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Drug or Alcohol Relapse Is NOT the End of the World

February 25, 2014

Lapses and relapses are extremely common and normal steps in recovery. Statistics show more than 90% of those trying to remain sober have at least one relapse before they achieve lasting recovery.

While a lapse is a short misstep—like toasting with champagne at a wedding—relapse is a recurring return to substance abuse or dependence that results in notable damage to relationships, work, health, finances or legal standing.

Lapses and relapses are physical and psychological experiences.

A lapse signifies a brief return to old behaviors in spite of breaking self-imposed rules. Individuals generally forgive themselves and can continue in recovery with minimal guilt or shame.

A relapse occurs when someone feels they’ve conquered their addiction and returns to using, regardless of the relapse prevention skills instilled by treatment. Relapses are typically brought on by stressful experiences. After relapsing, individuals often feel heavy bouts of guilt or shame from using, despite their advances in recovery.

FitRx executive director Dr. Ralph E. Carson, RD, Ph.D. says:

Though relapses are justifiably worrisome, they shouldn’t cause feelings of hopelessness and failure. Instead, look at relapse as a red flag signaling to seek advice and support in order to process the situation and use it as a learning experience.

Surprising but true: Drug and alcohol relapse begins long before picking up the drug or drink.

Oftentimes, lapses and relapses begin long before the actual substance is consumed. For example, an alcoholic may stop attending support meetings regularly, revisit known triggers and generally abandon the quest to do the next best thing. Common signs of relapse include growing complacency, an abandonment of rigorous self-care and returning to a place of denial in regard to the dangers of addiction, or denying that a problem even exists.

Desert Hope therapist James F. Tenney, MS, Psy.D says:

I always tell my clients at discharge that when they notice they’re consistently making poor choices or notwithstanding continued sobriety, they must consider a tune-up, as it’s highly possible they’re already in the throes of relapse.

If someone relapses, what steps should be taken?

Recovery may ultimately be an inside job, but it is not done alone. The best step to take is to revivify an attitude of willingness and surrender. Too often, those who relapse blame themselves, and so they alone feel responsible to control their addiction. Maybe they’re shameful and reluctant to go public with their relapse and need for more help. However, addressing an active addiction is such a heavy weight that no person can lift alone. With willingness to receive help and surrendering to the benefits of treatment and fellowship, the necessary number of hands can be brought to aid in the heavy weight of recovery. In other words, reach out.

Dr. Tenney says:

The great thing about treatment after a relapse is that no one starts back at square one. A relapse is a productive tool that highlights the elements that must be added to the recovery plan to realize a more robust means of avoiding triggers, changing or removing connections with non-supportive people or developing a more firmly rooted sense of hope.

Yes… going back to treatment is a good thing!

If relapse occurs, it’s in the individual’s best interest to treatment at any facility before the addiction worsens, but the benefit of returning to the same treatment center as before is the luxury of more seamlessly picking up where treatment left off, and re-entering a program led by a familiar staff that already knows the client’s convictions, talents and temperament.

Also—being of service to others enhances one’s own recovery. One major difference between the first and second time in treatment is that someone who already understands treatment but needs some fine-tuning can more readily receive the powerful benefits of “giving it away in order to keep it.” A second-timer can and should take pride in being of service to other clients, whether they help recovery rookies better understand the facility, concepts of different treatment modalities or simply by being a more compassionate peer.

The client who returns to treatment has the unique status of being less judgmental and more helpful throughout the treatment experiences, which in turn amplifies their own resolve for lasting sobriety.

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