“Relapse is about the return to an active disease process following a period of recovery from that disease process. One very important fact…you can’t relapse in any disease until you’ve been in recovery from it. This is the truth in any illness. If someone has not yet got into the recovery process, they CANNOT have a relapse.”
~Linda Free-Gardiner, Trust the Process: How to Enhance Recovery and Prevent Relapse
It is a pithy saying that is heard over and over in every rehab setting – “Relapse is a part of recovery”.
For many people, those words serve as is source of comfort, reminding them the road to recovery can be bumpy and it’s not always possible to have a “perfect” journey of sobriety.
For others, however, the statement is provocative, because it can be viewed as giving tacit permission to use or drink whenever the urge strikes.
To 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 compared to other chronic, incurable, yet manageable diseases.
The Disease of Addiction is Comparable to Other Chronic Conditions
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the disease of addiction is very similar in some respects to other chronic conditions such as asthma, hypertension, Type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, because they all:
- Have a tendency to run in families
- Have a diagnosable onset
- Will progressively worsen if not properly managed
- Are influenced by a person’s environment and personal behavior
- Respond to treatment
- Are best managed by implementing healthier long-term lifestyle changes
Relapse Rates for Recovery from Addiction are Very Similar to Other Chronic Conditions
With all of these chronic illnesses, personal behavior is key to successful management, and sometimes, people will choose behaviors that are contrary to their treatment plan – a diabetic will eat a sugary dessert, a person with hypertension will continue to smoke, or a person with a substance use disorder might have a slip or relapse.
- Drug addiction has a relapse rate of between 40% and 60%.
- Type II Diabetes has a relapse/nonconformance rate of 30% to 50%.
- Hypertension has a relapse/nonconformance rate of 50% to 70%.
- Asthma has a relapse/nonconformance rate of 50% to 70%.
Obviously, these figures show that it is very common to deviate from the regimen recommended for any chronic disease, including addiction. In fact, according to a 2012 article in Psychology Today, 70% to 90% of people in recovery will experience “at least one mild to moderate slip.”
For clarity, a “relapse” is a return to heavy use – a period during which the recovery process is abandoned, while a “slip” is a brief return to usage that only interrupts – rather than disrupts –recovery.
The biggest difference between the two is duration. A slip may only last a few hours or a few days, while a relapse can last anywhere from several days to an indefinite length of time.
Does That Mean That Relapsing or Slipping during Recovery Is to Be Expected?
Let’s be perfectly clear – when you are in recovery for a substance abuse disorder, it is NEVER okay for you to drink alcohol or use drugs, and this includes slips and relapses. Consequently, they are never expected, because abstinence even in the face of difficulties is always the goal.
However, based on the reality of their likelihood, you should always PREPARE for the possibility of a slip or relapse. This means two things – actively engaging in relapse prevention behaviors, and creating a plan for what to do if you backslide.
To make an analogy, it’s like driving a car. Getting a flat is never a good thing, and you should be aware of ways to prevent it – keeping your tires in good repair, watching out for road hazards, etc. But in case you DO get a flat, it’s good to have a plan in place – roadside assistance, tire tools, and a spare.
What Factors Can Cause a Relapse during Recovery from Drug Addiction?
If a return to drinking/using occurs during early recovery, it is usually because the person is still experiencing symptoms of post-acute withdrawal. In other words, there is still a degree of physical dependency on the drug of choice.
Usually, the best way for a person in early recovery to safeguard their sobriety is to stay busy, especially with recovery-related activities – counseling, therapy, 12-Step meetings, meditation, and studying.
Because people at this stage often have a tenuous hold on sobriety, anti-craving medications for certain substances of abuse can be prescribed at this time.
However, people who have a period of sobriety behind them often relax a little too much and let their guard down. They don’t feel as physically compelled anymore, so they ease up a bit – not going to as many meetings, not picking up recovery literature, etc.
Consequently, they can be caught off guard when they encounter a trigger –a person, place, or thing that they associate with their past substance abuse:
- A former drinking or drug buddy
- Paraphernalia or liquor bottles that were hidden around the house, forgotten then rediscovered
- A favorite bar or liquor store
- A scene on TV or in a movie showing drinking or drug use
- The smell of alcohol or cannabis
It can be one of a thousand different things, but once the association is made, the person can experience intense drug cravings that can their sobriety in jeopardy.
This is why the argument can be made that relapse is NOT a part of recovery, but rather, a residual aspect of the disease of addiction, because it is initiated by old, dysfunctional thought processes and behaviors, rather than the positive message of continued sobriety.
If you need help for a substance abuse problem – whether it manifests as drug addiction or alcoholism –and you would like to begin a recovery program that includes relapse prevention strategies, then your top choice needs to be Northpoint Recovery – the #1 residential drug and alcohol detox/rehab facility in the Pacific Northwest region.
Northpoint Recovery can give you the help and hope you need to restore long-lasting sobriety and stability to your life, by providing you with the tools you need to best manage your disease of addiction.