Dealing with Relapse: Why It Happens and What to Do

There are six words a person in drug and alcohol rehab hears again and again during the process – “Relapse Is a Part of Recovery”. In some ways, that is a dangerous statement. It almost makes it seem as if relapse is inevitable, and because it is, it must be OKAY.

Well…it’s not.

Relapse is NOT inevitable and relapse is NEVER okay, because it puts everything you have worked for and hold dear at risk – your sobriety, the life you are rebuilding, and even your future.

Perhaps a better way to express the idea is, “Finding your best way of dealing with relapse is part of recovery.”

The difference is subtle, but it is real. It addresses relapse, not as an inescapable certainty, but as a possible obstacle that can be overcome by a person who is committed to continuing their successful journey of recovery.

Why Does a Addiction Relapse Happen?

Most people in recovery from a substance abuse disorder like drug addiction or alcoholism did not begin that process entirely willingly – usually, they were pressured by friends and family, compelled by the Court, or they hit their own proverbial “rock bottom”.

Often, addicts and alcoholics also have other co-occurring mental or psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. The problems caused by these conditions don’t magically go away the moment a person stops using or drinking.

When the two factors – initial reluctance and concurrent disorders – combine during early recovery, they can make a person who’s sobriety is still fresh and fragile dangerously susceptible to a relapse, especially if their environment is not structured in a way that is conducive to their continued sobriety.

 What Other Factors Can Cause a Relapse to Happen?

During early recovery, the newly-sober addict/alcoholic can feel overwhelmed relearning new ways to live their life, interact with others, and cope with the stresses of everyday life.

Until those lessons are ingrained and become second nature, the best way for the person to stay on course is to rigorously adopt new habits that are supported by a strong, structured foundation. Without that structure, they can be negatively influenced in a number of ways:

  • The wrong people –It is virtually impossible to stay sober if the people around you are still abusing drugs or drinking to excess. Continuing to associate with old drinking and drugging buddies who are still active in their addictions can make joining them seem all-too-easy.
  • The wrong places– Addiction is a disease of bad habits. When you continue hanging around those places where you used to feed your addiction – your favorite bar, your dealer’s house, etc. – you just might accidentally repeat old behaviors.
  • The wrong things–What things? Primarily, your old ways of thinking and coping. It was your former, unhealthy way of doing things that help your disease progress in the first place. Addiction is also a disease of ego, stubbornness, and denial, and if you fall back on old behaviors, thought patterns, and responses, you are setting yourself up for failure.
  • Trying to do too much– “Keep It Simple Stupid” is another mantra that is often repeated during recovery. What it means is that a person participating in a drug or alcohol rehab program needs to focus primarily on those actions, activities, and associations that directly promote their recovery. Resist the temptations to try to fix every mistake and heal every relationship at the same time.
  • Forgetting to have patience–Too often, a person in early recovery can feel frustrated when they aren’t regaining their life as quickly as they think they should. What they forget is their disease didn’t develop overnight, so recovery will take time.
  • Forgetting to have faith– Sometimes, the messages of recovery aren’t apparent at first glance. A person might not understand why a particular action or step is important, and try to take shortcuts. Recovery is a process, and at times, it may be necessary to put your ego aside and simply trust in the process that has worked for so many other people in your situation.
  • Neglecting meetings–Once a person has a bit of sober time under their belt, they may start to feel as if they have a handle on the situation. The fact of the matter is, 12-step meetings – in addition to regular professional therapy sessions – can provide an understanding fellowship from which you can draw strength and inspiration when you are feeling tempted or overwhelmed.
  • Not having a strong support system–Just as you must avoid people who might tempt you into drinking or drugging, you must also surround yourself with positive, sober people who have your best interests in mind. These are people who you can talk to, who can shoulder some of your burdens when you are feeling overwhelmed, and who can give you a nudge in the right direction when you’re tempted to stray off course.
  • Forgetting to have joy–Many people in early recovery experience symptoms of depression, as their brain chemistry rights itself. They act miserable, almost as if they are in mourning. Perhaps in a way they are, because they no longer have a relationship with their drug of choice.

However, no matter what their present difficulties are, a clean and sober life is infinitely better than a spiraling-out-of-control life of active substance abuse, and there is joy to be found in that realization.

Does a Relapse Mean That Recovery Has Failed?

Absolutely not.  Addiction is a chronic disease, just like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.  Again, recovery is a process of learning to make lifestyle changes that make an incurable condition manageable. Take a look at the “relapse” rates for other health conditions:

  • 40 %-60 % of substance abusers relapse at some point
  • 30%-60% of people with Type I Diabetics don’t follow their prescribed diet and exercise plan
  • 50%-70% of people with high blood pressure are non-compliant with their doctor’s recommendations
  • 50%-70% of asthmatics neglect to take their medication correctly

Despite the rate of relapse/noncompliance, no one suggests that a diabetic who indulges in a piece of pie is a failure who needs to give up.

What to Do When a Relapse Happens

If you are in recovery and have a slip or a full-blown relapse, there is one thing that you absolutely must do immediately –Dust yourself off and keep on working your program.

You’re not acting as if nothing happened. What you are doing is continuing to move forward.in the meantime, there are some immediate steps you can take to make sure your relapse doesn’t continue:

  • Keep your perspective –it does not have to be the end of the world of your recovery.
  • Remove yourself from the situation.
  • Call your sponsor.
  • Gather your support system around you. Try not to be alone.
  • Get to a meeting. Get to as many meetings as you can. Quite literally, what you hear within those walls may save your life.
  • Read some recovery literature.
  • Resist the urge to wallow in unproductive shame or guilt.
  • Take care of yourself. You will feel better once you are cleaned up.
  • Get something healthy to eat, so you don’t mistake hunger pains for drug cravings.

Over the longer term, your goal should be a rededication to your program of recovery. Discuss any problems or concerns you have with your therapists and counselors. They have dealt with relapses before, and they will be able to help.

If you have already finished a drug or alcohol rehab program and have relapsed, then talk with your sponsor and the people in your support system to see if re-enrolling in a recovery program needs to be considered.

If you have that need, Northpoint Recovery is here for you. A relapse only has to be a bump on the road to lasting sobriety, and if you need expert professional treatment to make sure of that, help is only a phone call away.

Dealing with Relapse: Why It Happens and What to Do
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By |2016-04-24T18:48:51+00:00May 1st, 2016|

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2 Comments

  1. […] better understand what relapse IS and what it ISN’T, let’s take a closer look at how common it is in addiction recovery, when […]

  2. […] But at the same time, it’s important to understand that relapse CAN happen at any time, to anyone, and any stage of recovery. Statistics quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that between 40%-60% of drug addicts will relapse. […]

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