Understanding Relapse

By The Fix staff 04/30/19

Relapse is a common part of the recovery process. Knowing what to do when it happens can help you get on track with your recovery.

Image: 
worried woman in bed, head in hand, woke up after relapse

Substance use disorder is a chronic disease, and as such, it’s something that people in recovery need to manage for their whole lives. Because maintaining sobriety demands on-going work and attention, relapse is common along the way.

Relapse can happen when people get too comfortable in sobriety and let their healthy routines slip, or it can come on suddenly when a person is faced with a particularly stressful or traumatic situation.

Whatever the circumstances, knowing the signs of relapse and what to do when a relapse occurs is important for everyone in the recovery community, said Kelsey May, admission counselor at Asana Recovery, which offers detox, residential treatment and an outpatient program in Costa Mesa, California.

Here’s what you should know about relapse in order to help yourself avoid it, and support others in the recovery community who may be experiencing relapse.

Is relapse just part of recovery?

Although relapse is common, it’s not something that everyone who is sober will experience.

“Relapse does not have to be a part of recovery,” May said.

Relapse rates range between 40 and 60 percent. Although that’s high, it’s comparable to the relapse rates of other chronic diseases. Still, new approaches to treatment — including medication-assisted treatment — can help people recover without relapsing.

“The chronic nature of addiction means that for some people relapse, or a return to drug use after an attempt to stop, can be part of the process, but newer treatments are designed to help with relapse prevention,” The National Institute On Drug Abuse says.

Relapse occurs for many different reasons, just like addiction does.

“Sometimes people will relapse because they are simply not ready to get sober or they have reservations on whether or not they can control their addiction,” May said. “Others will get sober the first time around because they are hopeless or scared enough to give it 100 percent and never look back.”

Although relapse is difficult, it can also serve as inspiration for people to double down on their recovery efforts.

“Sometimes relapse is necessary for someone to really hit that rock bottom we talk about and become willing to finally make a change,” May said.

What are the signs of relapse?

Sometimes relapse can happen unexpectedly, but more often there are predictable signs that indicate that someone is at risk for relapse. Often, before a person uses substances they begin dropping the healthy habits of recovery.

Some signs of relapse include:

  • Isolating
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Missing meetings or dropping commitments

All of these allow people to withdraw from their recovery supports. Without those people around, they may reconnect with people who trigger their substance abuse.

What should I do if I relapse or feel like I want to use?

If you relapse or feel like you want to use, remember these things are okay. They are a common part of the recovery journey and nothing to be ashamed of. However, it’s important that you connect with help quickly. Rather than beating yourself up or feeling embarrassed, take immediate steps to reconnect with your recovery community.

“Get into action right away,” May said. “Ask for help whether it be from a friend, family member or another member of your fellowship (like an old sponsor or sober sister or brother). Don’t think about it, just pick up the phone and tell someone how you’re feeling.”

Chances are, people in your recovery community have been in this position before. Because of that, they’ll be able to help you focus on getting back on track.

“You don’t have to want to be sober,” May said. “You just have to do the action regardless of how you feel and things will start to change.”

How can I support someone who has relapsed?

If someone you know has relapsed or is showing signs of relapse, it’s important to have a candid conversation with them.

“You should approach them by first letting them know you are there to help them if they want help,” May said. “Suggest going to a meeting of their preferred fellowship.”

As you’re helping others, remember to continue working your own sobriety plan.

“The more work you put into your own recovery and build that solid foundation in the first year of your sobriety than the more successful you will be at not slipping back into those old behaviors,” May said.

Asana Recovery offers residential and outpatient treatment in Costa Mesa, California. Learn more by calling 949-438-4504.

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