5 Things I’ve Learned About Relapse

You or someone you know had a few weeks or months, or even years of recovery. Things appeared to be going well. Lives were getting back in order. The past was becoming just that. Things were good, or better than good. Then it came seemingly out of nowhere. Relapse. The hope, the ability to breathe easy -the overall feeling that things were getting better- were torn away. It seems that all the effort put into getting help and working hard to gain recovery was all for nothing.

But does relapse erase any previous growth or success? Here are five things I’ve learned about relapse from being around addiction in one way or another for 30 years.

Relapse Sucks. For the person struggling with addiction, relapse sucks. For the people around him or her, relapse also sucks. Rebuilt trust crumbles, restful nights once again turn sleepless. Every time the phone rings, it brings with it a dose of panic. These things are common for a spouse or significant other, friends and family members, clergy, counseling professionals, coworkers, neighbors or anyone else involved with the wellbeing of someone who struggles with substance use disorder. But, as someone who survived more than one relapse before I found long term recovery, there are some things to consider.

Relapse Doesn’t Mean You Suck. My experience with relapse came with a boat load of shame. Because I relapsed, I was not only defective, I was broken. Bad. I believed somehow that I deserved addiction and therefore didn’t deserve recovery. Shame is toxic, devoid of any constructive use whatsoever, and in my case, shame prolonged my active addiction and complicated recovery efforts. Shame, quite simply, kills.
Early on, I hadn’t come to grips with the idea that I was battling an illness or disease. What I believed was that because I couldn’t control my drinking or drug use and kept using even in the face of worsening negative consequences, there was something unfixable within me. Today I know that to be false. I didn’t choose to be an addict. No one does. Not you, not your parent, not your husband, daughter, cousin or the guy down the street. I’ve been around this stuff for a long time and I’ve never heard anyone once say that their life’s dream was to become an addict.

Relapse Isn’t a Spur of the Moment Thing. Regarding drinking and drug use, we’ve all heard about people who “slipped,” or “fell off the wagon,” after some time without using chemicals. Along my winding path to sustained abstinence and long term recovery, I used the same language to describe my relapses, usually to my own benefit, to explain to others that I got drunk out of no where after some clean time. In reality what I was doing was trying somehow to magically reduce my responsibility in the whole matter. I was doing great. Then, all of a sudden, I drank! I know, weird, right?

Looking back, I never “slipped.” It never came out of no where. I was never blind sided by a return to using. Instead, there were always doors I had left open or things I hadn’t done, whether intentionally or not, to make it easier to return to using. I kept old friends and relationships. I kept going to parties and bars under the guise of being a “designated driver.” I thought I could handle it. I wasn’t always honest with myself about how serious my addiction was. I daydreamed about using again and thought usually of only positive consequences. When I did think about the negative possibilities, I often minimized, rationalized or denied them. What I was doing was setting myself up for relapse.

Hearing relapse stories, studying relapse, surviving my own relapses and working with others through theirs, experience says that what seems to be a “slip” can usually (if not always) be traced back to something done, or left undone, during early recovery.

Relapse… Happens. Data shows that people with substance use disorders relapse at a rate comparable to people with other chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma or hypertension, according to the National Institute of Health.

Relapse Can Be A Good Recovery Tool. I would never, ever, never, ever advocate for someone to relapse back to using or anything close to that. Some people don’t make it back from relapse and we face an illness with often heavy negative consequences.
But a point to make about relapse is the idea that it doesn’t always mean using, if you believe relapse is a process, just as recovery is. More often than not, however, the act of using or drinking is what is talked about, because that is when relapse is most easily identifiable. For example, if someone in recovery would stop doing the things they did to get sober, say, if they were to quit going to therapy or meetings, that would be something to look at and find answers for. If he or she were to go back to doing some of the same things they did while in active addiction -hang out in bars, hang out with old using friends, spend a lot of time thinking about the “old days”- they may be areas to highlight as well. A new or reestablished negative outlook (they used to call it “stinkin’ thinkin’), money being spent, whereabouts being unaccounted for… These are just a few quick examples, and when identified and corrected, can help establish a new, improved plan of attack in recovery.

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This, of course, is in no way a comprehensive list of ideas regarding relapse. It is merely a quick sketch of things I have picked up along the way. There are many things to learn from relapse that can help forge a path to long term recovery. Recovery is a journey and relapse can be part of that journey, but it doesn’t have to be the end of it.

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