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Addiction Recovery and Relapse

Can they go hand in hand positively? 

If you're someone or know someone recovering from addiction, you've likely seen a relapse. The rug gets pulled out from under you, the other shoe drops, and old feelings of worry and fear come flooding back. It's seen as a devastating catastrophe and can feel like the end of the world or at least the end of sobriety. But might there be a different way to look at it?

What if relapse is simply a part of recovery? What if relapse is sometimes an evil necessary to get to the end game of lifelong sobriety?


Recent research defines relapse as a series of setbacks along the way to recovery. These mistakes, or relapses, are considered part of the recovery process and not a failure of recovery. Rather than relapse being a random event, it is due to an underlying process that has to be addressed. This is why the aftercare plan for treatment is essential to success in recovery. Drug addiction statistics support how necessary aftercare is for the prevention of relapse.

Though the statistics vary depending on the addiction, they show that between 40 and 85 percent of individuals relapse and return to using within one year of treatment. More than two-thirds of such individuals do so within weeks to months of beginning addiction treatment.

It's been shown repeatedly that the longer an individual can sustain abstinence, the greater the chances of long-term recovery.

So, yes, relapse is a setback, but it's not the end, and it could be the beginning of a brighter future. Coming out of a relapse, understanding the experience, and learning new tools for improvement are the most important things to focus on. Not the relapse itself.

Let's look at a positive relapse versus a negative relapse to understand how it can actually be a positive occurrence.

Coming out of a positive relapse can pave the way for stronger, long-term sobriety or clean time. Look for these attitudes and attributes in a person to know whether a relapse they experienced is positive:

  • Being genuinely remorseful.
  • Calling the original treatment center for suggestions
  • Realizing there's not the control previously thought
  • Demonstrating an understanding of the magnitude of the relapse
  • Having an awareness of how the relapse affected loved ones
  • Having a sincere desire to figure out why there was a relapse
  • Displaying increased willingness to apply recovery principles in life
  • Being interested in taking measures to prevent a repeat of relapse
  • Being open or receptive to suggestions
  • Talking to a counselor or a sponsor
  • Getting into a support group, increases attendance at supportive meetings, etc.
  • Willingness to increase treatment, including psychotherapy, outpatient care, or even back to inpatient. treatment.

On the other hand, if a person coming out of a relapse shows no such signs, consider it a negative relapse if they:

  • Exhibit no sense of care about the relapse or lash out at others
  • Are remorseful only about being caught, not about relapsing
  • Say, "It's only alcohol and not [my drug of choice]"
  • Think the using is under control
  • Have no understanding of the magnitude of the relapse or its effects
  • Demonstrate no desire for further treatment or support groups
  • Have an apathetic approach instead of proactively seeking solutions
  • Have no clear-cut plan to prevent future relapse
  • Do not call for help from anyone who can be a positive influence
  • Hang out with old friends as a support group
  • Lie to cover up the relapse or continued drug or alcohol use.

Relapse doesn't happen by accident. Just as in the stages of change to get into recovery, there are stages of change to relapse, and change starts with pre-contemplation before it moves into action. When thinking and behaving become more in line with using than with recovery, the scale gets tipped back towards using, and relapse happens.

Recovery needs to be practiced regularly, and having a solid relapse prevention plan in place is an essential part of it. Going into treatment and then not following through with an aftercare plan is the equivalent of going to med school to be a surgeon and never practicing surgery. It's just not going to work.

Here are some warning signs of relapsing to be on the lookout for:

  • Change in mood or behaviors
  • Becoming intolerant, angry, or resentful
  • Increased feeling of apathy
  • Isolation from others
  • Socially checking out
  • Not going to treatment or meetings
  • Adhering to an aftercare plan but not actively participating; not expressing emotions
  • Change of eating or sleeping habits
  • Lapse in taking care of oneself mentally or physically
  • Not being grateful in recovery
  • Relaxing of self-imposed rules
  • Cravings for the fix of choice
  • Thinking about the people and places associated with using
  • Romanticizing past using behavior rather than remembering the pain it caused
  • Minimizing the consequences of the addiction; bargaining with oneself
  • Lying to others
  • Thinking about how to better control using
  • Planning a relapse or looking for opportunities to use.

If you or someone you know is in recovery from addiction, have safeguards in place and stick to an aftercare plan. But if relapse does happen, know it's not the end of recovery but rather an opportunity to learn and grow and be even stronger in recovery.

More from Dana Golden NCFAD, NCRC, Interventionist
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