A drug relapse occurs when a recovering addict starts using again. In the simplest terms, that is all a relapse entails. But relapses happen to people for different reasons, and most of the time, they can be prevented. Relapses are also not a sign of weakness.
Many recovering addicts fail to internalize (or haven’t even heard) that as many as 90 percent of all people who go through the recovery process experience at least one relapse before achieving lasting recovery (defined usually as several years of abstinence). In fact, over half of all recovering addicts relapse within one year after their first recovery program – it’s important to note that that is after their recovery program, not during or before.
Of course, understanding what a relapse means is different from accepting it as normal or correct behavior. The whole point of getting sober is to stay sober and avoid relapses. While the first few are to be expected, it’s also easy to get trapped in a constant cycle of relapses and sobriety attempts, without really learning why relapses occur, or taking the proper measures to ensure they don’t happen again.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
The first step to coming back stronger after a relapse is being okay with the mistake you’ve made and rededicating yourself to sobriety. Before anything else, you must understand that a stumble doesn’t eliminate you from the race. You can get back up and keep on working towards your goal. Then, it’s time to completely and effectively reflect on what happened and try to make the most of the experience in a positive way.
Relapses are very emotional and troubling. They usually begin in the mind, through thoughts and feelings of doubt, worries and internal anxieties, struggles with what it means to be sober and whether all this fighting and struggling is worth it. These feelings are normal to a point, but when they become overwhelming, the next stop is usually a relapse. The urge to use again and the inner hunger to return to old habits can sometimes be overpowering, especially in the face of overwhelming external stressors. Some of the warning signs to consider include:
- Increasingly erratic emotions.
- Increasingly abrasive/irritable, harder to control temper.
- Easily distracted, hard time concentrating.
- Emotionally pre-occupied with negative thoughts, including depressive thoughts or anxious thoughts/fears.
- Worrying excessively about a relapse, day in and day out.
- Other sudden behavior changes.
- Losing faith/lack of faith in recovery programs, increased cynicism.
- Loss of interest in old hobbies, no new developing interests.
- Robotic/dispassionate pursuit of day-to-day activities.
- Depressive declarations/thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
- Low energy/constant lack of sleep.
- Insomnia/unable to rest.
Many of the warning signs of relapse are similar to the warning signs of depression, and the two are often intertwined. What relates one to the other is the lack of hope and constant negative thinking.
Consider Asking for Help
You do not have to wait for a relapse to occur to confirm your fears. If you realize that your behavior lately has been erratic, uncontrolled, or otherwise in line with some of the other warning signs listed above, it would be smart to consider getting professional help. A therapist or psychiatrist experienced with addiction medicine can get you the psychological assistance you need to not only get through this but work on developing ways to feel an oncoming potential relapse and stop it dead in its tracks. Your ability to prevent relapses hinges on your willingness to rely on others and work with them (and yourself) to take a breath, gain perspective, and figure out the best way to not give into the urge to use again.
Another option is to sign into a sober living home. Like rehab facilities, sober living homes are drug-free zones, heavily enforced to keep all residents safe from drug use. And unlike rehab, you get to stay as long as you want to, with no set program. Sober living homes are ideal for recovering addicts who feel they may be at risk for relapsing, and just need a place to stay for a while where they won’t try to get their hands on anything.
What Counts as A Relapse?
Some might ask themselves if it’s ever okay to use drugs without actually relapsing. The difference between using and relapsing is the control. If you can use a drug without losing control over how you use it and how much of it you use, you haven’t relapsed into an addicted state.
However, realistically, this just isn’t feasible for most people. In fact, almost all recovering addicts should vehemently oppose the idea of using again, in ‘moderation’. The body and brain remember what it was like to be addicted, and after an addiction passes and the body and brain recover from drug use, they become much more susceptible to the effects of a drug – especially if you start using again at the same pace as just before your initial treatment. Some people have reported quitting drinking and eventually going back to drinking responsibly, but it’s very rare and not at all worth the risk. You’re simply opening yourself up to a full relapse into uncontrollable and chaotic addiction.
As such, a relapse counts as any amount of drug use that puts you back in an addicted state – struggling to control your behavior, driven by the need to satisfy and chase your high, and using drugs to cover up any underlying pain or suffering you may be struggling with.
Why It’s Okay to Relapse and Keep Going
A relapse is not a failure, and it doesn’t spell doom for your recovery or indicate that your recovery program is ineffective. As mentioned previously, don’t try to see your relapse as a sign that you’ve failed – see it as a sign that your recovery isn’t complete yet, and there are still a few major obstacles you have to cover.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of time. It simply takes a certain amount of time spent sober for the body and brain to readjust and get over the cravings, to a certain degree. Sometimes, relapses give us insight into weaknesses we may still have – triggers and emotional problems that need to be dealt with before the recovery can be ‘complete’.