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All About Relapse

Addiction relapse can be a complicated issue. Here's one addiction expert's take on various facets of the topic.

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Relapse is a key topic in addiction recovery.  Having worked in the field of addiction for over a decade, I’d like to share some of my experience & knowledge about this topic.

Relapse can mean different things in different situations. If someone is trying to stay sober from alcohol, any sort of ingesting of alcohol would be a relapse.  That’s a fairly cut and dry example.  However, what if someone wants to stop smoking cannabis but is fine with drinking? If this person smokes pot, then that’s a relapse on pot.  But they can continue to drink and that would not be a relapse.

The concept of relapse can get even more complicated when we’re talking about 12 Step programs like Al-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), or Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA). How do you count your “sober” time or know if you have a relapse in those programs? It’s a lot harder to define than it is in programs where you can live without something (like drugs or alcohol) versus programs focused on relationships. You can’t really live without relationships, or at least I wouldn’t suggest that you do! So that makes the concept of “abstinence” or “clean time” versus relapse more difficult to define. Ultimately, it’s up to you what your sobriety or abstinence means. If you’re having trouble defining this for yourself I would suggest enlisting the help of a therapist, sponsor, or trusted friends in making this decision. But yyour recovery is yours, so relapse is what you define it as.

A potential issue with counting sober time is losing your time when you relapse.  I am open about the fact that I am both personally and professional biased in favor of 12 Step programs.  However, in my opinion, they still have their issues. In my eyes one of those potentially problematic issues is the counting of sober time and then restarting of sober time when someone has a relapse. To use an example, let’s say you have six months sober, and then you relapse. In the world of 12 Step programs the “correct” thing to do would be to say, “I no longer have six months sober. I am now a newcomer. I have 0 days sober, and I am starting my time over.” You would then go to a meeting and identify as a newcomer, being honest and open about your relapse.

What are the pros to this system? One of the pros is honesty. Addiction is a disease of secrets and as the saying goes, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” So you’ve got to be honest relapse because no one can help you if you’re not open about relapse. So being honest with yourself and in front of your group of peers is really important to the process of recovery.  Another pro is humility. Being humble and able to admit when you’ve made a mistake (in this case, a relapse) helps you fight false pride and admit your faults so you can get help for them.

In my opinion, there are also cons to restarting your time as well.  The number one con is shame. Terrence Real said, “An addict needs shame like a man dying of thirst needs salt water.” Having to restart your time after you relapse can definitely lead some people into a shame spiral. Shame leads to thoughts like, “I am a bad person, there’s something inherently wrong with me, and this relapse is more proof of that.” I know that 12 Step programs do not intend for addicts to experience shame when they re-start their time, but that’s where people can take it very easily. I’ve seen it many times, and the last thing addicts need is more shame.  Another con is that restarting your sober time can make it seem like the days, weeks, months, or years sober you had now don’t exist because you relapsed. That’s not how the time-space continuum works! That time that you had sober and working a program of recovery can never be erased. Starting your time over can make it seem like that sober time didn’t count and doesn’t matter, but that’s not true. That time does count and it does matter.

One more important facet of the topic of relapse is that relapses don’t always have to be messy and horrible. What kind of relapse ultimately you have is really up to you.  Here are examples of two kinds of relapses:

First example: You relapse. Very soon after taking the drink or using the drug you say to yourself, you go, “Oh no. It’s happening. I have to do something about this now.”  You then call your sponsor, your therapist, or your friends and you’re immediately honest about the relapse.  You say to them, “I really messed up. I don’t want this to go any further. Please help me.”  There’s no denying that you relapsed, but you caught it, you put your recovery into action really quickly, and you got back into sobriety ASAP.

Second example:  You relapse, and you keep it to yourself. And you do it again…and again…and again. You keep it secret. Maybe people start to suspect something is wrong, but you keep it to yourself until you get caught.  The scariest thing here is that you could end up dying.  When you relapse you play Russian roulette with your life, and you may not make it back from this kind of relapse.  Not only did you relapse, but you decided you weren’t going to practice the skills that you learned in recovery.  The skills about honesty and reaching out for help when you need it. In this scenario you waited until somebody else caught you to get honest about it.

So relapses can be a disaster, like that second example, but they don’t have to be a disaster. You can get back on the horse right away if you need to. Any future relapses don’t have to be the end of the world. It’s up to you to see if you can put those skills into action, behave much differently than you ever have in the past, and correct your course.

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