Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease, one that is often characterized by relapse.
Though relapse is not always part of recovery, when it does happen, it does not signify that treatment has “failed” or that the person has lost everything they worked for in recovery. Rather, it is a sign that things are not as they should be in terms of treatment services and other resources being utilized in pursuit of health and wellness.
In fact, in general, relapse rates among people who are struggling with addiction are comparable to relapse rates of people who are living with other chronic illnesses like hypertension and type I diabetes. The key is to remember that one slip or use of drugs or alcohol – even a binge that lasts for days – does not have to mean a return to active drug and alcohol use. Instead, it can be an opportunity to grow and learn in recovery, taking steps to become stronger and more balanced.
If you have relapsed, here are the things you can do to get back on track right away and become more stable in recovery going forward.
Meet with Someone in Person
Meeting with a sponsor, sober friend, family member, or a therapist in person can effectively put a halt to the relapse – an important first step. Making arrangements to meet, plus getting ready to go and getting yourself there, is the best way to turn things around in a way that is active and positive. This is critical. Without this acknowledgement of the relapse and the commitment to meet with someone else in person, a slip can turn into a full-blown relapse and a relapse can turn into a binge. No matter where you are in the relapse process or how long you have been drinking or getting high, getting back on track starts with stopping use of all substances and reaching out to someone else to begin to process what happened.
Talk It Out
Once you meet with your friend or therapist, talk about what happened – not just the point at which you picked up but what led up to the event in the previous hours, days, and even weeks. Relapse does not come out of nowhere. If you take the time to explore how you were feeling prior to the relapse, you can better understand what emotions, situations, and interactions increase your stress to the point that drug or alcohol use is a risk.
This is useful information, and it can take some time with someone who is patient and knows how to ask the right questions to help you get to the bottom of it. Even if you have a great friend or sponsor who can help you to work through the relapse, it is always helpful to meet with a substance abuse treatment professional. Trained in recognizing triggers for relapse, they can provide insights into the development of the relapse and assist you in coming up with directed tools that will help you avoid relapse in the future.
Make a Plan
Triggers for relapse are a fact of life. Learning how to handle them and diminish their power as much as possible are essential skills in recovery. Experience is a great teacher, but you can only learn from it if you take the time to analyze what happened and devise coping mechanisms that can help you to avoid relapse in the same situations in the future.
Here are a few examples of common triggers in recovery and the kinds of choices that can help to stop those same issues from contributing to the development of relapse in the future:
- Romantic difficulties: Romance can be wonderful, but it can also cause great depths of devastation, disappointment, and sadness. In recovery, extreme emotions can be a trigger for relapse if the person does not feel stable and strong. It is common for romantic issues to be a trigger for relapse in early recovery and later in recovery with the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Many choose not to engage in romantic relationships at all in the first year of recovery in order to avoid dealing with the problem at all. In later recovery, it can be helpful to disengage with relationships that are codependent or in constant crisis in order to find a sense of balance.
- Relationship issues at home: When living with family or roommates, tensions will inevitably arise. If the relationships are not based on positive communication, however, these tensions can explode in a way that can be damaging to recovery. It is important to work through these issues and determine whether or not it is a good idea to change residences or otherwise alter the living situation so these issues are no longer a problem at home. Another solution is to attend family therapy sessions that allow for all involved to learn positive communication skills, so everyone can get their needs met healthfully and respectfully.
- Financial problems: Struggling to find employment, managing debt related to active addiction and treatment, and getting financially established in recovery with few tools for positive financial management are big triggers for relapse. Depending on the nature of the issue, it may be helpful to take on an extra part-time job, learn how to create and live within a budget, and create a personal financial plan that includes the building of an emergency fund to protect against future financial difficulties. These can all help to decrease stress and the risk of relapse in recovery.
- Boredom: Life in recovery is not characterized by the same tumultuous ups and downs that characterize active addiction, and for many, this is a trigger for relapse. The key is to come up with fun things to do in recovery that have nothing to do with drugs and alcohol. Take up a new sport or adrenaline-rush hobby (e.g., rock climbing, sky diving, etc.), enroll in a class or degree program, learn a new language, or otherwise embark upon a project that is interesting and meaningful to you.
What do you need to do to make sure that relapse is not part of your future in recovery?