Relapse is the ever-feared return to using your drug of choice and again experiencing the devastating consequences as addiction takes over and your life spirals out of control. While no one wants to return to using after entering addiction recovery, the fact is – slip-ups happen and relapse is often viewed as a characteristic of addiction recovery.
But does a night of drinking or drugging mean you are doomed to months of use and despair? One-time slips are definitely serious and can lead a person back to full-blown drug addiction, but you do not have to end up that way if you handle it properly.
What happens if I Relapse?
Using after months or even years of sobriety leads to overwhelming feelings of failure, shame, and guilt — feelings that can cause you to give up on recovery completely and continue using. Often when a person relapses they feel weak – they feel that they have let themselves, family and friends down, and may think they do not deserve a life in recovery.
But if you think that one lapse will inevitably lead to continued use, and means that you have lost all that you have gained in recovery, it is simply not true. You have a choice. There are steps you can take after a slip-up to prevent the downward spiral of addiction and get yourself back on the road to recovery.
Steps to take after a Relapse
It is important to act immediately in response to a relapse. Thinking that a slip-up means the end of your recovery, and using feelings of failure as an excuse to continue using is detrimental. Instead, take the following steps:
Step 1: Take responsibility.
Admit to yourself that you slipped up. It is difficult, but you cannot help yourself if you do not admit to your mistake. Say to yourself “I slipped up, I used again, and I now have a choice.” No one is in control of your behaviour but you. Just like when you entered recovery treatment the first time, you have to admit and accept that you are powerless over your addiction. Be honest with yourself and take responsibility for your actions.
Step 2: Make a 24 hour commitment.
Make a commitment to not use again for the next 24 hours. After an initial slip-up, you are going to feel bad about yourself, and the easy choice is to give in and use again. Instead, make an immediate commitment not to use again for the next 24 hours. Remember that your recovery is a day-to-day process. Go back to taking it one day at a time, and in the first 24 hours – take it hour-by-hour.
Step 3: Admit your lapse to someone else.
Once you have admitted to yourself that you slipped up, and made a 24-hour commitment to yourself, it’s important to admit your lapse to someone else. Do not put this off! Immediately call a sponsor, friend, or family member who has been supportive thus far in your recovery.
It will be tempting to sulk in isolation, or pretend your lapse never happened, but those are two sure-fire ways to enter a full-blown relapse, rather than getting back on track. If you simply cannot muster up the courage to make a phone call, send an email and ask someone to meet with you face to face.
After admitting your slip to someone, they will probably also recommend you surround yourself with support. If you are a part of AA or another recovery group, go to a meeting – preferably within 24 hours of your slip. Call an addiction counsellor and ask for an emergency session.
Surrounding yourself with supportive people is essential to avoid falling further into relapse.
Step 5: Acknowledge and deal with difficult emotions.
There is no doubt that after a relapse you will experience a wide array of difficult emotions. It is possible that stress and overwhelming emotions are what led you to use drugs or alcohol again in the first place.
You likely feel shame and guilt for letting yourself and others down, sadness and depression, and maybe resentment towards others you believe should have supported you more.
Take a few deep breaths as you consciously acknowledge the weight of these feelings. Remind yourself that feelings are temporary, and you do not have to act on them by using more drugs or alcohol.
If you remember that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing, you can more easily acknowledge and let go of shame, guilt, and resentment. You are not a bad person or a failure, rather you suffer from a chronic disease.
Acknowledging and then letting go of your shame and guilt is easier said than done. You may need some help from a therapist or support group to accomplish this, and it won’t happen overnight. But dwelling on those feelings is self-deprecating and not at all helpful in getting back on track in your recovery.
Step 6: Learn from your experience.
You relapsed for a reason, whether or not you were aware of the warning signs. But a slip up doesn’t have to turn into a full-blown disaster. You can learn from the experience and become aware of the areas of your recovery that need improvement.
Look at the situation leading up to your lapse. Did recovery take the back burner, instead of being most important in your life?
Was there a shift back to old patterns of thinking and feeling? Did you overconfidently put yourself in a high-risk situation?
Identify what coping mechanisms were working well before the slip and start using them again right away. Make a detailed relapse prevention plan listing what you will do when faced with similar circumstances in the future.
Relapse and Recovery
If you experience a slip in your sobriety, or even a full-blown relapse, where you return to using your drug of choice regularly, remember that recovery is still possible and you are not beyond help. Nor are you a failure.
After a slip-up you have not unlearned all that you gained from previous treatment and recovery. You can take action to get back on track and learn even more about what you need to do to be successful.
Drug or alcohol relapse is serious, and if using your support and healthy coping skills is not enough to get you back on track after a slip, you may consider re-entering an addiction treatment centre. Even if you have been through alcohol or drug rehab before, there is always more to learn about addiction and recovery.