Relapse is sometimes mistakenly defined as a failed attempt to recover from addiction.
A relapse, in reality, is the re-emergence of symptoms after a chronic disease has been in remission for a period of time. Diabetics can have a relapse, as can a person with depression or a person fighting addiction.
While relapse is certainly not a desired or intended outcome of treatment, it can often be part of the progress forward. When viewed through a purely medical lens, without attaching the judgment often associated with substance abuse, a relapse can be an indication that the treatment occurring currently is insufficient for the problem at hand.
At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we treat relapse as an opportunity to learn more about the disease being treated and the needs of the person who is struggling with it. We work closely with each client to find approaches that might be more beneficial in addressing the issue in the future.
The Stages of Relapse
When relapse is discussed in a context of addiction, many people think of the moment a person reintroduces drugs or alcohol into their body. In reality, a substance abuse relapse can begin days, weeks, or even months before the person begins using again. According to Steven M. Melemis, in his journal article, “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery,” which was published in the Yale Journal of Biological Medicine, there are three stages of relapse:
- Emotional – The person isn’t thinking about using, but their emotions and behaviors are leading them in that direction.
- Mental – The person is starting to think about using and how to justify it if they do use. They have been neglecting their self-care for a while at this point.
- Physical – The person uses alcohol or another drug.
To learn more about the stages of relapse and how negative thought patterns can sabotage sobriety, see our previous blog post on that topic.
Even when a person knows the signs, they may unable to get back on track before they experience a physical relapse. When this happens, Melemis offers several tools a person can use to get back into recovery. For example:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – This therapy focuses on flawed thinking and unhealthy behaviors and is especially effective in treating addiction.
- Recognizing and addressing underlying fears.
1. Fear of not measuring up
2. Fear of being judged
3. Fear of feeling like a fraud and being discovered
4. Fear of not knowing how to live in the world without drugs or alcohol
5. Fear of success
6. Fear of relapse
- Redefining “fun” – A person needs new ways to relax. With their drug of choice unavailable, they need things to look forward to with eager anticipation.
- Learning from setbacks – This can mean our own setbacks, but also the lessons shared with us by a sponsor, individuals in a recovery meeting, or the wisdom in relapse testimonials people have given online.
- Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable – With the coping mechanism of substances removed, a person has to adjust to a new “normal” and this adjustment may not initially feel as familiar and comfortable as old patterns of behavior.
Sometimes, it is necessary to go back into treatment following a relapse, if the other tools a person has aren’t enough. Unfortunately, as shared by our partners at DK Solutions Group, relapse after treatment is more common than you might think. According to one study, one year after discharge from treatment, relapse rates range from 37 percent to 56 percent.
Even considering the risk of relapse, those who seek treatment are more likely to eventually achieve long-term recovery. The more a person learns about recovery and the underlying causes of relapse, the more tools they will have available to combat their disease and to eventually find a plan that they can utilize for long-term sobriety.
Helping Loved Ones Understand Relapse
When an individual experiences a relapse, they may not be the only person struggling to understand what has happened. Their friends and family may also share their frustration, disappointment, and confusion. That is why, at Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we reach out to our guests’ support systems to teach them what to do when a loved one relapses.
As suggested by our partners at Valley Recovery Center, after a relapse, it is important to:
- Stay firm and hold your loved one accountable
- Offer encouragement
- Be supportive
- Suggest a fun activity you can do together routinely, such as hiking or signing up for an art class
- Stay optimistic
If possible, it is ideal for loved ones to learn the signs of the earlier stages of relapse, so that they can assist their friend or family member in staying in recovery. Some of the outward signs that a person is entering relapse territory are:
- Sudden moments of glorifying drugs or alcohol
- Reminiscing on the “good old days”
- Growing more and more isolated
- Skipping meetings and check-ins with their sponsor or other supports
- Behavior changes that don’t add up
- Using alternative substances
- Expressions of hopeless and/or having a “why not?” attitude
Ultimately, there is no foolproof method of recovery. There are only best practices and hard work. If someone you care about needs help in their fight against substance abuse, the professionals at Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia are trained to help people to make a plan that fits their unique needs and lifestyle.