Most addicts, especially those in recovery, would agree: addiction is a lifelong battle. Making the choice to get sober can be difficult and, to be totally honest, it doesn’t exactly get easier from there. One common misconception about addiction recovery is that once a person completes treatment or gets clean, they’ve recovered. But recovery isn’t a one-time accomplishment. It’s an ongoing journey — and one that’s not without its fair share of speedbumps along the way. Britain’s “Iron Lady” once said:
“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”
This likely rings true to many in recovery from addiction. Relapses happen. In fact, the NIDA estimates that 40-60% of recovering drug addicts relapse — a percentage very similar to the relapse rates of other chronic illnesses, like Type 1 Diabetes, Hypertension and Asthma (addiction is a disease after all).
Some of you are probably thinking: “With numbers like that, why even bother?” Throwing that statistic out there is in no way meant to discourage. Rather, allow it to be a source of encouragement and motivation. Take comfort in knowing that those thoughts you’re having, the ones that are telling you “just one hit won’t hurt” or “it’s only one drink,” have been heard by countless others who have relapsed, fought their way back and are now leading successful, sober lives.
Triggers and Warning Signs
Relapses can happen suddenly and are usually brought on by triggers — any event, interaction or relationship that causes an addict to justify using again. Triggers generally fall into one of three categories: emotional, environmental or exposure. They’re often based off old routines or memories, so they differ for each person. Some common triggers include:
- Negative emotions that stimulate drug seeking behavior (stress, anger, fear, frustration, guilt, anxiety, depression, loneliness)
- Friends, locations or events that remind the addict of using
- Exposure to drugs of abuse
- Seeing or sensing an object of addiction (e.g. seeing a syringe or watching a beer commercial)
- Social pressures to use
- Positive emotional states (having fun and wanting to feel even better)
- Using other substances (e.g. a recovering heroin addict who continues to drink alcohol is at a higher risk of relapse)
Certain situations can also make a relapse more likely. The loss of a loved one, conflict with others, a change in marital status, health problems, major financial changes and boredom are all circumstances that can lead to relapse. Some warning signs to watch out for are:
- Overconfident attitude
- Self-pitying attitude
- Hanging out with people from drug use days
- Changes in personal hygiene, sleep or appetite
- Sudden changes in routine and irresponsible behaviors (skipping school, work or appointments)
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It’s not easy, but understanding that you can’t control everything is really important when it comes to preventing relapse. Unless you decide to become a recluse (which is definitely not recommended!!), you can’t control what other people say or do and you can’t always control the circumstances that come your way. The best thing you can do is be as prepared as possible. Some ways to do that include:
- Know your triggers
- Have a support system to help you avoid triggers and keep an eye out for warning signs
- Avoid people and places that make you want to use
- Attend therapy or support groups where you can talk about what you’re going through
- Avoid exposure to drugs and alcohol
In general, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can greatly improve your quality of life and the same goes for someone in recovery.
One tool some people use is the acronym HALT (Hunger, Anger, Loneliness and Tiredness), which serves as a sort of warning system for when you’re off balance. The idea is to take a moment, conduct a self-assessment and address any of these feelings you’re having before they get out of hand. Checking in with HALT helps to keep you physically, mentally and emotionally prepared for the triggers and situations you may face.
Coming Back From Relapse
So you’ve relapsed, probably feel like crap about it or are scared to death and now you’re wondering where to go from here.
The first thing you should do is get in touch with your therapist or sponsor so they can assess the situation and decide the best immediate plan of action. This may mean going back to treatment or attending more meetings/therapy sessions each week, but it will all depend on your personal situation. You’ll want to reach out to your support system as well, but be prepared for them to have their own feelings about your relapse. Just assure them that you are still on your recovery journey and you’ll need their continued encouragement and support during this time.
Coming back from relapse won’t be easy, but you’ve gotten this far and you’re more than capable of doing so again. Relapse is not failure, it’s an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. No matter how many battles it takes, never quit fighting for your recovery. Never quit fighting for yourself.