You made it through recovery treatment. You were doing well. And then one night, a coworker asks you to grab a drink after work. “Just one drink.” It can’t hurt, you tell yourself. That’s the last thing you remember when you wake up in the hospital the next morning.
Relapse is one of the most frustrating, humiliating experiences you can face in recovery. It leaves you feeling guilty, ashamed and tempted to throw in the towel and just keep using. Unfortunately, relapse is also common. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60 percent of people who go through addiction treatment programs go on to relapse at least once. In fact, many people relapse multiple times before finally achieving a full recovery.
You can take some comfort in knowing relapse is common. But how do you handle it? Here are some tips:
Brace yourself. In many cases of relapse, a person’s guilt, shame and humiliation come back tenfold. Prepare yourself for these feelings and use them as motivation to get back on track rather than an excuse to hide away in disgrace.
Get support. Whether you just sobered up after a brief relapse or you are in the middle of a longer one, your first step should be to get in touch with your addiction counselor or sponsor to schedule a face-to-face meeting. Prepare yourself for a difficult conversation; admitting you slipped up will be difficult and humbling. If you can’t bring yourself to meet in person, make a phone call or send an email or text.
Call on loved ones. This step may be particularly tough, especially if you’ve hurt your friends and family members with your addiction in the past. But support from the most important people in your life is critically important if you want to recover for good. When you approach loved ones, do so honestly and make sure you intend to go through with whatever you promise to do.
Consider returning to treatment. Whether or not you should return to treatment will depend on the severity of your relapse and the circumstances surrounding it. If the relapse consisted of a single night, you may be able to veer back to your recovery path somewhat seamlessly. If you went on a multiple week-long bender, another round of treatment may be in order. Just like every addiction story is different, so is the path to recovery. Some treatment centers offer aftercare services as part of the original treatment plan, or free counseling for a period following the initial treatment time.
Think of relapse as a stepping stone. Instead of viewing your relapse as a step backward, think of it as a progression on your road to recovery. Many people relapse, and if you think of each attempt at sobriety as a means of getting closer to your end goal—a stage in your cumulative recovery, so to speak—your relapse won’t be in vain.
But try not to get trapped in a revolving door. While recovering from addictive behavior, some people get caught in a pattern of repeated relapse and rehab, a phenomenon known as revolving door syndrome. In most cases of revolving door syndrome, the person isn’t fully committed to a sober life, which makes going back to the substance or behavior of choice seem too tempting to resist. This cycle of repeated relapse is dangerous because it takes a toll on the individual’s health (physical and mental), self-esteem, and whatever healthy, positive relationships remain in his or her life. So although repeated relapse can be a normal part of recovery, there can be a limit to how many times a person can repeat this pattern and go on to successfully stay sober.
Look on the bright side. Relapse may feel like the end of the world, but really, it’s an opportunity for more growth. Many people emerge from relapse with a fresh scare regarding what they are up against, as well as a deeper commitment to becoming sober. This renewed motivation can help you come back from a relapse even stronger than you were before.
About the Author:
Robert Parkinson, MSW is Director of Client Care at Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, Florida. Robert is also an Anger Management counselor and widely recognized in South Florida for the anger management program he created, with its strong spirituality component.