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When you’ve been doing the hard work of recovery, it can be difficult to believe there’s really life after relapse. Even if addiction is a chronic disease that can involve relapse, a return to drugs or alcohol can seem a crushing defeat. The good news is that one relapse doesn’t have to precede a complete downward spiral into that old dark tunnel of substance abuse. You can rebound.
The question is “how?” How do you bounce back and start over after a slip-up with drugs or alcohol—especially when that involves dealing not only with your own sense of failure, but also the sometimes negative and critical reactions of those around you? This article offers some tips for how to rebound post-relapse.
After Relapse: Overcoming the Guilt and Shame
After a relapse, you may feel like a failure, especially after all of the time and hard work you’ve already put into recovery. These feelings of guilt and shame are understandable in the wake of a relapse. That doesn’t mean you need to over-indulge them, thereby giving them more power to impact your future choices and behavior. What’s critically important to remember with an addiction is that when guilt, shame and an overriding sense of failure are in the driver seat, dictating how you relate to your circumstances and to others, you’re actually making yourself more vulnerable to yet another relapse.
On that note, here are some practical suggestions for overcoming the personal obstacles of guilt and shame in the aftermath of a relapse:
- Don’t play the blame game. Yes, it’s temping. You may want to point fingers either at yourself or someone else or both. Don’t. Taking responsibility for your actions doesn’t mean indulging in self-criticism or self-pity, and it definitely doesn’t mean looking for someone else to blame. After a relapse, accept responsibility for what has happened, but don’t go looking for a culprit on whom to heap blame.
- Let yourself and others off the hook. Everyone makes mistakes, and while accepting personal responsibility for this slip-up is a healthy and necessary step to rebounding from relapse, you can be intentional about forgiving yourself (and any others you may be inclined to blame for triggering your relapse). That may mean writing a self-addressed letter of encouragement, reminding yourself of all of the progress you’ve made and urging you to keep going in your recovery for all the reasons it’s worth it. Letting yourself off the hook may also mean reaching out for tangible expressions of forgiveness and understanding from others in a 12-Step or other recovery support group.
- Let go of the negative feelings associated with this one slip-up. Post-relapse guilt and shame may manifest themselves as visceral sensations and thoughts that, if not healthily processed and released, may trigger yet another relapse. The sooner you are able to let go of these negative feelings, thoughts and sensations, the better. “Letting go” can be easier said than done, however—so you may need to be intentional about letting go, via one or more of the following strategies:
- Meeting with a counselor (ideally someone certified in treating addiction) to process these feelings
- Spending 10-15 minutes a day in meditation, and by visualizing letting go of these negative feelings
- Replace “all-or-nothing” thoughts. It may be tempting to think that one slip-up means you’re now all the way back to where you first started. And chances are that where you first started on the journey of recovery was a desperate place where the only way to go was up. In actuality, one slip-up need not be anything more than one or two steps back in an otherwise forward progression toward full recovery. If you catch yourself thinking in this all-or-nothing mode, immediately stop the thought in its tracks and correct it. In other words, replace it with a more measured description of the reality (which is that you had one slip-up, nothing more).
After Relapse: Overcoming the Negative Reactions of Others
Sometimes self-condemnation after a relapse may be easier to live with than the negative reactions of friends and family. Those closest to you are often the most invested in seeing you recover from a drug or alcohol addiction. Naturally, they too may experience feelings of sadness, disappointment or even frustration and exasperation in the aftermath of a relapse. And they, like you, need permission to feel what they are feeling.
Still, you don’t have to let these negative reactions keep you from getting back on track in your recovery. Here’s how:
- Give yourself physical and emotional space. If a friend or family member’s reaction to your slip-up is becoming a potential trigger of drug or alcohol use, you can implement a “time-out.” Separate yourself from that person for a period of time. If they express worry that your request for space signals a return to substance abuse, assure them that you are okay and that you are getting the help you need. Or, let that person know that a precondition for being around them is that you not talk about the relapse and/or any related issues and emotions.
- Surround yourself with a positive support network. If by now you have a sponsor or some peer supports via participation in a 12-Step group or other recovery community, now more than ever is the time to draw on these supports. If you have alumni ties to a rehab treatment program, this may also be a good time to renew your involvement in their alumni offerings and/or to reconnect with the people who were most positively instrumental in your treatment.
- Practice positive daily affirmations. When others are not affirming you, you owe it to yourself to practice positive self-affirmation. During inpatient treatment, my clients receive daily words of affirmation that they can practice as they take walks or even stand in front of the mirror. You can do the same. When you find yourself in the car or taking a walk somewhere, you can say to yourself, “I love myself today.” When you’re in front of the mirror, give yourself eye contact and say aloud, “I love you. I really, really love you.” And mean it.