Coping with a Relapse

Apr 18, 2012
by Heather Wiszczur, LMSW, CAADC


We've all heard the saying, “relapse is a part of recovery.” This doesn't mean that you will relapse, but if you do, you are certainly not alone. If you do relapse, your attitude and behavior afterward will make all the difference in whether it is a brief relapse (what some people call a “lapse” or a “slip” or a long relapse complete with a whole new set of consequences.

Here are some suggestions to help you get back on track.

Tell on yourself

Your addict thinking will be telling you to keep this a secret, that it was just a slip and will never happen again, that no one needs to know. While it may be tempting, keeping your relapse to yourself is a sure fire way to continue using. Good recovery is not about being perfect, it's about being honest. If you use an addictive substance (even if it is not your “drug of choice,”) tell someone immediately, then tell more people. This means talking about it in twelve step meetings and telling your sponsor, therapist, sober support, social support, and anyone else who can help you be accountable and help you cope with the many feelings you will be experiencing.

Try to figure out what led up to the relapse

Relapse is not a monster that jumps out of the bushes and attacks you without warning. As the saying goes, relapse happens way before you pick up and use. Go back and look at what was going on before you used. Consider the following questions:

  • What was going on in your life?

  • What coping skills were you using?

  • What coping skills were you not using that you should have been?

  • How did your attitude and behaviors change?

  • What were the signs that you were headed for relapse?

  • What feedback were you getting from the people around you and how did you respond to it?

  • Where is your accountability in these events? What were you responsible for doing or not doing?

Really think about the answers to these questions and write them down. Ask the people around you what they saw and add that to your notes. Then share this information with a therapist, sponsor, or other sober support person.

Take accountability, but don't beat yourself up

After a relapse it can be tempting to blame others for your behaviors. Take an honest look at the events leading up to your relapse and identify your own responsibility and accountability. If there are people, situations, or events that contributed to your relapse, look at how you could have responded in a healthier way that would not have led to a relapse.

Taking accountability does not mean beating yourself up. Relapsing triggers a lot of shame, especially if you've had some long term recovery. However, beating yourself up only drives you deeper into addiction. It is normal to feel angry, frustrated, sad, and disappointed. Talk about these feelings with someone who is supportive of your recovery and try to move toward forgiving yourself.

Make a plan to avoid relapsing in the future

Recovery is like a house, it is only as strong as you build it. Once you have identified the previous weaknesses in your recovery, make a plan to address them and build an even stronger recovery. Consider the following:

  • How will you practice the recovery skills you have, but were not using?

  • Are there skills or knowledge that you still need to learn? If so, how will you do that?

  • Are there unresolved emotional or psychological issues for which you need to seek help? How will you do that?

  • Are there people, places, or situations that you need to avoid?

  • Do you need more sober support?

  • Would you benefit from therapy, treatment, a relapse prevention group, or a recovery coach?

Use your answers and feedback from others to make a written relapse prevention plan and then follow it. Share your plan with people who can help you be accountable and review and update it regularly.

A relapse does not have to mean an end to your life in recovery. It does not mean that you are a bad person, or hopeless, or a failure. It simply means that you've gotten off track and made some mistakes. Personal responsibility means accepting that you are imperfect (as is everyone), identifying the mistakes you have made, and taking the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and build a stronger recovery. Remember the words of Mary Pickford, “If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. This thing that we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” You may have fallen, but you don't have to stay down. You can always get back up and have a good life in recovery.


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