If you’ve experienced a relapse, it can be easy to think you’ve failed at recovery. Your brain can go straight to the negativity zone: I’ll never stay sober. I can’t do this. I’ve screwed it all up.
But you’re wrong. Here are seven reasons that relapse is not a sign of failure:
Addiction is a disease
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that addiction is “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
Addiction is considered a disease (rather than a “bad habit” or a “personality defect”) because drug use changes the structure of the brain and the way it works.
The reward center of the brain is the most obviously affected area, but parts that control learning, judgment, making decisions, memory, and behavior are also changed. While these alterations can be reversed, it takes time to undo the damage substance abuse has caused.
Remember: Addiction is a disease that affects the most basic ways your brain works and relapse is part of the definition of your disease. Relapse is part of managing drug addiction, not a failure to manage it.
Relapse is common
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40-60% of addicts will relapse. That can seem scary, but NIDA also says that people who live with diabetes, hypertension, and asthma relapse from their medications at similar rates.
Remember: if you’re comparing yourself to other people in recovery, they’ve probably been through relapse too. If they can do it, there’s no reason why you can’t.
“Recovery” is a complicated term
You might think that “complete recovery” means achieving a life completely free of substance use; however, the term has been over-generalized so that it can mean a wide variety of things, including:
- Reducing how often or how much you use to an agreed-upon level (i.e. one drink per month).
- Achieving sobriety for a particular time period (i.e. at your three-month follow-up after treatment).
- Not using your most problematic substance, but continuing to use others (i.e. not using heroin, but continuing to drink alcohol).
- Being sober because of enforced rules (i.e. during incarceration or inpatient rehabilitation).
Of course, staying completely clean and sober is one definition of complete recovery, but it’s not the only one. Many of these definitions include relapse or substance use. Furthermore, each measure of recovery means that you’re healthier as a result.
Remember: “recovery” is not a hard-and-fast term; it’s fluid. Focus on achieving one level first, then build from there.
Relapse is a sign that you need to alter your treatment
Instead of deciding that you have failed at recovery, rework your experience in your mind. Sobriety is still possible for you, but something needs to change to make that happen. Some things to consider are:
- Increasing your therapy or counseling sessions.
- Joining a support group, attending more often, or choosing a sponsor.
- Associating with people who support your sobriety instead of people who could pressure you into using.
- Beginning an exercise regimen or joining a local rec-league.
- Avoiding places that trigger memories of substance use or increase your desire to use.
- Talking to a doctor about medication to combat cravings or help with co-occurring disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
Remember: if you see this relapse as an opportunity to make positive changes, you can dive back into recovery with a better attitude and stronger commitment.
Relapse is a process, not an event
Relapse doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are many signs leading up to it that you can learn to recognize, such as:
- Beginning to think about how much “fun” it was to drink or do drugs.
- Worrying about how you’ll live without having drugs or alcohol in your life.
- Feeling isolated, like no one understands what you’re going through.
- Getting angry or irritable with people in your life due to recovery-related frustration or difficulty dealing with cravings.
- Experiencing impatience with the process of recovery (i.e. “I want to feel better now. Why is this taking so long?”
- Denying that you have a problem anymore because you’ve been sober for a time.
- Feeling confident that you can face your triggers without experiencing a craving or relapse.
It takes time to see how one reminiscence about substance use can lead to a relapse. Just because you didn’t “get it” the first time (or few times!) around doesn’t mean you’re destined to a life of addiction.
Remember: you can learn what your relapse pattern is so that the next time you feel alone in your struggles or frustrated with your place in the spectrum of recovery, you can recognize that as part of your process and reach out to a member of your support system.
Recovery means building a new life, not just fighting addiction
Even though you may have gone through treatment and have dedicated yourself to sobriety, the process of recovery means that you have to break patterns that you have built over months and years. For instance:
- If you used alcohol or drugs to cope with your problems, you now have to find new ways to address them.
- If your substance use “helped” you stave off unwanted feelings, you now have to face them.
- If you broke down connections to family and friends, you have to rebuild them.
- If your job performance was affected in a negative way (reduced productivity, bad reviews, or unemployment), you have to regain your standing in the workplace.
- If you were using drugs (such as cocaine or other stimulants) to be more productive at work, you now have to find new ways to succeed.
With all of this in mind, it can be easy to slip back into the habit of substance abuse. Things like stress, depression, anxiety, family conflicts, and lowered social support are all common triggers for relapse, and all of them can accompany the factors listed above.
Remember: you’re not just quitting drugs or alcohol. You’re rebuilding a completely new life and, with that comes challenges that can lead to relapse. However, you haven’t failed. You’ve just taken on a challenge and had a setback.
Relapse is part of recovery
The definition of relapse (according to all addiction-awareness resources) is returning to drug/substance abuse after a period of sobriety. The same resources also say that relapse is a possibility for everyone and that every recovery plan should involve educating yourself about relapse and making a plan to not only prevent it but also to deal with it if it occurs. If relapse were a failure, national and global addiction agencies would not make an effort to inform you that dealing with it is integral to recovery.
Remember: if you’ve relapsed, this is only a part of your journey. It’s not the end.
The key takeaway
Addiction is a multifaceted disease, and recovery is not as simple as staying sober. Your journey to a healthier life includes repairing your brain, updating your treatment, monitoring your triggers and behavior, rebuilding your life, and even rethinking your definition of recovery.
It’s not easy, but relapse doesn’t mean you’ve failed at recovery.
It only means you’re an addict who is trying their best to get well, and if at first, you don’t succeed—get up and try again.
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Mohammadpoorasl, Asghar, et. al. “Addiction Relapse and Its Predictors: A Prospective Study.” Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy. OMICS International, 20 March 2012. 16 August 2016. <http://www.omicsonline.org/addiction-relapse-and-its-predictors-a-prospective-study-2155-6105.1000122.php?aid=5072>.
“The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics.” Media Guide. National Institute on Drug Abuse, September 2014. 16 August 2016. <https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics>.
“Understanding and Managing the Relapse Process.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 16 August 2016. <https://www.unodc.org/pdf/india/publications/per_rec_tool/binder9.pdf>.
“Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.” DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse, August 2016. 16 August 2016. <https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction>.
“Understanding the Relapse Process.” Warning Signs of Relapse. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 16 August 2016. <https://archives.drugabuse.gov/pdf/DCCA/GDCSession10.pdf>.
“What Is a Relapse?” Easy-To-Read Drug Facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 16 August 2016. <https://easyread.drugabuse.gov/content/what-relapse>.
White, William L. “Recovery/Remission from Substance Use Disorders: An Analysis of Reported Outcomes in 415 Scientific Reports, 1868-2011.” Great Lakes ATTC. Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, March 2012. 16 August 2016. <http://www.naadac.org/assets/1959/whitewl2012_recoveryremission_from_substance_abuse_disorders.pdf>.
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