Why Relapse Doesn't Mean You Failed: Hope after Relapse - AspenRidge


“The more you have treatment that can help you become continuously abstinent, the better you do. You have to figure out how to be abstinent. You still have cravings. You still have friends offering drugs. You still have to figure out ways not to use. The longer you’re able to do that, the more you are developing skills to help you stay abstinent.”

~ Lisa Onken, Chief of the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s Behavioral and Integrative Treatment Branch

When you are regaining your sobriety after active addiction, you will hear five words again and again – “relapse is part of recovery“. In reality, this mantra can be a very risky statement, because in the opinion of some, it gives tacit approval to recovering alcoholics and addicts for them to use or drink again, because it is inevitable… even expected

The opposite is true.

Relapse Is Never Okay

Anyone at any stage of recovery from alcoholism or drug abuse should always do everything they can to avoid their personal triggers – those people, places, and things that might lead them back to active substance abuse.

Relapse is never permissible… but it is possible…even likely.

This is not a defeatist mindset. Rather, it is the honest acceptance of reality. Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease that can actually change the chemistry of a person’s brain. There is no such thing as a “cured” addict – only an addict who has arrested the progress of the disease and who has learned to manage its symptoms.

A lifetime is a very long time, even when measured out one day at a time. Given the wrong circumstances – the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong people, and the wrong mindset – even the most conscientious and dedicated recovering alcoholic/addict can slip.

Drug Addiction Compared to Other Chronic Diseases

Let’s compare the non-adherence/relapse rates of common chronic illnesses and substance abuse –

  • up to 60% of individuals addicted to drugs will relapse at some point within their lifetime
  • up to 60% of Type I diabetics do not follow their doctor-recommended diet
  • up to 70% of people with high blood pressure do not comply with their medication schedule, diet, or exercise routine
  • up to 70% of individuals suffering from asthma take their medicine incorrectly

Obviously, non-adherence/relapse is quite common, with similar rates among all of these illnesses.

Recovery Can Be Judged by Progress, Not Perfection

It is important to keep in mind is that every chronic disease is successfully managed when people change their behaviors. Those behavioral changes have become unconscious habit over time, and just because a relapse happens, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the treatment plan has failed.

For example:

  • a diabetic might violate their plan by having a big piece of a favorite dessert
  • a person with hypertension can lose track and put on weight during the holidays
  • an asthmatic may absent-mindedly leave their inhaler at home

In every one of these cases, the individual with the disease failed to take the proper steps to stay within the guidelines set forth by medical professionals. While this is not ideal, there is no need to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

It will mean refocusing and rededicating oneself to the existence sobriety plan, or, if necessary, developing an alternative. Sometimes, all that is needed is a mental “tune-up”.

If it occurs, a relapse can provide the impetus that spurs participants into action.

The Longer the Period of Abstinence or Rehab, the Better the Chances of Success

Unsurprisingly, the ability to abstain from drugs or alcohol for long periods can be a highly-accurate predictor of successful recovery. After an eight-year study of nearly 1200 addicts, researchers were able to conclude –

  • only about one-third of people who abstain from drugs/alcohol less than one year will remain abstinent.
  • among those who achieve a year of sobriety, less than half will relapse.
  • once five years of sobriety is reached, the odds of relapsing are less than 15 %.

How a Person New to Sobriety Minimizes the Chances of Failure

Especially during the first year of sobriety, continued abstinence must be made a top priority.

  • The longer an individual remains in a drug addiction rehab program, the better their chances of survival become.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, 35%more than one-third – of people who stay in treatment for less than 90 days will relapse within the first year, in comparison to just 17% of those individuals who remained for more than 90 days.

  • In different study, addicts/alcoholics dropping out of treatment before 90 days have a rate of relapse that is virtually identical to individuals who only remain for one or two days.

Rightfully, it seems that the biggest key to long-term recovery is proper rehab duration and extended periods of abstinence. This stands to reason, because the longer a person stays away from the abused substance, the more their brain chemistry will return to normal. They will once again be better able to make rational choices.

Relapse is not exactly inevitable, but it is entirely possible. This means that a person in recovery needs to be mentally prepared, in case they suffer a relapse of their own. It is important to recognize a relapse for what it is – a mistake – and to immediately rededicate one’s self to the program of recovery.

“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”

~H.G. Wells

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