Those of us in recovery from addiction know that, sometimes, relapses happen. Relapse can strike anyone in recovery. Anyone. From the newcomer with 30 days sober, to people who haven’t had a drink or drug in years, no one is exempt from the dangers of relapse. Of course when it comes to avoiding relapse, vigilance helps. Going to meetings on a regular basis, participating in a recovery program of any kind, having a sponsor or recovery coach, and keeping in good emotional, physical, and spiritual health are all great ways of keeping relapse at bay. But the truth is, even those of us who maintain our spiritual and emotional health to the best of our abilities sometimes relapse. In the words of my first sponsor, “hey, shit happens.”
Relapsing after a long (or short) period of sobriety brings about a slew of emotions. Guilt, shame, remorse, anxiety, fear, spite, self-loathing, jealousy, secrecy, rage, and more. These negative emotions can lead to a shame spiral, leaving many of us who relapse at an impasse. Should we embarrass ourselves by admitting the truth to our friends, families, recovery groups, and loved ones? Or should we just get “the effits” and keep going until the our secrets expose themselves? Fortunately, there’s an easy answer to this question, and it boils down to 8 simple words:
Relapse Isn’t the End of Your Recovery
Listen, as we admit every time we attend a recovery meeting or 12-step group, we’re alcoholics, we’re addicts. This is who we are. We’re trying to recover, but ultimately, what do addicts and alcoholics do? We drink. We drug. We make bad decisions. We suffer. And when the suffering becomes great enough, then we make the best decision one can make: we decide to recover. We lift ourselves from the ashes, dust ourselves off, and start over fresh, learning from our mistakes. It’s. What. We. Do. Recovery takes practice, and when we’re practicing something, sometimes we fail. Be patient with your own recovery. To paraphrase a popular piece of recovery wisdom, we didn’t become addicted overnight, so we will not recover overnight either. Recovery takes time.
Hopefully those of us in the midst of a relapse are able to see the same light that drew us to recovery in the first place. That feeling of “enough is enough” that so many of our fellows have described. Once this place is reached, when the relapse is “over,” there often comes a feeling of “what’s next?” The answers may be simple, but they’re not easy, which is why we’ve put together this guide to handling and triumphing over a relapse. Obviously, no two addicts are the same, so no two recoveries are the same, but there are some universal tips that can help to recover from a relapse so your overall recovery can flourish and thrive.
It may seem obvious, but drugs and alcohol are dangerous. Really dangerous. And sometimes, after a prolonged or heavy period of use of certain chemicals, even stopping can be dangerous. Opiates cause severe withdrawals or “dope sickness” that can leave its sufferers incapacitated for days. Withdrawal from alcohol and benzos like Xanax or Klonopin can cause seizure or even death. There are a variety of drugs with mild to serious withdrawal symptoms, so at the end of a relapse, it’s important to seek medical help. You may find yourself in need of a trip to a medical detox center, or seeking the help of a medical doctor who specializes in addiction medicine and withdrawals. Don’t be prideful. Yes, going to detox after a long period of sobriety can feel embarrassing, but don’t pay the price of embarrassment with your life. If you feel the symptoms of substance withdrawal, seek medical help or dial 911 immediately.
Ask someone else for help
Look, you just relapsed. Clearly you’re not thinking straight, and you haven’t been making good decisions. Now is not the time to start believing that you can magically start thinking logically and in your own best interests, making your own decisions. Talk to someone. Call your sponsor, call your recovery coach, call your best friend, or call some random person you met at a recovery meeting. Whoever you call, tell them what’s going on and be honest. Say the words. Say, “I relapsed.” Say it out loud. It will feel good, I promise. There is a tremendous amount of relief that comes when an addict shares their secret. Again, to paraphrase a popular piece of recovery literature, there is no greater benefit than one alcoholic helping another.
Everyone in recovery can relate to relapse. It’s on the mind of every person you’ve ever met at any meeting everywhere. It’s the driving force behind continued recovery. If addicts and alcoholics didn’t share a collective fear and understanding of relapse, we’d all stop going to meetings after a few months. There’s a reason we keep coming back. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. We’ve all been there, and we’re all in this together. If you encounter someone who tries to make you feel guilty or ashamed for relapsing, say “thank you for your input” and then go talk to someone else who is more compassionate. Relapse is a part of recovery, and anyone who shames you for it isn’t acting in your best interest.
Go to a meeting, raise your hand
It may feel intimidating or shameful to go to a meeting where everyone knows you, raise your hand, and admit to a relapse. Do it anyway. Forget your pride and your ego. It’s important for the other people in that room to know that a relapse can happen to anyone, so share your experience. Share the emotions and thoughts and insane notions that led up to your relapse. Share your feelings, your fears, your hopes, and your aspirations. Dump that baggage and leave it at the meeting. Believe it or not, it will help other people, and it will help you. There is a tremendous amount of relief that comes from sharing your problems with a room full of people who understand. You might walk into that meeting with a 50 pound bag of problems over your shoulder, but you will leave feeling lighter than air.
Do something about it
This part, as they say, is where the rubber meets the road. You have to do some serious introspection and work to figure out what scenario led to your relapse, and do something about it. Were you dating a toxic partner that made you want to disconnect from reality? Is your job too stressful? Are there outside stressors that you’ve been avoiding and are afraid to deal with? Are you too prideful to believe that alcohol and drugs could get the better of you again? Do you feel like you are better than the people you’ve encountered in recovery meetings? Look inside yourself, check your motives. Talk to a trusted confidante in recovery. You’ll find the answer. And when you find the answer to the question of “why did I relapse?” it’s up to you to DO something about it. Make the changes in your life that are necessary to prevent a future relapse.
Redouble your recovery efforts
Whatever you were doing for your recovery before your relapse, do more. If you were going to two or three meetings a week, go every day. If you were abiding by most of your program before your relapse, abide by all of it. Calling your sponsor once a week? Call every day. Thinking about seeing a therapist? Find one, and tell them what’s been going on. As recovering addicts and alcoholics, we can always work harder at our own recovery. In the long run, it’s worth the hard work to find the answers we’ve been looking for. After all, ultimately, the goal is to feel better on a daily basis. If we find the combination of recovery tools that makes us feel good, it’s worth it.
Find your solution
Every addiction is different, and so is every addict. When it comes down to brass tacks, it’s up to each of us to find what works for us as individuals. If you want to be sober but you relapsed, it means there was some facet of your recovery that wasn’t getting enough attention. Find the gap, and fill it. It could be something as simple as not enough exercise, or something as complex as searching for a spiritual awakening. But no matter how simple or complicated the solution might be, the power is within you to find it. Remember, while recovery is a full-time job, it’s predicated on our own daily wellbeing. Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to admit your shortcomings. Fear is the most powerful drug, and once you learn to defeat your fears, there’s no other drug that can defeat you.
Keep trying. Don’t give up. You can do this. Work hard, ask for help, accept the help that is given to you. When the time comes that someone asks you for help, give it to them. Keep the cycle going. That’s how we get better. That’s how we all get better, one day at a time.
— Anonymous for Avenues NYC, 2018