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“I can’t believe I relapsed.”
If you’re searching for the answers as to why this happened in an attempt to better understand how you relapsed after spending so much time on your sobriety, you’re in the right place. You may feel stressed, disappointed and upset. You thought you had everything under control, but then you relapsed.
This is a common scenario amongst people who do relapse. As difficult a situation as this can be, it happens – and there is no way to tell whom it will happen to or when. Relapsing has nothing to do with a lack of willpower or resolve from an addiction. Rather it has to do with the actual nature of addiction itself and the changes within the brain, and body, which cannot be reversed with a quick fix. This is why you will read over and over again that recovery is a matter of time and patience.
If you have recently relapsed and are trying to figure out where to go or what to do next, take a minute or two to understand a few key elements. These will help you to pick up the pieces, re-formulate a plan and minimize the chances of being in this position again. What Triggers an Addiction Relapse?
You may already know what triggered you, but if you don’t, it’s important to take the time to understand what the cause of the relapse was. This will help you to understand your situation and better prevent one in the future. Emotions are common triggers of an addiction relapse. Stress, frustration, sadness, anxiety, tension, depression or fear can act as precursors to a relapse because drugs or alcohol often acts as coping mechanisms. Other triggers may include places or people that remind you of your using days. Sometimes this will mean you are required to make changes in your driving routes, cut ties with specific people or avoid places which serve alcohol.
Addiction alters the brains makeup. Even when you go to rehab and get sober, you will need to implore long term management to ensure you stay on the right track. There will be behavioral and psychological components to the addiction which will need be addressed and altered. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective ways to do this. The National Institute on Drug Abuse addresses addiction relapse in a publication and explains it like: “For the addicted individual, lapses to drug abuse do not indicate failure, rather, they signify that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.” Essentially, when you have relapsed, the question is not something like “why am I a failure”, but rather “what is not working in how I am handling my recovery, and what changes do I need to make to get back on the right track?”
Shame is an inevitable emotion which often comes after a relapse. If you didn’t cause yourself to feel ashamed, others who know you’ve relapsed may have encouraged these feelings. Addiction will affect parts in the brain which are responsible for decision making. These areas can be hindered even in recovery; thereby, compromising the ability to make the right choices and avoid error. Repairing the brain and finding a healthy mental state will take time, upwards of several months or more. If you allow yourself to feel ashamed about a relapse, you will find it harder to move back into sobriety. Shame can quickly lead to feelings of unworthiness and this can provoke further feelings of being “unable to change”. A lack of self love, self compassion and self understanding will begin to set in. Rather than healing, you may fall back down the distressing path of addiction.
The brains’ reward system has also been impacted during an addiction. Over the course of abuse, the brain has been rewarded with feel good chemicals – and it will anticipate more. The brain will trigger intense cravings especially when you are around things you associate with using. These could be smells, sights, tastes, objects, people or places and can also be your triggers. When you feel cravings, take a few minutes to take long, deep breaths. Say a mantra to yourself or find something to distract you. If the cravings are strong, you can always call your counsellor, 12 step group or other sober friend.
It’s important to have a support system in place. Ideally when you’re at rehab, you will have made a list of people you can rely on and trust. These can be friends, family, coworkers, 12 step members, therapists or anyone else in your life who is sober and understanding. Be sure they know that you need their support more than ever. If you get off track, remember that these people have not given up on you and only want to see you healthy, happy, sober and successful. If you are lacking support, don’t be afraid to reach out and look for it. There are so many people on the same path as you. Consider going to 12 step meetings, or other addiction groups, sober activity societies or sober hobby groups.
Relapse can and will happen to some people, if this is you, know that you can get back on the right track. If you have quit going to meetings, stopped writing in a recovery journal or discontinued sober activities because of a relapse, it’s time to start going to or doing them again. Use your relapse as an opportunity for learning and self growth. Most importantly, be sure you understand that relapse is not, nor never will be, a failure. Forgive yourself and move on. Find support and stay positive. A relapse is not a good reason to give up.