It’s often said that relapse is part of recovery, that, far from being a catastrophe, it’s a necessary step in overcoming addiction. Others say this message is unnecessarily pessimistic and creates an expectation of failure. Which way of thinking about relapse is most helpful for people trying to recover from a substance use disorder? First, it’s worth noting that a relapse isn’t a small thing. If you’ve put any time at all into recovery, a relapse can feel like a total failure–all that hard work wasted. It can feel demoralizing. Having failed once, or perhaps several times, it can be even harder to get sober again. Sometimes people experience worse withdrawal symptoms the second or third time they try to quit. They may then have a lower expectation of success. Most dangerously, they have typically lost their previous tolerance for their drug of choice. Relapsing after a long period of sobriety, often while incarcerated, is when people are most likely to die from an overdose. Clearly, a relapse is not to be taken lightly, but neither should it be considered a failure. People can and do maintain sobriety after several failed attempts. If you allow yourself to be demoralized after the first failed attempt at sobriety, you aren’t likely to try again. In this sense, thinking of relapse as a normal part of recovery can take some of the sting out of a failed attempt at recovery. Just as it takes many attempts to learn to ride a bike or play an instrument, it might take a few tries to learn to avoid the common pitfalls in addiction recovery. And just as with any other skill, recovery is an ongoing process. You never complete it; you only become more skillful in maintaining it. Slip-ups, relapses, and mistakes of all kinds are opportunities to learn and grow. A relapse can be dangerous, but it also gives you new information to work with. As long as you are willing to sit down and honestly examine what went wrong, you can put a failure to good use in the future. You can figure out what triggered your cravings, at what point you started to think about using, and why you weren’t able to regulate your emotions. You can then avoid these problems in the future, or figure out a way to guard against them. Perhaps the last word belongs to the people who think relapse is not part of recovery. While it appears that most people, depending on the drug and history of addiction, will relapse in the first year, a significant number of people–anywhere between 10 and 40 percent–will stay in recovery long term. For those people, relapse isn’t part of recovery at all.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.