Relapse: What to do.
What to do if your loved one relapses?
~By Joe Herzanek
Is Relapse Part of Recovery?
Addiction has been called a chronic relapsing disease. Relapse is when the person in recovery chooses to try some controlled using again after attempting to remain abstinent. We know that addicts/alcoholics can’t control substance use. If they could, they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. Relapse is one more failed attempt at trying to control how much they are able to use.
Using a substance occasionally and in moderation isn’t a problem for social drinkers. But once someone crosses over to habitual and uncontrolled use, there is no going back. Attempts to regain control—to use alcohol or drugs socially and occasionally—are common, and these attempts lead to relapses. Statistics show that approximately 90 percent of those who complete treatment will have a relapse—sometimes referred to as a slip.
Five months after leaving treatment in April, I tried just one more time to see if I could control my using. I went out with an old friend and drank.
I don’t remember if I called Gary or he called me. Gary and I used to take drugs together. He was a good friend. We’d known each other since high school. He knew I had quit, but he didn’t know much about recovery. We hadn’t seen each other for months, since before I’d gone to the treatment center. We went out to a bar. I don’t think I had any intention of drinking. After an hour or two of playing pool and being in the midst of a crowd of people who were drinking, I ordered a beer. To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking. After five or six beers, I knew I had screwed up.
I wasn’t nearly as wasted as I wanted to be. What now? Because of everything I had heard in recovery groups, I now felt a tremendous sense of guilt. Why did I let this happen? Looking back on it, I can see that it was a chain of events. Talking with Gary, meeting him at a bar, staying and playing pool—all the sights, sounds and smells were too much for me in the beginning of my sobriety. A bad idea. Those few drinks did not give me the effect I craved. I realized that it was going to take much more than a few drinks. I didn’t want that old life back and it became obvious to me that I had to make an all or nothing choice.
It was just one night, but that one night motivated me to get right back to working on my recovery. This would fall into the category of a slip—one stupid decision that was brief and over quickly. I guess I just had to test the water one more time. What this experience did was confirm to me that my addiction was real. I felt like an idiot. I had just blown one hundred fifty days of sobriety and I didn’t even enjoy it.
Having a few drinks had always been the start of trouble for me. I knew I had to come to my senses right away, or I would soon be looking for drugs as well. This small slip would end up as a complete return to full-blown using, or I could end it that night. By this time in my recovery, I had learned enough to know what was happening and what the consequences could be. I must have had a moment of clarity. Nobody needed to tell me that I’d screwed up. Going back to the old life was the last thing I wanted.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to go back to my treatment center for a couple of days to sort this out. I have heard similar stories from others who have relapsed. Many of them remember that exact, pivotal moment when they were faced with the decision of what to do. Here are the two different trains of thought that can occur to an addict after a relapse. I’ve blown it anyway, so I may as well keep using for a while. Or, This was a dumb idea. I’d better get right back to recovery before it gets much worse. Thankfully, the latter was my thinking.
Ways to Avoid Relapse
Developing relationships with others who are facing the same challenges are very important. A couple of close friends, a sponsor, a mentor—any one of these—can help hold a person accountable. I knew I had let some people down. But these same people were able to encourage me to keep moving forward.
One of the results of an addict spending time with people in recovery is that it will ruin their once seemingly gratifying relationship with alcohol and drug use. Those in recovery learn about the disease, and from that point on they know too much about its power to ever enjoy it the way they used to. They know that there’s no going back. If someone slips, they often feel the way I did—like an idiot for even trying to enjoy it again. But this is all okay, as we all learn from mistakes like this. Family and friends shouldn’t get too discouraged when someone slips, because it’s common in early recovery. Look at it as one more opportunity for your loved one to become convinced that the addiction is indeed real.
Relapse is often compared to a series of stairs—and landings in-between the flights. The addict might be up three flights and two landings when they relapse. They don’t fall into the basement; they only go down one floor.
Is there a difference between a slip and a relapse?
Sort of. The difference lies in how a person handles it. A slip is when someone goes back out to drink or use drugs, screws up, realizes it, and gets right back to working on their recovery. A full-blown relapse would be when a person goes back to using and stays gone for a period of time, which is tragically long enough to get right back to the bottom of the pit they climbed out of.
I am in no way suggesting that anyone should slip or relapse to test his addiction for even one night. One night can easily turn into one thousand nights; some may never return. What I am saying is that a person who has slipped shouldn’t beat himself up over it. And families need to help the addict move forward and keep trying. As a concerned loved one, you may experience heart-wrenching disappointment when you see a user fall. But remember, all hope is not lost. The addict should just return to attending groups or meetings, learn the lesson, and move on.
Why does relapse happen and what are the triggers?
The number one reason for a slip or relapse is stress, stress that is building to a seemingly uncontrollable level. Webster’s Dictionary defines stress as physical, mental, or emotional tension or strain. A little stress is a normal part of life and can even be good for us. The problem, of course, occurs when stress builds to an unmanageable level.
People learn to cope with stress in different ways. What works best for me is exercise and communication. Talking things through with other users, and with my family, makes all the difference. Exercise helps to eliminate the effects of stress on my body and talking works the same way for my mind. As a person in recovery, I know how I used to handle the stress of life—with some form of medication. This method never solved anything.
I’ve heard it said that the only people who never experience stress are in cemeteries. Connecting with others who have had similar stressors is one good way to lighten your burdens. To know you are not alone, that you’re not the only one struggling, is comforting. This is especially true for a person in recovery. But the cause of a person’s stress is not the issue. Life will always have its problems. Rather, how someone chooses to deal with the challenges of life is what matters. Family and friends need to know that not properly handling these inevitable frustrations is the number one cause for relapse.
Even after reading this, you may still have trouble understanding why a relapse may happen. I’m a recovering addict, it happened to me, and it’s hard for me to completely understand as well. The truth is that a recovering addict may relapse several times. The best thing to do is to try to remain hopeful, and encourage the person to keep on fighting the battle, though you may feel anger, frustration, and disappointment. Getting some support from others in the family, and from groups such as Al-Anon, will be helpful. And try to remember that the recovering person will feel these feelings as intensely as you do.
I would recommend going to some “open” AA meetings. This is a superb resource for families. Open meetings are for anyone interested in this topic. Just sit and listen as others share what it was like for them and how they got sober.
Relapse is similar to a cancer that comes out of remission. It doesn’t do any good to get mad at the cancer or the person. The same is true for the disease of addiction. Instead, try to focus on the solution, which is to get your loved one sober and drug-free. Eventually, with the help of family and the right support, those in recovery will stop relapsing, regardless if they’ve had one relapse or a dozen.
Some who are reading this may have already observed several relapses. You may be asking, When will it ever stop? You can take comfort in knowing that a majority of people in recovery will have a few relapses. For a small minority, it could be much worse, and additional long-term treatment may be necessary. Remember, never give up hope!
This article is excerpted from the book Why Don’t They Just Quit? Hope for families struggling with addiction.
Joe Herzanek, a man who battled his own demons of addiction over thirty years ago. He often tells others, “I know people can change. If I can do it, anyone can!”
Chaplain Joe Herzanek is the president and founder of Changing Lives Foundation. As a state certified addiction counselor in Colorado he spent over seventeen years working in the criminal justice system as the Chaplain/Addiction Counselor at both the Boulder and Weld County Jails.
Joe is a dynamic speaker, the former host of Recovery Television, producer of several DVDs, and author of the award-winning book “Why Don’t They Just Quit? What families and friends need to know about addiction and recovery.” written for families or friends struggling to help a loved one recover from alcohol or drug addiction. His book along with the companion DVD “The 10 Toughest Questions” offer rare insights into the mind of the substance abuser and how it impacts the family.
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