Steps After a Relapse
Why Relapse is So Common
Addiction is a disease of the brain, characterized by long-lasting changes to its structure and function. These long-term changes leave us vulnerable to the cues associated with substance abuse, such as stress, celebrations, a particular time of day, or a certain place.
According to the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 25 to 50 percent of people in recovery need intensive, continuing aftercare—including ongoing therapy, support groups, and other programs—and a high level of support at home and in the community to successfully manage their addiction¹.
Relapse is common, so don’t punish yourself if you slip up. Instead, identify the relapse, no matter how big or small, and take charge. Call your counselor, therapist, or treatment center. Call a meeting leader, sponsor, or someone who can help you get back on track. No matter what you’ve done in the past, you are stronger than your disease!
Relapse is Not a Catastrophe
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a lapse doesn’t always lead to a relapse of the addiction². Whether or not it does is largely determined by the emotional response to the initial lapse. Feelings of shame, guilt, and other negative emotions make it more likely for the lapse to turn into a relapse. If you feel like the lapse was completely out of your control because you believe you have no willpower, you may simply abandon your recovery altogether to escape those negative feelings.
Relapse statistics illustrate just how challenging it is to attain lifelong sobriety. Between 70 and 90 percent of people in recovery will have at least one mild to moderate lapse, or incidence of using again³. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60 percent will experience a relapse of the addiction4. Relapse doesn’t mean that treatment failed. Relapse is an opportunity to determine what skills are missing and develop a new arsenal of strategies and techniques to prevent it from happening again.
Steps to Take After a Relapse
The most important thing you can do after a relapse is to immediately tell someone in your support circle. The second most important thing is to cut yourself some slack and let go of negative feelings. You made a mistake and it happens. It doesn’t mean you have categorically failed in recovery. Just as it takes time to develop an addiction, it takes time to develop a life of sobriety.
Once you’ve surrounded yourself with your support network and can shift from guilt to repair mode, spend some time evaluating where things started to go downhill. Maybe you grew too confident and stopped attending or participating in meetings. Maybe your anxiety, depression, or other mental illness wasn’t being managed well enough. Maybe you grew increasingly isolated, angry, frustrated, or intolerant. These are all common causes of relapse.
Recognizing when the relapse process started, how you could have read the signs better, what coping skills you were missing, and what you could have done differently can all help you develop specific skills and strategies to prevent the same thing from happening again.
After this period of evaluation and rectification, you’ll likely return to recovery stronger, more motivated, and better prepared to maintain sobriety for the long-term. For many, it takes more than one attempt to achieve lifelong sobriety, and that’s okay. You’ve come a long way, and while you still have a long way to go, remember to acknowledge your progress, stay open-minded, and remain committed and engaged in your aftercare.