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Originally Posted On: Lessons Learned From Addiction Relapse – James Haggerty Recovery
Living with an incurable disease such as addiction is a heavy lifelong burden. I remember the first time I first jumped into the recovery world — it felt so great, I felt like I belonged. I never wanted that feeling to end, and I felt almost bulletproof and empowered. I had convinced myself that I would never want my drug of choice again. However, this feeling didn’t last, and my resolve to stay sober has been tested countless times since that first moment.
I am truly blessed because on the very first day I decided to get sober, I made a choice, and it lasted. I have remained sober from that point forward a day at a time, it’s a miracle. I hope that my story gives my readers hope and understanding that life beyond your addiction is possible.
However, there is another point to my story that I want to be very clear about: I am truly blessed to be one of the lucky ones who have never had a relapse, but because my success story does not include a relapse, it is in the minority. The truth is, many people will relapse. I don’t know why I’ve been so divinely blessed to have never relapsed, but I want you to know that if relapse is part of your recovery journey, that you are loved and not alone. Relapse is a natural detour in many people’s recovery process, there is no shame. It’s what you do next that matters.
It is interesting to note that research shows that forty to sixty percent of people with a substance use disorder (SUD) will relapse at some point. I hope that it will comfort you to know that if you have experienced relapse, this research demonstrates that it is a common occurrence, and when framed correctly, it can actually help in your future success in beating addiction. I often find myself thinking about a young woman who was in my recovery group who had recently relapsed. Her words touched me because, even though I had been able to remain sober, I knew exactly what she meant when she talked about how her disease tricked her into using once again, how she felt invincible. The disease always lurks and is patient.
I’ll Just Use Once
This young woman described relapsing as a split-second decision. I would just do it one more time, she thought, and never once doubted that this would not be true. It had been two years since she had used, and she convinced herself that after all the time, she could control her addiction. After all, it was just once, and two years separated her from the time in her life she was so overwhelmed with using. The surprising part, she stated, was that she felt in control when she used once again. She had thoroughly convinced herself that it was a one-time deal and that she could move on with her life after that. Unfortunately, the next time she had the opportunity to use, she told herself again that that instant would be the last time. Before long, she found herself in the same cycle of addiction she had been in before, and, perhaps even worse, she had convinced herself once again that she didn’t need help. It was only after some painful experiences did she come to realize she had fallen back into her old ways.
After that realization, she had an important discussion with me and the other people in our support group. She looked down at her feet, not wanting to make eye contact with the rest of us at the meeting. When she had finished telling us her story, she said that she was ashamed of herself, ashamed to face all of us, and ashamed to admit what she had done.
That is when one of the members, Beth, spoke up. Beth had been working on her recovery for twenty-five years, and she told her to forgive herself for relapsing. Beth said relapsing was a normal part of recovery, and she wasn’t angry with her. That’s when Beth shared with us that she had relapsed in her recovery as well.
I told the young woman that I understood exactly how she felt. I can’t recall all the times I have stared at a drink menu at a restaurant or have been offered a drink from a friend who does not know I’m in recovery and have thought, what’s the harm in just having one drink. I must always remind myself that it is never just one drink. Nowadays I am stunned to see all the “ new “ drinks, the microbrews and different types of drinks I have never heard of! Sometimes I think…. By the grace of God a drink today never enters my mind, but…..the disease is always lurking.
Major Reasons for Relapse
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Relapses are incredibly common in recovery. So, what are some explanations for relapse? Relapses are typically caused by triggers specific to the recovering person — each person has different triggers. Part of getting honest after a relapse is to understand why it happened. Keep a list of triggers that affect you, and then start to be more mindful when the triggers occur, to deal with them in a healthy way, instead of relapsing. I have often been told by therapists and some of the relapse “ experts “ in the field that relapse is a “ process” not an event. Most times before the event, there is a series of events that lead up to the moment.
Relapses can be caused by a myriad of things. For one person, seeing an abusive ex-boyfriend may be a trigger. For another, perhaps riding in a vehicle could be a trigger. Triggers are incredibly personal and unique to each person. It doesn’t matter how small of a trigger something is; it’s still important to write it down and then write down healthy ways to deal with the specific trigger that doesn’t involve using mind-altering substances.
Peer pressure can also be a major reason for relapse. You may only think of peer pressure as an older boy pressuring a younger boy to do something bad, but it can occur at any age and in many different situations. It’s important in recovery to surround yourself with friends and family who know you are in recovery and who respect your boundaries. If you hang out with old friends who are still using your drug of choice, you are putting yourself in a bad situation where you are way more likely to start using again yourself. Today NOT drinking is socially more acceptable than when I stopped drinking, back then people always had a drink in their hand during social events.
Why do I want to relapse?
Drugs lie to us. They certainly lied to me. The drugs are constantly in the back of my mind promising to fix all my problems and make me numb. But the lessons I learned from addiction relapse stories of others is that it involves forgiving yourself. Is it okay to relapse? Absolutely — recovery is not a straight line. Many things may disrupt your recovery. The most important thing is to make sure that you learn from your mistakes. I think we need to keep in mind also that even with relapse a part of the disease and recovery we are still responsible for our actions and everyone who we hurt if we relapse.
Not only are you dealing with mental obstacles to recovery, such as tragedies that occur unexpectedly, but you are oftentimes dealing with chemical dependencies as well. There are many advancements in addiction recovery with medications. Speak to your doctor about what available medications may be able to aid you in your recovery.
Do you know why they call it recovery and not recovered? It’s because it’s always a process, and it’s never over. Addiction is a chronic disease just like diabetes, arthritis, or any other chronic condition. As long as you continue to grow and learn from your mistakes, you will continue to be successful in your recovery. Practice, Practice, Practice. Keep growing and keep working it.
Lessons Learned From Addiction Relapse
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To learn from your mistakes, you have to get honest with yourself. A relapse is usually caused by multiple things. Write down the reasons you believe you relapsed, work with another addict in recovery or a therapist. What situation where you in that allowed you to use? Did someone help you in your relapse attempt? How can you avoid these triggers in the future?
One of the most important things to do after a relapse is to not only be honest with yourself but to be honest with your recovery community. Until you can freely talk about your relapse and the reasons why you relapsed, you won’t be on a good path to recovery. Be honest, most importantly be honest with yourself. In my experience you’re not fooling ANYONE!
So, if you are asking yourself: Why do I want to relapse? The truth is that nobody wants to relapse. By attending meetings and sponsoring many people, I have come to realize that there are multiple reasons people relapse and that each person’s story is unique and usually involves more than one trigger. One young man I sponsored began using again when he was promoted at his job, and the work pressures of a management position were much more intense than the position he had previously held. During this time, his grandma passed after a long battle with cancer. All this added to his eventual return to drug use.
Another young man I sponsored told me that his relapse occurred after he was asked to be a groomsman at his best friend from college’s wedding. Being out during a bachelor party made him feel like he was back in his heavy partying college days, and his nostalgia for long drunk nights with close friends made the negative consequences of his addiction fade away. Pretty soon, he was drinking every night again. This pushed away his significant other, which perpetuated his drinking. We talked about strategies, what to do and all. He decided not to be honest with his friends and just try to push through. Failed miserably….
Triggers big and small can lead us to relapse. Something as small as an abnormally stressful week at work can make even the strongest of us in recovery consider just one more fix. I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t cross my mind to use again at least once every day. The best advice I can give is that if you are tempted, get to a recovery meeting as soon as possible. Be as honest with yourself and everyone in the group about your feelings, and do not hold anything back. Most importantly, remind yourself that you are loved and that there are divine guides there to lead you through the process, even if you cannot always see that they’re there. I find picking up the phone and calling friends in the program is helpful. One of the most important phrases in recovery or even in life is “ I need help”.
Is It Okay to Relapse?
Not only is it okay to relapse, but it’s also a normal part of recovery. You are not your relapse, and you are not your failure. You are a constant work in progress, and that’s okay. The important thing is to not allow a one-time slip-up to turn into a habit. It’s important to be honest with yourself and others the entire time in recovery.
Recovery is a learning process — it’s a trial-and-error system. Try to determine what works best for you in recovery. When you relapse, try to figure out why. Then work harder in the future to make sure those things don’t affect you the same way. Make changes.
Relapses become less common the longer you are in recovery. People learn from their mistakes and improve on their recovery. It’s not a sprint to sobriety — it is a marathon.
I’ve Relapsed, Now What Do I Do?
The first step to take if you find yourself relapsing is to remind yourself that you are not alone. As I’ve discussed, it is likely that more than half of the people on a recovery journey experience relapse. While this first step is important, it is also imperative that you don’t spend too much time on it. Once you’ve reminded yourself that relapse is common, it is immediately time to get to work to navigate yourself out of it. It might be common but as alcoholics we can’t afford to wait, we can’t afford to just try and push through. We need the help of others.
The first step is to call your sponsor. Never be too embarrassed to reach out. Be completely honest with your sponsor and your support group. You have nothing to be ashamed of, but you have no time to waste to get sober again, either. The sooner you do this, the better. In the midst of a relapse, you are likely not in the right state of mind. Reaching out to a constant in your life can help you find your footing as you make a plan to get back-to-back to sobriety. Never convince yourself that the time for confronting a relapse is later. If you’re experiencing a relapse, the time to deal with it is now. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to reach out after falling.
As Nike says, just do it!!
The Two Most Important Aspects of Recovery
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Honesty and humility are two of the most important aspects of recovery. Honesty involves two different types — honesty with yourself and honesty with others. If you are unable to be honest with yourself about recovery, you will never succeed. You may not like the truth, but to stay sober, you have to remain honest with yourself. You will learn when you need a meeting if you are truly honest with yourself.
Honesty with others is equally as important. Recovery is nothing to be ashamed about. It is a part of who you are. Being able to decline a drink by saying you are a recovering addict is not only honest, but it’s also brave. The stigma surrounding substance use disorders is crippling to young people who are trying to recover from their addictions. The more honest we are with each other about our recovery, the better chances we have of succeeding in recovery.
Humility is also extremely important in recovery. Everyone makes mistakes — it’s part of what makes us human. Being able to humble yourself and admit your flaws and your mistakes will help you immensely in recovery. Humility is also important in disclosing your substance use disorder in the first place. If you allow yourself to be in a place where you freely and openly discuss your addictions, it will be a lot easier to stay on track with your recovery because you will have additional support from the people you have told. Humility helps make you a better person. You are not your disease, and you should not be ashamed.
If Relapse Is Common and Okay, Should I Do It?
Absolutely not! Personally I don’t want that hell again. I don’t want to even risk going back there to that place of darkness and hopelessness. What I’m saying is that it does happen, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Use it as a learning experience. Use it to grow for the future. Another AFGO!! (Another F…… Growth Opportunity) What I am saying is we are all flawed, no one is perfect. Do not allow one relapse to cause you to abandon your recovery. Keep moving forward.
It helps to know that you aren’t in this alone, and you aren’t the only one to struggle with the emotional toll of relapse. I’m here if you need me.