Relapse is always a possibility at any point in recovery. Although your risk of relapse drops the longer you’re in recovery, the risk never falls to zero. Estimates of relapse rates vary widely between studies, but a frequently cited estimate from the Journal of the American Medical Association is that between 40 and 60 percent of people who get treatment for drug or alcohol addiction will relapse within the first year of leaving treatment. Some estimates are much higher and some are much lower. What seems clear is that your risk falls the longer you stay sober. On average, there’s a big drop after a year, and another big drop after five years.
There’s some disagreement over whether relapse should be considered part of recovery itself. People who support this view say that expecting someone to never relapse sets an unreasonable expectation that puts unnecessary pressure on people in recovery and makes the people who do relapse feel more discouraged and less likely to try again. Critics of this view believe it gives people in recovery permission, or at least an excuse, to relapse. What’s more, relapses can be extremely dangerous. People who have been sober for a while no longer have a tolerance for a substance. Most overdoses happen after a period of sobriety.
Whether or not you consider relapse part of recovery, it’s better to avoid relapse if you can with a relapse prevention plan. However, relapses do happen. Although it can be extremely discouraging, a relapse is not a permanent failure. Many people relapse several times before sustaining recovery. The key is not to give up.
Here’s what to do after a relapse to give yourself the best chance of success in recovery.
Figure out where you are.
Not all relapses are the same. Some people have one drink, regret it immediately, then get back on the wagon. Some people get drunk, wake up the next day and decide to get sober again. At the other end of the scale, someone might relapse and feel like as long as they’re using again they might as well go all out. They might keep using for days, weeks, months, or years. This is a total relapse. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle and the seriousness of your relapse determines what you should do next.
Get sober as soon as possible.
As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Whatever the circumstances of your relapse, the most important thing is to get sober again as soon as possible. How you do this depends on how extensive your relapse was. If you drank for one night, passed out, then woke up hungover and regretting your mistake, getting sober is simply a matter of deciding you’re not going to drink again.
Get to a 12-step meeting as soon as possible and let your group know what happened. Many people are reluctant to do this because they’re embarrassed and they feel like they’ve let their group down. They feel like they’ll be judged for relapsing, so they might actively avoid going to meetings, which only makes the problem worse. Everyone in your group has been in your shoes. They will welcome you back; that’s what the group is for. It may be hard to go back to one day sober, especially if you only had one or two drinks, but you’ll be better off in the long run if you’re honest with your group. It’s important to treat even a minor slip-up seriously because even if it seems like no big deal, you might mistakenly take it as evidence that you can now drink in moderation. One slip up might turn into a couple of drinks now and then, a couple of drinks a day, then, before you know it, you’re back where you started.
If you had a more extended relapse, getting sober again might not be so simple, but it is still urgent. As noted above, a relapse is when you’re at highest risk for overdose. Many people also feel ashamed and discouraged after a relapse, which may make it even worse. If you’ve started to build a tolerance again, you may have to go through medical detox to get sober. This is especially true if you have previously experienced difficulty detoxing.
No one feels good about a relapse. You might feel like you’ve wasted all the effort you put into recovery, that you’ve disappointed all the people who care about you, and that it proves you can’t do anything right. While it’s normal to feel disappointed, dwelling on it doesn’t help. Try to remember that you’re not alone; 40 to 60 percent of people relapse in the first year. Recovery is hard and you always knew there would be setbacks. More importantly, shame only makes it harder to get back on track. Shame makes you feel like you deserve to be punished, so try to take a more compassionate position towards yourself. You made a mistake, like everyone does, but you can forgive yourself and move on.
Analyze what happened.
When you’ve stopped digging and gotten to a stable place, the next thing to do is figure out what went wrong. It’s a good idea to actually write a narrative of everything that happened leading up to your relapse, being as detailed as possible about specific events and how you felt. It’s also a good idea to talk it over with your therapist or 12-step group. Did you feel overwhelmed by life stress? Did something happen like a job loss or divorce? Were you feeling depressed or lonely? A relapse can be a valuable source of information, so get some different perspectives and learn as much as you can from it.
Make a new plan and try again.
When you’ve analyzed what went wrong, make a new plan. Enlist the help of your therapist, group, sponsor, or family, and try again. Take into account what you’ve learned and make adjustments. For people who relapse repeatedly, the problem is often that treatment just didn’t last long enough or that they didn’t get adequate support while transitioning back to normal life.
Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.