I hope this doesn’t upset too many people, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Relapse is not a part of recovery. You’ll get professionals and others who care telling you it is, but that’s only so you don’t give up and get back up on that horse and keep going. Relapse is actually the opposite of recovery. Relapse is a break from recovery.
Once the relapse has started, I think people will tell you anything to get it to stop. I understand that. If the behavior doesn’t stop, it’s no longer a relapse. It’s called “using again” and I think we rationalize the relapse to the addict as a minor slip to get them back on the right path. At that point, I get it. But is there more we can do to not reach that point?
I wonder how many relapses would actually be preventable if “Progress Not Perfection” and “Relapse is a Part of Recovery” were not mantras I heard throughout rehabs, group therapies and 12-step groups.
While it’s technically illegal if you’re using a scheduled drug like heroin, relapse isn’t the kind of thing that you’ll be thrown in jail for in 99.9% of the cases. Yes, you may do something stupid while you’re in the midst of your addiction if it alters your behavior to the point you are violent, miss work or make other bad choices, but let’s be honest…except for the guilt of failing and resetting the clock, most people get through a relapse unscathed.
I was reading a well-written entry on a recovery forum I frequent earlier and a guy was talking about his relapse. He had certain phrases that struck me as:
- Part of every addict’s journey to a new life is trial and error, aka relapse.
- If you do find yourself using again; don’t give up, rather give yourself a pat on the back, you are just like everybody else that has successfully beat their addiction.
- Realize that in order to relapse you must have been trying to stop, and that honestly is the biggest step in this battle.
- Learn from each relapse…as long as you take something away from it then you are moving forward towards recovery.
This all just sounds like rationalization to me, and if you’ve ever met an addict, you’ve met someone who is not only a master manipulator and liar to those close to them, they’re able to convince themselves of anything.
Recovery is about not indulging in your addiction. It is not about indulging in your addiction only a few more times. Rationalizing that it’s OK because everybody does it and as long as you learn something from it was OK is dangerous.
One of my favorite concepts taught at my second rehab was the idea of the “prelapse.” It asserts that long before you actually indulge in your addiction, you’ve set the wheels in motion. As most addicts can tell you, there is a way of thinking and there is a way of behaving leading up to the relapse. It can be minutes, hours or days. In most cases, it’s all three.
I’m not talking about massive red flag triggers. Those should be easy enough to spot. I’m talking about things like having a bad day, seeing something that causes a certain change in thinking or slacking off from your usual recovery diligence. It’s just as important that recovering addicts understand the little, subtle things that lead them toward relapse than the massive things. We see the massive things coming a mile away.
There are rituals involved with addiction, prior to the substance or behavior actually happening that many addicts never recognize. I had to pour the Red Bull and Tequila a certain way. The conditions for looking at online porn had to be exactly as I wanted. I hadn’t started drinking or looking yet, but had I relapsed when I began preparing? In many ways, yes. I never recognized any of these routines until I entered treatment. Identifying them is a great way to stop dead in your tracks.
Knowing what’s going to happen before the relapse is the best tool for stopping it before it happens. You don’t just blink your eyes and suddenly you’re on a porn website, or sitting in your favorite chair with a tumbler of vodka, or standing at the roulette table or looking at an empty pint of ice cream you’ve devoured. There was a series of thoughts and actions that led you there.
Relapse sucks, but it doesn’t happen to everybody (it actually doesn’t happen with about 40% of people) and it doesn’t have to happen multiple times. Giving ourselves permission to slip up is the surest way of reintroducing addiction back to our lives. Stay vigilant.