Overcoming a Relapse: Reclaiming Your Sobriety

March 5, 2021

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Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Wesley Gallagher

Recovery from addiction is a long road, and it’s not always a straight one. There are twists and turns along the way, speed bumps and detours. And unfortunately, part of the journey for many includes relapse.

In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40-60% of people with substance use disorders may relapse at some point during their recovery. Some people will relapse more than once. As with any chronic illness, recovery from addiction requires key lifestyle shifts, and there are a number of factors that may cause a person to relapse.

Since relapse is common in recovery, it’s important to know what to do if and when it happens. Whether it’s a short slip followed by immediate return to sobriety, or a more intense relapse that leads back into old patterns, there are steps you can take to get back on track.

Everyone experiences some setbacks in starting this new life. With your former coping mechanisms no longer an option, it may feel uncomfortable to adjust to new coping mechanisms.

Why Does Relapse Happen?

Before we dive into how to overcome a relapse, let’s look at why relapse is so common in the first place. This will help us more fully understand what may cause a relapse so you can understand how to prevent it.

Addiction is a chronic medical condition that requires targeted, long-term treatment. Following the treatment plan is key to staying on track. Being in recovery means changing the lifestyle you’ve been accustomed to for a long time.

An important part of recovery involves avoiding triggers — the people, places or things that remind your brain of substance use and may tempt you to start using again. So when you come back from treatment, you can’t expect to go back to the life you had been living and have the same friends and do the same things, just without using substances. You’re essentially starting a new life with a more positive, fulfilling trajectory.

Everyone experiences some setbacks in starting this new life. With your former coping mechanisms no longer an option, it may feel uncomfortable to adjust to new coping mechanisms. Fortunately, much of treatment is focused on what to do after rehab and what coping mechanisms you can use to stay healthy. Reintegrating into society is a big deal, and it’s important to be vigilant for signs that you may be headed toward relapse. It’s key that your support system of counselors, a sponsor, family, and non-using friends is aware, too. Often the signs are there long before the actual relapse happens.

It takes strength to overcome addiction.

In an article for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Stephen M. Melemis breaks relapse down into three distinct stages: emotional, mental and physical:

1. Emotional Stage

In the first stage, the emotional stage, you aren’t thinking about using, but your emotions and behaviors are setting you up for relapse. This may come in the form of bottling up emotions, isolating, not going to meetings or not sharing at meetings, or poor eating or sleeping habits. It’s important at this stage to focus on self-care in all its forms. This includes physical, emotional and psychological self-care. Denial is also part of this stage, since you aren’t actively thinking of using.

2. Mental Stage

The next stage, after a prolonged period of poor self-care, is mental relapse. This is where you start to actively think about using, and you’re battling between the desire to remain sober and the desire to return to substance use. This stage involves cravings, thinking about people, places and things associated with using, bargaining, glamorizing past use, thinking of ways to use again and even planning a relapse. This is not just the occasional craving, which is totally normal in recovery, but an increasing and prolonged desire to use again.

3. Physical Stage

This is when you’ve physically started to use again. Most are relapses of opportunity, when you feel like you won’t get caught. By this point, it is much harder to stop a relapse because you’ve already been through the emotional and mental stages and have a weakened resolve to remain sober. This can be a slip, where you have one occasion of using again, or a full-on relapse that leads back to regular use.

Knowing these stages and the signs to look for can help as you seek to avoid relapse, whether you’ve had one instance of relapse already or are looking to prevent it in the first place.

Whether it’s a short slip followed by immediate return to sobriety, or a more intense relapse that leads back into old patterns, there are steps you can take to get back on track.

What to Do After a Relapse

Now it’s time to talk about how to bounce back from a relapse. Remember, relapse is not uncommon in recovery, and it’s not something that should tempt you to give up on your recovery journey. Think of it as just one more step in your recovery, use it as a learning experience and get back in the saddle.

Here’s a list of steps to take when you want to recover from relapse:

1. Stop Drinking or Using As Soon As Possible

A one-time slip-up is not a reason to slide back into using regularly, and the sooner you stop, the easier it will be to get back on track.

2. Get Help

Recovery is done in community, and hopefully you already have people to reach out to for help when you need it. Whether it’s a friend, family member, sponsor or counselor, reach out for support as soon as possible after your slip.

3. Get Back On Track

Likely in the time leading up to relapse, you stopped following your treatment plan as closely as you had been. Now is the time to go back to your plan and make sure you are following it religiously. Treatment plans are based on extensive research and are meant to prevent relapse, so following yours will be extremely important.

4. Know Your Triggers

It’s also likely that one or more of your triggers played a part in your relapse, whether it was a person, place, event or other thing that your brain has been trained to associate with using drugs or alcohol. Make sure you know and have plans in place to avoid all of your triggers, as well as plans for what to do if you happen to encounter one.

5. Make a Plan

With your therapist, addiction counselor or sponsor, take some time to think about your relapse and what led to it so you can formulate a plan for avoiding another relapse. Ask yourself where you got off course, and see if there were any holes in your original treatment plan that need to be filled in order to prevent it from happening again.

6. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Remember, relapse is common, and shaming yourself for relapsing won’t do any good as you work to get back on track. Accept what happened, take action to prevent it again, and give yourself grace for making a mistake. Use it as a learning opportunity to do better next time, and know that in the end such setbacks will only make you stronger.

7. Don’t Let Fear Keep You Down

It’s common in recovery to be fearful. You may fear being judged or not measuring up to your own or others’ expectations, fear not knowing how to live a sober life, fear relapse or even fear success at recovery. Especially after relapse, fear of being unable to recover fully can creep in. Don’t let fear overcome all of the progress you’ve made in treatment and recovery. Remember the progress you’ve made up to this point and use that to fuel your desire to keep going.

Help Is Here

If you or a loved one has experienced a relapse and is in need of help, the Claudia Black Young Adult Center has a dedicated staff of trained professionals ready and able to get you the help you need to get back on track. Remember, recovery can’t be done alone, and there are always people who want to help.