Relapse in Addiction Recovery Doesn’t Mean You’ve Failed
I don’t know about you, but for me, admitting that I am human can be one of the most challenging things I have to do. Being human means being imperfect, falling down, and forcing myself to get back up, and it means that I will not always meet the expectations I set for myself. When this happens, I can be tempted to hide my imperfections out of fear of judgment or my own shame. In these moments of perceived failure, I remind myself that we are all human, and we are all on our own path of recovery and wellness.
Experiencing a relapse in your recovery process can bring about similar feelings of failure or shame. Rather than being ashamed of seeking help during relapse, you should be patting yourself on the back for your level of self-care and self-support. It is important to realize that relapse during addiction recovery is common, but like any other thing in life when you are challenged it is more important what you do after than the event itself. Crisis creates opportunities. Understanding the reasons behind relapse and specific actions that you can take during a relapse can help you develop more self-compassion during your journey. Relapse is a process, not an event and so is the road forward after a relapse, it’s a process.
The old model of addiction recovery was based on the idea that you were cured once you completed your recovery treatment. If you happened to relapse, well, then you must have done something wrong. We did our part—this is your fault. The truth is relapse is common in addiction recovery. Research estimates that almost half of all people who attempt sobriety go back to using. A very high percent of people in recovery will experience one mild-to-moderate relapse. What this illustrates is that the concept of walking in a recovery program and leaving “cured” is a fallacy.
The Changing Addiction Recovery Model
For many years, addiction treatment mirrored the treatment of other acute illnesses. Here’s the diagnosis; here’s your treatment; now you’re cured. The addiction recovery model assumed that if you entered treatment, did what you were told, and then went to your NA or AA meetings regularly, you were not in danger of relapsing and could be sober for the rest of your life. this is the case for some but unfortunately, this was not the case for all. According to a publication by drugabuse.gov, 40-60% of patients relapse within the first year of receiving substance use disorder treatment.
Since the 1990s, the paradigm for addiction treatment has changed. It is no longer viewed as a limited illness that can be cured; instead, addiction recovery is approached similarly to treating other chronic diseases. Like chronic diseases such as hypertension or diabetes, failure to follow prescribed treatments will lead to a setback, which is then evaluated, and after more targeted treatment, the recovery process continues. These are not seen as failures because setbacks or relapses are considered an intrinsic aspect of chronic disease treatment.
What Causes Relapse?
Modern brain imaging demonstrates that drug abuse physically alters neuro-connections between the ventral tegmental area, where the reward part of our brain is located, and the hippocampus area, where we store memories. Areas of the brain that deal with decision-making and impulsivity also undergo a physical change due to drug addiction. This physical change means that triggers become hardwired in the brain, making people who suffer from addiction highly reactive to previous drug use cues. This is one reason many recovery programs recommend not interacting with people, places, or objects from “the old crowd”. This is also what makes recovery challenging. It forces you to dig deep into who you are while trying to deal with a brain that has been rewired.; requiring a new chapter in the ever-changing story of who you are.
When Is Relapse Most Likely?
Repeatedly, studies have shown that the highest percentage of relapses occur in the initial 90 days of recovery. Once drug abuse has rewired your brain, it may take a great deal of time in sobriety to repair the damage. This means that in the early stage of your recovery, your responses to triggers will likely become more intense as the time away from your drug use increases.
As your sober days continue to increase in number, you will also likely find that your mental health issues such as anxiety and depression will also intensify. Dealing with raw emotions without using your numbing agent of choice can be difficult. That is why it is so important to have a qualified therapist to help you develop healthy coping skills. The first 30 days, while you are in a recovery program with an abundance of support, may be easier than the next 60. Learning to navigate life outside of an in-patient treatment program can seem daunting; just keep going.
Once you have your first 90 days of sobriety under your belt, your odds of staying sober for the long haul increase dramatically. You likely have learned to recognize more of your triggers and have found positive ways to handle them. If a relapse was the catalyst for the process, I hope you also learned the importance of supporting your own recovery. You have nothing to be ashamed of; allow yourself the same compassion you would extend to anyone else in your situation. You deserve it, and you deserve sobriety. As you learn to recognize your triggers, you can take the positive steps necessary to prevent a relapse. Taking ownership of your recovery is a powerful tool.
Why Relapse Doesn’t Mean You’ve Failed
Your relapse may seem like a failure, but it is essential to understand that it is a part of your ongoing recovery journey. Remember, this is not a sprint.
The following are just a few reminders of why relapse does not equal failure.
Addiction Is a Chronic Disease
By now, you know that your addiction has made real fundamental changes to your brain’s hardwiring. It weakened the areas that regulated motivation and pleasure, created cravings that make your body physically sick when left unsatisfied, and impaired your ability to make decisions and regulate your behavior. Relapse is a component of the disease of addiction. The fact that your condition will need to be managed for the foreseeable future means that you will also need to manage relapse as a part of the disease.
Relapse is a commonly occurring part of the recovery journey. The relapse rate for addiction is comparable to the relapse rate in other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure. The fact that the chances of post-rehab relapses are between 40% to 60% indicates that relapse is a normal aspect of the recovery process rather than a personal failure.
Relapse Is a Signal to Adjust Your Treatment Plan
When you can look at relapse as an opportunity rather than a failure, you can use it as a way to improve your long-term skillset for handling your chronic disease. A relapse can be a signal that you need to support your recovery needs more. Taking the time and effort to understand the early signs of an issue more closely and developing better coping skills for triggers, stressors, and cravings are ways to support your journey.
Recovery Is a Lifelong Journey
The recovery journey is a process of developing new skills and new friendships with others to be successful in your brand-new life. Changing habits and changing your thought processes to create a sober life can be scary and challenging. It is not surprising that you would experience situations that might cause a relapse. It is not a perfect process that will always go smoothly without any setbacks.
What to Do When You Relapse
If we accept that relapse is a part of the recovery journey, then how do we address a relapse when it happens? The most important thing you can do when you have a relapse is to be honest with yourself and with another person about what’s going on at this moment in your recovery. Own the fact that you have a chronic disease, and you will need the support of others to manage this disease.
The next step is to discover and uncover what has been missing in your recovery. Once again, being completely honest with yourself is a must.
Use a journal to answer questions such as:
- What does it mean to me to be sober?
- Why did I justify using again?
- What is the hardest part about being sober?
Answering questions like these and others can help you dig a little deeper into how you can offer yourself a little more support at this particular stage of your recovery. The important part of the process is not necessarily to find a specific cause for your relapse or someone to blame, but rather to acknowledge that you have the power to use this opportunity to change your behavior to better support your new life of sobriety.
Challenge Bad Thoughts
It is essential to challenge any toxic thought processes you may be experiencing in relationship to your relapse. These are the things that create negative emotions, such as shame, which can further jeopardize your recovery. Avoid faulty assumptions about your relapse, such as: Now I have to start over; the program I’m working is bad; I must not really want to be sober; I should be ashamed of not being able to stay sober; or I need to be harder on myself if I want to maintain my sobriety.
Practice Compassion for Yourself
The truth is that this is the time for you to practice even more self-compassion.
Instead of toxic negative thought patterns, now is the time to remind yourself:
- I suffer from a chronic disease that will require a lifetime recovery journey. This is a marathon, and I need to give myself the necessary support to go the distance.
- My relapse is a sign that I need to up my level of self-support.
- I made a mistake, but that mistake does not define me.
- There are no shoulds.
- I am not my relapse.
The shame we feel when we relapse is connected to our false idea that somehow if we just try a little harder, we can reach this unattainable perfect version of ourselves. If we give ourselves permission to make mistakes (because that’s what real people do—they make mistakes), we leave room for growth. When we learn that the only journey that is important is our own recovery journey, we realize that only we can define what that journey will look like. There is no should; there is no failure; there is only moving forward, there is only today.
Responses Define the Journey
No matter the chronic disease, it is the responsibility of the individual to manage their health. Addiction is a chronic disease, and it is up to you to assume the responsibility of managing your own care. Your attitude and how you respond to your relapse will define your recovery journey.