So you’ve relapsed, what now?
Well let’s look at the options; you can do one of five things
- Writhe around in self-flagellating shame and drink / use more to numb it
- Consider yourself a loser/failure and give up all hope of being able to change – drink or use more, what’s the point in trying?
- Believe that all the time you spent sober is now completely null and void – you’re back to ground zero so why not carry on drinking more.
- Keep replaying the relapse in your head, what you did , what you said, have a panic attack and drink/use more
- Get a grip, look at what played into the relapse, learn from it and move on.
So I assume if you are still reading you’ve probably tried options 1-4 numerous times before and perhaps they didn’t end so well? In that case, read on and look at what you need to do to get through this relapse.
Don’t try and hide it
Many people feel so ashamed of relapsing they disappear into their addiction for days, weeks, or even months before they try to stop again. Telling someone as soon as possible can change your perspective and your ability to get through it. Don’t try and hide the relapse, come clean completely to someone who you feel will listen and support you. Trying to pretend it didn’t happen will just increase the emotional burden you are carrying and encourage you to continue in secret.
Let go of the shame.
Shame is an excruciating emotion. You can feel it crawling all over your skin. It’s like a dark dirty cloud hanging over your head and when it is combined with the anxiety of what you may or may not have done, the only option you may feel you have is to just carry on drinking or using. But don’t. While it’s important to reflect on how your relapse has affected others, your life, or your self-esteem, shame doesn’t motivate us to change, it keeps us stuck in self-defeating patterns. Accept that you will feel shit for a few days but don’t get overwhelmed and start sinking into the quagmire of physical*, emotional and psychological misery.
Accept that relapse is part of change.
Relapse can cause you to feel like a failure and give up any hope of ever changing. It can erode previous feelings of positivity towards recovery and make you think that you aren’t capable or that there is something wrong with you. But the fact is, relapse is very much part of the cycle of recovery when trying to change any habit. Although not an essential part, most people relapse one or more times. A lot of treatment centres don’t talk about what to do in case of relapse or how to use it to your advantage. If you really want to change – accept this a part of the process but also be aware how hard it is to get back motivation to try to stop again and also that a relapse could end up in devastating consequences that you can’t come back from.
Don’t think you have to reset the clock.
Some treatment professionals and support groups hold the view that if you relapse you have to start again counting the days of recovery from zero. How de-motivating and discouraging is that? So basically if you have spent twenty years living clean and sober and you drink for a couple of days – it means nothing? You start again? Bullshit. Whatever clean time you have behind you is progress. Every day you spend over-riding cravings and urges and making healthy choices – you are making progress. A lot of research is now coming out about neuroplasticity and how the brain can re-wire itself. Every time you have not given into an urge to drink or use – basically exercised restraint –you have strengthened a part of the brain that is responsible for over-riding impulsive urges. This part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex- has been found to be underdeveloped in a lot of people with addiction problems. The good news is research shows that it can be made robust through certain activities, like practising restraint. So don’t let this relapse derail you – you have probably already made some new neural pathways.
Make your relapse work for you.
Relapse is a process not an event. It doesn’t just pop up out of ‘perfectly happy in sobriety’ thin air. Picking up that drink or whatever it is that you do is not the start, it is actually the end. The end of a process that you might not even be consciously aware of. The relapse process – as it is surprisingly referred to – usually starts with emotional struggles.
It could be an increased amount of stress, anxiety, resentments towards certain people, increasing feelings of boredom. Then these feelings might trigger certain behaviours such as stopping an exercise routine, starting to isolate, not taking good physical care of yourself, snapping at people. Then the mental relapse starts – unhelpful thinking patterns that just create more emotional difficulty. “what’s the point, life is shit without (insert name of substance) no one understands me, I’ll just have one to get me through this” etc..
This emotional, behavioural and psychological cycle often goes round and round slowly spiralling downwards, until you just subconsciously think fuck it. So spend some time looking at what led up to this relapse and what you can learn from it to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Use your relapse as a teaching aid and make adjustments based on what you have learnt.
*If you have been using alcohol, benzodiazepines, heroin or prescription painkillers you may need medical assistance for detox.
Annie Frances says
I know several people who have a chemical dependency and try to fight it on their own. It’s hard because they always relapse. I totally agree that they need to accept that relapsing is a part of the process. One day they will be completely over their chemical dependency though. Thanks for the help!
Christine Askew BA, MA, MSc says
Hi Annie, thank you for taking the time to comment. If someone doesn’t understand the relapse process, they tend to end up in a cycle of shame and hopelessness that is difficult to get out of. This is especially true of treatment programmes / ideologies in which a person has to ‘reset the clock’ and go back to day one. This kind of thinking fuels the relapse cycle in that people tend to think – I’m back to square one now so I might as well carry on for a while” Acceptance and understanding of the relapse process can help people get back on track much quicker.
Cindy Tesler says
Thanks for mentioning that if you fail, you shouldn’t try to hide it. You also suggest letting go of the shame. I think it’s a good idea to choose a counselor that makes you feel comfortable.