What You Can Learn From a Relapse
In the wake of relapse, it can be tempting to question whether you’ll ever overcome an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Don’t despair! There are lessons to be had. Discover some of them here:
Whether it happens two days after detox or at the end of five sober years, relapse is a hard reality to be slapped in the face with. You’d taken it for granted everything would be fine, and now you feel back at square one, or even lower. In the pain of guilt and discouragement, it’s tempting to forget all the progress you’ve made and wonder if it’s worth detoxing and getting back on track when you’ll probably just relapse again.
Don’t give up! Painful as it is to fail at something so important, however many memories it stirs of futile “I’ll never do that again” promises, no relapse has to mean a slide back into full-blown addiction. With the right attitude and actions, you can come back stronger than ever.
Take our word for it: There is life after relapse. This article looks at what you can learn from a relapse and how to turn that mistake into a learning experience instead of a disaster.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
You may feel that a relapse means you’re unusually weak—but you aren’t. Around half of recovering addicts have a relapse at some time, the majority during their first year of sobriety. (The National Institute on Drug Abuse has noted that relapse rates for substance use disorder are no worse than most rates of post-treatment carelessness, and recurrence of severe symptoms, in chronic illnesses thought of as purely “physical.”)
Common reasons for relapse include:
- Failing to deal with problems that factored into the addiction
- Visual, audible or olfactory stimuli that trigger memories of pleasurable substance-use experiences
- Continued associating with acquaintances who drink or use drugs (whether or not those acquaintances are themselves addicted)
- Failing to plan alternative, healthy means of coping with stress
- Trying to follow a sobriety plan that “worked for someone else” without considering whether it fits one’s unique needs
- Disappointment and anger that getting sober hasn’t “solved everything”
- Lack of effective follow-up care and support
The good news is, these issues can be pinpointed and dealt with so they don’t tempt you to relapse a second time. You can rebound and regain sobriety for the long term.
Remember also, you aren’t really back where you started. One fall can’t take away all the ground you’ve gained in developing new resolve, new coping skills, new support connections and new insights. Plus, you’ve already proved you can live without drugs.
YOU’RE NO MORE A “FAILURE” THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THE SAME SITUATION
Hopefully, if a friend or support partner relapsed, you wouldn’t berate them for being “weak”—you’d offer kind words and encourage them to pick themselves up and try again. You’re no less human, nor any more expected to be perfect, than anyone else with the same problem. Act toward yourself as you would act when helping a friend after a relapse:
- Avoid dwelling on guilt and “what I should have done.” Focus on what you can do now and what you will do next.
- Remember how far you’ve come and what victories you’ve won. Affirm to yourself, “I am a strong person.”
- Never be ashamed to let your support group and therapist know the details: you need them now more than ever. Be assured they won’t judge or reject you: chances are many of them have survived relapses of their own.
- Remember the key principles of recovery: you can’t solve everything on your own, help is waiting as soon as you ask, you can make at least some amends for your actions, and life is to be lived (and succeeded at) one day at a time.
YOU AREN’T DOOMED TO A LIFE OF ADDICTION
Probably your greatest fear now is that you’ll never get sober again—or that if you do, you’ll relapse again, and again, and … Some people do fall into such a cycle, but many others succeed in regaining and keeping their sobriety after a relapse. Here are a few points to assess your actual risk of “doing it again”:
- How are you taking this setback? The best way to get up one more time than you fall is to avoid picking up the weight of excess baggage before you try to rise. Things to leave in the dirt include calling yourself names, rehashing what you might have done differently, blaming anyone or anything else, and worrying about another relapse to come. This moment is all you have to work with, so do your best with it and let the rest go.
- How are your friends and family taking it? If anyone keeps harping on “I knew you couldn’t stick to it,” or is hovering over you to “make sure it doesn’t happen again,” there’s a high risk they may be creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Tell them firmly that you appreciate their concern, but the help you need is positive support and encouragement. If that doesn’t work, cut off contact until you’re stronger.
- How long have you been sober? The less time it’s been since your last “fix,” the less time you’ve had to develop new habits and contacts that can help you stay sober and recover from relapse. It’s not surprising that risk of relapse is inversely proportional to the length of time someone has been abstinent.
- How much help did you receive the first time you quit? For many people, quitting on their own is a matter of pride. Unfortunately, it also places them in a higher-risk category for relapse (not to mention worse danger during the withdrawal period). If you didn’t get professional help the first time you became sober, do so now. If you’ve been neglecting your support network, get active again immediately.
Finally, you can further reduce your risk of a second relapse by:
- Eating healthy. A diet high in natural foods, protein and fiber keeps physical energy and psychological resilience at their peak, lessening temptations to mask bad feelings chemically.
- Staying physically active, which also keeps energy up and literally makes you feel better.
- Getting plenty of sleep at night, and resting regularly during the day.
- Being careful not to overreach your personal limits or to feel guilty about being unable to do the impossible.
- Asking close friends and family to help you watch for possible signs of relapse risk.
- Getting treatment for any mental-illness issues.
- Making a daily commitment to healthy and purposeful living.
One last note, for those who haven’t actually relapsed but worry about the possibility:
Remember, not all lessons have to be learned the hard way: the points above are useful in preventing initial relapse as well as recovering from it. Be wise, be conscientious and believe in yourself!
Long-term sobriety is more than the absence of drug use. It’s the active presence of fulfilling, healthy alternatives in all aspects of life.
AlcoholRehab.com. “Beating the Relapse Statistics.” Accessed July 31, 2017.
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Manejwala, Omar, Ph.D. “How Often Do Long-Term Sober Alcoholics and Addicts Relapse?” Psychology Today, February 13, 2014. Accessed July 31, 2017.
Moos, Rudolf H. and Bernice S. “Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders.” PubMed Central, U.S. National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, September 11, 2007. Accessed July 31, 2017.
PromisesAustin.com. “A Sobering Look at Addiction Relapse Rates.” September 7, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2017.
Recovery.org. “Preventing Drug and Alcohol Relapse Through Healthy Living for You and Your Loved Ones.” Updated May 22, 2016. Accessed July 31, 2017.
Recovery.org. “Recognizing Drug and Alcohol Relapse Warning Signs for You and Your Loved Ones.” Updated June 14, 2017. Accessed July 31, 2017.
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