What to Do After a Relapse
Achieving sobriety is one of the most glorious accomplishments a person can experience. If you or someone you love has gotten sober after struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, you know just how much life changes for the better. The world seems new again through a sober lens, and so does the person in recovery; mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
This is why a relapse can feel so devastating. To have attained sobriety, to have escaped dependence on a substance you know is toxic, to have experienced true joy and freedom for the first time in years, and then to mess it up feels like the most crushing blow in the world.
A relapse can feel like you’ve let yourself and everyone you care about down. The guilt and shame you thought were behind you come crashing back stronger than ever. You may feel like a failure.
A relapse is not the end of the world. And it’s certainly not the end of your story.
Please don’t give up.
Understanding Addiction and Recovery
Substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex condition in which a person uncontrollably uses substances despite harmful consequences. Those with SUD are intensely focused on using their substance of choice (alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs) to the point where their ability to function in daily life becomes impaired. They will continue using a particular substance despite the awareness of the problems it’s causing. SUD lies on a spectrum, and “addiction” is considered the most severe form of SUD.1
Once a person has become thoroughly addicted to a substance, using it is no longer a choice. The neuropathways of the brain have changed, and the person has become dependent on that substance in order to function or to feel “normal”.
There are several factors that come into play in determining whether someone will become addicted to something. Genetics, family history, mental health, and environment are all big precursors to the development of a SUD, and no one is completely immune.
The mechanics of addiction are really complicated, confusing, and difficult for someone on the outside to understand. Addiction is a devastating and deadly disease that affects entire families, sometimes for generations.
Recovery is the process of the addict reclaiming their lives through the improvement of their physical and mental health and wellness. Even those with severe and chronic SUD can, with help, overcome their illness and regain optimal health and wholeness.
Remission refers to the cessation of the substance and regaining physical health and daily functioning. Therapists who work in rehab centers will often tell their clients, “Being in rehab is ‘treatment’; ‘recovery’ begins when you leave”.
Recovery is when a person willingly adopts and maintains the lessons and coping skills learned in early sobriety as a new lifestyle. This means actively and mindfully living in a way that supports sobriety, no matter how difficult and challenging life becomes. With the proper tools and support, a recovering person will never have to drink or use them again in order to cope with difficult emotions and situations.
Recovery is an ongoing lifelong process, not a destination. Therefore, you’ll hear people with years or even decades of sobriety state that they are “in recovery”, as opposed to “recovered”. Recovery is the daily use of purposeful, mindful techniques and tools to cope with life on life’s terms, without the use of substances to manage emotions. 2
What Does a Relapse Mean?
Relapse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s a process rather than a singular event of resuming the use of a substance. Relapse can be broken down into three stages.
Emotional relapse is usually the first stage of relapse, and it occurs before the recovering person even considers using it again. Emotional relapse usually begins when the person starts to contend with negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, or moodiness. They may have trouble sleeping or stop eating healthy foods. Their desire for recovery may diminish as they stop utilizing their support system and recovery tools.
These are the initial warning signs that a recovering person may be skirting the edge of a relapse, and it’s important to recognize them as soon as possible. At this stage, the individual may not even be aware that they’re in danger of a relapse.
Mental relapse is the second stage of the process and is much more difficult to come back from. At this point, the recovering person experiences a difficult internal struggle; part of them wants to remain on the road to long-term recovery, but another part of them yearns to return to using. That aspect of the person wanting to use may always be there, which is why addiction is considered a chronic condition.
At this stage of the relapse, the individual is consciously thinking about using again. And once the recovering person has decided to return to their substance of choice, it’s just a matter of time before they do so.
Physical relapse is what many of us think of when we hear the word “relapse”; the person has consumed their substance of choice and broken their sobriety. Just one drink or hit can cause intense cravings (“the phenomenon of craving”), making it incredibly difficult to drink or use “just this once”. The potential to slide right back into consistent use is very high at this point. 3
Keep in mind, a “lapse” or a “slip” refers to a person using or drinking but then returning to sobriety right away. A relapse is when a person has made a full-blown return to using their substance of choice.
Be Kind to Yourself
If you’ve relapsed after a period of sobriety, you’re likely feeling a lot of emotions; fear, disappointment, shame, confusion, and probably a little lost as to what to do next.
The most important thing to remember is that relapse happens. It’s a thing that happens all the time, to all different types of people. A relapse doesn’t define you or your recovery. It doesn’t erase the sobriety you’ve achieved, and it doesn’t determine your future.
What defines your future is how you react and respond to your relapse. It’s imperative that you take immediate action to prevent your substance use from escalating back to where it was before you found recovery.
Be kind to yourself. Speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend or loved one in your shoes. Addicts and alcoholics are notoriously hard on themselves, especially when they feel like they’ve screwed up.
You’re still the person who attained sobriety, and a relapse can be an opportunity to further strengthen your recovery process in the future. Self-flagellation will not benefit you here. Self-compassion will.
Spend Some Time in Reflection
Rather than wasting valuable time beating yourself up and feeling like a failure, spend some time seriously reflecting on the events that brought you back to this place. Speak openly with your sponsor, therapist, or trusted loved one. If you like to journal, get a pen. If nature brings you solace, reflect at the beach or in the woods.
Regardless of where and how you do your best self-reflection, ask yourself what led you to drink or use drugs again.
Most Common Risk Factors for Relapse
Triggers are social and environmental cues that remind you of drugs and alcohol. Social triggers include seeing an old friend you used to, or your last drug dealer. Environmental triggers include contact with objects, smells, or places that you associate with drugs and alcohol. Triggers can produce intense cravings that may lead to a relapse.
Instead of beating yourself up and falling back into old patterns of shame and guilt, try looking at your relapse with curiosity. A relapse can be an opportunity to deepen your understanding of yourself and what makes you tick.
And don’t just focus on the negative. Reflect also on your sobriety, and what worked for you. In early recovery, who were the people you called? What were the foods you ate? How did you spend your morning and evenings? What did work for you? Because for you to relapse, you must have attained sobriety. Focus on your strengths and what has worked for you, not just your perceived “failure”.
Get Support as Soon as Possible
The sooner after a relapse, you can change your mindset from “I am a failure” to “I made a mistake”, the easier it will be to recover from your relapse. And the better your support system, the easier it is to make that mindset change.
Chances are high that you didn’t achieve sobriety all by yourself. Maybe you went to rehab or found a supportive 12-step program. Perhaps you had a sponsor or a close friend or relative that you could open up to honestly, and who helped you stay accountable.
Addicts and alcoholics can be their worst enemies, mainly because they are so incredibly hard on themselves. They speak to themselves in ways they would never speak to another human being. This is why it is so important to have people to talk to in recovery.
Relapse is a Sign You Need to Alter Treatment
Don’t think of relapse as a failure. Think of it as a sign that something isn’t working in your recovery program. Maybe what worked before simply isn’t working anymore, or maybe there was something missing from your toolkit of coping skills.
Whatever the case may be, you now have a chance to figure it out. Again, you do not have to do this alone, nor should you.
Addiction is so incredibly complex, and so are you as a human being. You’re changing and learning and growing every single day, and unfortunately, so is your addiction. It takes consistency and determination to find the right recovery program for you, and oftentimes that requires outside help.
The change will continue to occur, both within and outside of yourself. Be curious. Be proactive. Be willing to try different things. Recovery isn’t linear, and it requires your participation.
Recovery is a Lifelong Journey
If you have relapsed, quit as soon as possible. Call your sponsor, call a friend, or go to a meeting. The longer you continue to use your substance of choice, the more difficult it will become to stop.
Addiction is a chronic disease – recovery isn’t a cure, it’s more like a remission. Addiction can rear its ugly head at any time, which is why it’s so important to develop and maintain a strong support system, as well as a myriad of coping skills. The better prepared you are, the less catastrophic any future relapses will be.
A relapse is always a possibility. Whether you’ve been sober for 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 years, a relapse is never out of the realm of possibility.
So go easy on yourself. You can overcome this setback. And not only can you overcome it, but you can also come back stronger, wiser, and better prepared for the next challenge that life sends your way. You know that you are capable and worthy of sobriety, you’ve proven it.
Now is a chance to strengthen and further that freedom and joy that only those in recovery can truly understand. You deserve it and you are worth it.