What to do When You Relapse in Recovery
If you’ve experienced a relapse in recovery, you’re not alone.
Even though you may be experiencing an overwhelming mix of emotions, know that this isn’t the end of your recovery journey. In fact, it can be an opportunity for an even stronger tomorrow.
Read on to learn more about why your relapse wasn’t spontaneous or random. Discover 7 things you can do right now if you’ve experienced a relapse in recovery.
Relapse in recovery happens and you are not a failure
Relapse happens. Of course, you don’t want relapse to happen, as the consequences can be fatal.
If you do experience a relapse, however, it doesn't mean you’re a failure. It’s part of the recovery process for many, many people.
In fact, the stages of change model, or transtheoretical model, is a model that highlights the various stages of addiction and recovery. Many experts include relapse in this model, because it is so common and it happens.
The most important thing you can do for yourself if you’ve experienced a relapse in recovery is to not beat yourself up or judge yourself for it. It can be easy to feel shame, guilt, and a sense of failure if you’ve experienced a relapse. You likely feel like you want to crawl into a hole and disappear. These feelings are completely valid, as your feelings are always valid. However, these feelings are being brought on by the thoughts you’re having about yourself.
After experiencing a relapse, you may have thoughts in which you’re telling yourself that you’re a failure. You may be telling yourself you’re a disappointment, or that you’ll never be able to remain sober. The thoughts you’re telling yourself are creating the emotions of guilt, shame, and failure.
Since our thoughts create our feelings and our feelings drive our actions, you may be taking (or not taking) actions based on these difficult emotions. You may be skipping treatment, or not making as much of a conscious effort towards your recovery. You may be pulling away from your friends, family, or your support system, because you feel ashamed.
Being in this place can cause the relapse to spiral into full-blown use once again. However, it doesn’t have to.
Relapse in recovery isn’t spontaneous
Before we jump into ways we can shift out of relapse, let’s look at what really happens when you experience a relapse. More specifically, let’s take a look at what happens before the relapse.
Even if it may have felt like it at the time, your relapse wasn’t spontaneous. It didn’t “just happen.” There was a build-up that led up to it.
When you physically engaged in substance use, that wasn’t the first stage of relapse. Rather, it was the last stage of relapse. There are two other stages of relapse in recovery that occurred before this that you may not have even been consciously aware of.
The first stage of relapse is the emotional relapse stage. At this stage, you aren’t thinking about engaging in substance use. However, you may be having some trouble regulating your emotions. You may be struggling to engage in coping skills that actually help you. During the emotional relapse stage, you may be pushing your emotions down and avoiding them. You may be pretending everything is fine when engaging with loved ones. You may even be practising toxic positivity, ignoring everything that’s actually going on beneath the surface. When this continues, it can lead to the second stage of relapse, known as the mental relapse stage.
The second stage of relapse is the mental relapse stage. During this stage, your mind may begin to wander, and you may start questioning how you feel about remaining sober. Even if part of you wants to remain sober, the other part of you may be grappling with cravings. During this stage, you may be glorifying past substance use, and romanticising your past experiences with drugs or alcohol. You may be minimising the extent of how drugs and alcohol have impacted your life, as your mind teeters back and forth between wanting to use and wanting to remain sober.
The third stage of relapse is the physical relapse. During this stage, you physically engage in substance use again. You may only use one time. However, this can quickly spiral out of control if you don’t take a look at what’s happening.
Your relapse in recovery is an opportunity for deeper healing
After looking at the three stages of relapse, you may have a better understanding of why your relapse wasn’t a random or spontaneous event. There were things happening internally with you that led up to it.
This offers such a valuable learning opportunity to build a better understanding of yourself and an even stronger foundation for your recovery. At this point, you can continue to beat yourself up or judge yourself for relapsing, or, you can look at it objectively and understand what was happening within you emotionally that led to that final stage.
Physical relapse is a sign that something in your treatment process or recovery process wasn’t working for you specifically, or that there’s still something that needs to be addressed or worked through.
Addiction is so complex, just as we as human beings are so complex. Often, what we think is the problem is just what’s presented on the surface, but there’s so much more buried underneath that has to get worked through in order to thrive.
When should you ask for help?
You may be afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed to ask for help if you’ve experienced a relapse in recovery. Those feelings are fully valid, but consider the idea that asking for help is a sign of true strength. It takes a great deal of courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable because you know it’s ultimately the best thing for you, and for the people around you.
If you’re wondering when to ask for help, the short answer is – now. If you’ve struggled with addiction, you know how rapidly things can progress and how chaotic life can become before you even realise what’s happening. This is why reaching out sooner, rather than later, is so important. Relapse can be fatal if you don’t take the measures to intervene.
Remember, when you step back into therapy or back into a meeting, or whatever form of treatment best fits you, you aren’t starting at ground zero. You’re starting with all the knowledge, wisdom, insight, and experience you’ve gained up until this point. Experiencing a relapse didn’t undo all of that work. Everything you’ve gained is still inside of you. Now, you have an opportunity to learn even more and go even deeper, using the relapse as a tool instead of a drawback.
What to do if you’ve experienced a relapse in recovery
If you’ve experienced a relapse and you know it’s time to ask for help, below is a list of 7 things you can do to get back on track:
1. Attend a meeting
If you attend meetings, such as NA/AA or SMART Recovery, this is a great time to jump into one. You can share what you’ve experienced regarding your relapse. It will feel difficult, and will take courage and vulnerability, but you may be surprised by the response you receive. Many others in your meeting will likely have gone through exactly what you’re going through, and will commend you for your honesty and willingness to continue to get better. A meeting provides a great, safe space for you to receive support, understanding, compassion, and guidance. Additionally, meetings are often readily available in-person and online. You could even be able to attend a meeting today!
2. Tell your therapist or counsellor
If you attend therapy or counselling, this is a great time to tell them about your relapse. Similar to attending a meeting and being honest, this will feel difficult and will take courage. You may be worried that your therapist or counsellor will judge you, will be disappointed in you, or will view you as a failure. However, none of this is true. By being forthright with your therapist or counsellor, they can help you unpack what happened before the relapse and help you build an even stronger foundation for your recovery. They’re there to work with you collaboratively, and they can’t fully help you if you aren’t honest about what’s really going on internally.
3 Reconnect with recovery friends
If you experienced a relapse, the guilt and shame that accompanied that may have caused you to pull away from your friends in recovery. You may feel that you don’t “deserve” to be around them, or that they’ll judge you for having relapsed. The truth is, they want to be there for you during the tough times – not only the good times. They want to be a pillar of strength and support for you. They want you to lean on them and be vulnerable with them, so they can truly help you in a deep and meaningful way. Your recovery community will know what you’re going through and they truly get it, so don’t be afraid to open up with them.
4. Be honest with those that suspect you have relapsed (family, partners)
If you have family members who are close to you or a partner who loves you, it would benefit you to tell them about your relapse. When you don’t tell them what happened, you’ll feel even worse about yourself, as now you’re keeping something from the people you love. Let them know what happened and be transparent about your experience. You can also let them know that you’re going to take the steps to build an even stronger foundation in recovery.
5. Avoid triggers
This goes without saying, but if you’ve experienced a relapse in recovery, try your best to avoid triggers. This can look like keeping yourself away from certain people or refraining from going into certain neighbourhoods. If you know something acts as an emotional trigger for you, such as a certain photograph or a certain movie, stay away from these things until you’ve gone back into treatment and begun to feel more stabilised and grounded in recovery. Not making the intentional effort to avoid your triggers could cause your relapse to spiral, so it’s important to be particularly mindful of this.
6. Practise self-care
Take care of yourself. When you experience a relapse, you probably weren’t feeling so great to begin with, and after relapsing, you’re likely to feel significantly worse. Despite what you’ve gone through and continue to go through, you are still worthy of feeling good. You are still worthy of taking care of yourself. So, engage in self-care. This looks like different things for different people and doesn’t mean you have to take a bubble bath.
What do you like to do for fun? What brought you joy when you were younger? For some people, watching a funny movie is their form of self-care. For others, it’s getting lost in a fantasy novel. Maybe you love animals and would love nothing more than to spend some time in nature. Whatever it is, make the conscious effort to engage in some form of self-care and know that you can start feeling better, even in the slightest of ways, today.
7. Reflect on the relapse
Finally, take time to reflect on the relapse. If you’re in treatment and seeing a counsellor or therapist, they will likely do this with you. However, you can still do this on your own. Coming from an objective, nonjudgmental place of gentle curiosity, explore your own relapse experience in accordance with the stages of relapse discussed earlier.
- What sort of emotions were you experiencing before the relapse, maybe even long before the relapse?
- What memories or thoughts have you been pushing away or ignoring?
- In what way has fear been coming up for you?
- Were you engaging in healthy coping skills to manage difficult emotions?
- Do you have coping skills that actually help you feel better?
Answering some of these questions may help you understand the arc that led to your physical relapse, and can help better prepare you for the next time you face difficult emotions.
A final note on experiencing relapse in recovery
Again, you are not a failure if you’ve experienced a relapse. However, it’s important to acknowledge the progressive nature of addiction and how rapidly your relapse can spiral if not addressed.
If you’re reading this, know that asking for help sooner rather than later is the best course of action not only for you, but for everyone who loves you.
Recoverlution is here to support you in any way that we can. We offer Connection and meetings, Knowledge and Wellness, all within our purpose build recovery platform. If you are ready to try something new or learn more about recovery, join us today. Our membership is free for you to benefit from.
- Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/