Embracing the ‘Failure’ of Relapse

woman looking worried through window

Relapse is more the rule than the exception in addiction recovery. In fact, relapse is considered a component of addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which says, “Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Instead of viewing relapse as a failure, NIDA recommends that people in recovery should interpret it as a sign that their treatment may need to be reinitiated or adjusted.

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, roughly 60% of recovering addicts relapse within one year of completing treatment for substance abuse. But in addiction recovery we often get second chances, and more, to move past relapse and onward with our sobriety.

Relapse as a Learning Opportunity

In the world of addiction treatment, we embrace the possibility of relapse and, if and when it occurs, we look at it as an opportunity for learning how to overcome our addictive urges with healthy coping tools and by identifying the moods and situations that challenge us — those people, feelings, moments or places (even sights, sounds and smells) that are most likely to trigger us to drink or use again.

If we relapse during recovery we should embrace this moment as one that provides insight. A relapse means we are being shown that we need to put better relapse strategies in place. Learning to manage the disease of addiction requires a seismic shift in our thinking and day-to-day decision-making and that takes time, determination and practice. Science tells us that the reward centers in our brains are altered by addiction — though not irrevocably —and it takes time to change our brains back to a healthy state.

How to Respond to Relapse

If a run-in with a relapse trigger causes us to slip, this doesn’t mean we have failed at recovery. More importantly, our slip-up doesn’t have to escalate into destructive thinking and a major catastrophe. In fact, if we give in to the attitude that we have already blown it so we may as well go all the way, drinking or using more, we place ourselves in physical danger by raising our risk of overdose if we use again after abstinence, and we cause psychological damage by not being honest with ourselves about the relapse.

It’s important that we work through a relapse proactively by getting the extra support we need to push past it and recommit to sobriety. “Clients often feel great shame when they relapse and are fearful to share with sponsors, family and other supporters,” says addiction specialist Shannon McQuaid, LMFT, LISAC, CDWF, CSAT, executive director of Promises Scottsdale. “This secrecy and fear of judgment often leads to more shame and isolation, pulling people further back into the addiction instead of back on their path of recovery.”

Wise Words for People Who Relapse

Mistakes and missteps are important parts of any learning process. Here are a few quotes that emphasize the importance of using setbacks and challenges as a learning tool:

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. — Confucius

Honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure. — James Altucher

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps. — Confucius

All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get. — Confucius

McQuaid emphasizes the importance of providing continuing care and support post-treatment to help those in recovery manage relapse, if and when it happens, adding, “It is crucial that as treatment providers we provide support to help clients move through any shame they might feel so they can find the courage to stay mentally, physically and spiritually in their recovery.”


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