Relapse. It Happens.
. . . but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road.
This article excerpted from the award-winning book “Why Don’t They Just Quit? What families and friends need to know about addiction and recovery.” 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 had 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 had 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? Be- cause 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, meet- ing 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. No- body 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 some- one 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.
My friend and addiction counselor Larry Weckbaugh in Eagle, CO compares recovery 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. . .
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