering the effects of unresolved trauma that requires further exploration. Never be afraid to seek professional help in continuing your recovery. It’s worth every effort you must take to keep moving along on your recovery journey.
At Next Chapter, we have developed a reputation for treating clients who are deemed “treatment-resistant.” Yet there is no such thing. These are just clients who have fallen into a pattern of “chronic relapse,” usually because they are still suffering the effects of trauma that has not been resolved. By helping them identify, understand, and overcome their personal traumas, we are often able to help them achieve a more stable, lasting recovery.
The good news is that relapse is 100% preventable.
There are usually plenty of warning signs that indicate one may be heading toward a relapse, but they require mindfulness and honesty to recognize. In many cases, after an appreciable period of sobriety increasing confidence may cause one to ease the self-vigilance they learned during treatment. But that awareness is really a coping mechanism at the front lines of their ongoing battle with dependency and its various triggers. Given the normal ups and downs of adult life, it is not hard to recognize how easy it may be for the recovering individual to allow their emotions to catch them unawares, and thus trigger a relapse into the same self-destructive behavior as before.
This is what’s known as “emotional relapse,” and it often happens well before an actual relapse, although relapse is still avoidable at this phase.
Self-awareness is really the fundamental key to preventing relapse. As one journeys through recovery, it is essential to continue to examine and evaluate your feelings on a daily basis. Is there something that is causing you anger or stress? Why does it make you feel that way? This level of self-analysis is an important coping skill that we teach our clients at Next Chapter.
However, awareness itself may not be sufficient.
It’s normal for those in recovery to think about drinking or using again. It’s unavoidable, but it does not mean a relapse is imminent. Generally, one should recognize these thoughts as part of the recovery process and replace them with the “bigger picture” thinking of how recovery has positively impacted one’s life.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for recovering individuals to become fearful of these thoughts and fixate upon them. This is what is known as the “mental relapse” stage. Trying to NOT think about using only keeps it in mind for a longer period of time and increases the likelihood that it will trigger cravings from the brain’s addiction centers. A better strategy is to take a walk, watch a movie, or find another way change your focus. The best way to not think about something is to think about something else.
But addictive impulses are tricky. Even with a change of focus, your brain may find ways of insinuating these thoughts into your consciousness. At this point, it is probably best to reach out for help.
Talking to a sponsor or attending a recovery group meeting can really help re-center you and reaffirm your commitment to recovery. Even if you recognize intellectually that mental relapse is common, hearing the stories of others and remembering you are not alone is still very therapeutic.
Remember that relapse is a gradual process, and it can always be avoided up until the point where a “physical relapse” actually occurs. And should that happen, remember that recovery, too, is a process. Sometimes, it may be more challenging than others, but it’s always worth working at and moving forward.
For more information about Next Chapter, visit nextchaptertreatment.com or call 561-563-8407 today.