Relapse is a painful, often shameful, and even sometimes humiliating experience. It is also a normal opportunity for learning and growth within the recovery process. Ideally, a person in recovery and their support system would be able to identify the warning signs of an impending relapse and take immediate action to correct course. Unfortunately, there are times when the indicators are missed or ignored.

How Could You Miss It?

Because the relapse process can often take weeks or months to transpire, it can be difficult to see signs of it–or admit the truth to yourself–until it’s too late. Generally, in the earliest stages of recovery, the person is not thinking about using. They remember what their life was like before they got sober, and they want no more of that.

Then, if they enter the honeymoon phase of recovery, they feel so good and so confident that they start to believe they are not capable of relapse. They may stop participating actively in recovery meetings and therapy because they think they don’t need it. People around them may see their confidence and believe they’re doing well.

As someone progresses toward relapse, maybe because life suddenly gets challenging and cravings start to surge, they may be able to see the red flags but not know what to do to stop something that feels inevitable. As terrifying as the prospect of relapse is, it still feels more comfortable than sobriety.

Told You So

Sometimes, even if the person is being told by their loved ones, their sponsor, their counselor,  and others in their life that they are showing red flags for an impending relapse, they might still be unable to acknowledge it. After the relapse has occurred, the person may remember all of the warnings and be very upset with themselves for not listening to their support system. While it is important for them to take responsibility for their choices, they should not give into shame and guilt. Shame and guilt are the enemies of recovery and will only prevent a rapid return to sobriety. 

Getting Back on Track

The faster a person can acknowledge a relapse and set aside difficult emotions, the easier it will be to return to recovery. Some of the tools that can be helpful to recover from relapse include:

  • Throwing out whatever is left of the drug or alcohol – ensuring that there is not any substance left to abuse makes it easier to end the relapse. Pour it down the sink, dump it in the trash, or leave the situation and let someone you trust dispose of it.
  • Reaching out to your support system – call your sponsor, a trusted friend, family, someone from your home group, or whoever can be there for you right now.
  • Therapycognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps with problematic thought processes and personal accountability. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has an online tool that can help you to identify CBT therapists near you who can accept your preferred form of payment
  • Addressing underlying issues – something specific might have triggered the relapse, and finding ways to manage that issue could prevent problems later. Triggers might include a co-occurring mental health condition, interacting with people who don’t support your recovery, or revisiting an old trauma without adequate support already in place.
  • Learning from setbacks – see the relapse as an opportunity to refine your recovery plan and make it stronger than before. You may now be able to identify unique cues of relapse risk that you did not previously recognize.
  • Creating reasons to be happy – without your drug of choice to give you pleasure, you’ll need to actively seek out opportunities for joy and happiness in your new life.
  • Returning to treatment – though not every relapse requires a return to treatment, there may be times when it is helpful to get a “booster” and have someone review your treatment plan. 

In the past, it was a commonly held belief that people did not typically benefit from repeated admissions to treatment, but there is now reason to believe that multiple treatment episodes can have a greater positive effect than just a single episode of treatment. 

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA, we encourage any past clients who have relapsed to return for another episode of treatment. We can help you decide what level of treatment will work for you.