Is relapse a part of recovery?
Yes, relapse can be a part of addiction recovery. And while there are ways to prevent relapse, some addicts go through relapse within the continuum of their recovery. So how can you understand relapse and deal with it? We review here and invite your questions and comments about relapse and relapse prevention planning at the end.
Don’t hold unrealistic expectations of addiction treatment
So you or your loved one has finally agreed to go through treatment, or commit to a twelve-step program. You may feel a wave of relief. Finally the nightmare is over and now life can go back to normal. But you must be careful not to hold unrealistic expectations from treatment. There is no cure for addiction. For the addict, and for those who love the addict and choose to stand by him or her, recovery can be a lifelong battle.
Recovery can be a lifelong battle
I learned this reality first-hand. After years of sobriety my husband, Dean, relapsed. He suffered a back injury and was prescribed pain medication. We both knew the risks of relapse, but he was in crippling pain, so I held out hope that he would be okay.
Almost instantly he was hooked. Ideas for relapse prevention flew out the window. He started taking higher doses than prescribed, which caused him to continually run out of medication. Desperate to stay high, he returned to drinking and using illegal street drugs.
It was difficult to accept that after years of sobriety his addiction was back as fierce as ever. I really believed that this chapter in our lives was over, but here he was facing the same demon that he had seemingly overcome long ago. I now realize it was never gone – just hiding out, waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.
Relapse is an opportunity
With the help of our treatment center and family, we held an intervention. Dean went back through a recovery program and is once again feeling strong. I don’t look at his relapse as a failure; instead I know Dean has learned more about himself and his illness, and is another step closer to a life of sobriety.
The problem of relapse remains the major challenge in recovery. Because addiction alters the brain, the recovering addict may deal with drug-related memories, strong drug cravings, and diminished impulse control. This leaves them vulnerable to relapse even years after being abstinent. Relapse is not a sign of failure – it is often a normal part of the recovery process.
5 tips for sustained recovery
Addicts seem to get the concept of “one day at a time,” but families seem to struggle with this. We want a contract, a promise, or a guarantee of a perfect future. We want the Norman Rockwell painting, but that is a lot of unfair pressure to put on our loved ones. To expect their sobriety to solve all of our problems and make the entire family whole is a tall order.
We must not forget that the recovering addict has a lot of work ahead. In most cases, the drugs and/or alcohol have been used to mask deeper issues that they will now need to face without the numbing effects of drugs. On top of that they will still have cravings to deal with. Rehabilitation teaches addicts how to manage their addiction, but it cannot eliminate the desire.
Once your loved one accepts treatment, it is important to be prepared for the possibility of relapse. So what can you do to improve the odds of sustained recovery?
1. Get educated on addiction and the recovery process. Education is the most important key. The family must understand the recovery process and the challenges their loved one will face. It’s difficult to help another person if you don’t understand the problem. This includes understanding what your role has been in enabling him or her. One of the best places to get educated is through Al-Anon. There are also endless resources online and at your local library.
2. Provide a sober environment. If alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs are available in the home, the odds of staying clean are slim to none. The entire household must be abstinent.
3. Seek support for your own physical and emotional health. Each person must put the primary focus on themselves. Support groups like Al-Anon are just as important once the addict goes into treatment. Sobriety can cause new strains on family relationships, and this can be a challenging time for everyone. The healthiest way to handle these changes is for each person to stay focused on his or her own path.
4. Support your spouse’s involvement in continuing care. It is not uncommon for family members to grow jealous of the recovering addict’s commitment to their recovery program, such as A.A. We must not forget that this is an extremely important part of their long-term recovery.
5. Work on forgiveness. It can be just as easy to get preoccupied with the recovering addict’s behaviors as when he or she was using. Constantly looking for clues of relapse and waiting for them to ‘mess up’ again will only harm recovery. While it’s true that trust is earned, we can easily push the recovering addict back into old patterns if we are still holding onto resentment and punishing him or her for past mistakes.
Relapse is not inevitable
Although recovery can be a rough road, it does not mean that relapse is inevitable. In fact, a promising statistic is that over half of the people who get treatment eventually reach a state of sustained recovery. But it’s important to understand just how vulnerable the recovering addict can be – even after years of sobriety.
Photo credit: LA County