To those who haven’t experienced addiction — either by going through it themselves or having had a loved one who suffered from addiction — recovery may seem pretty straightforward. Go to rehab, complete treatment and get sober. Then stay sober. Simple. However, anyone who has first-hand knowledge of addiction knows it’s not that easy.
The average person may not be understanding of relapses and, therefore, would be quick to condemn anyone who relapses after treatment. They aren’t aware that it’s more common for recovering addicts to relapse after treatment than it is for them to stay sober on their first try. In fact, it’s been estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of all people who complete an addiction rehabilitation program will have at least one mild to moderate relapse before they’re able to remain sober for any extended amount of time 1. Yet it doesn’t seem the high rate of relapse is that surprising.
When someone is new to recovery, they are often given advice that says relapse is a natural part of recovering from addiction. If you don’t give it much thought, it seems the point of the expression is to prevent someone from giving up on recovery altogether if they have a relapse. On the other hand, suggesting that relapse should be expected can create a conundrum with potentially damaging implications. So is relapse really just part of recovery?
The Opposite of Sobriety
It’s pretty clear what’s meant when someone says that relapse is part of recovery, but the message being communicated also has the potential to do harm. When you look at the meaning of the word “relapse,” it’s used to describe the recurrence of symptoms or bad behavior after a period of improvement. The words “worsening” and “backsliding” can describe the term, too 2. Note that there’s no indication of brevity or impermanence. Instead, there’s the implication of a total regression. Therefore, when it comes to addiction and recovery, the word “relapse” refers to a return to alcohol or drug use.
Conversely, the term “sobriety” refers to a state of not being intoxicated or under the influence 3, which means an absence of alcohol and drug use. So when you consider the relationship between a relapse and sobriety, the two are actually contradictory states at opposite sides of the recovery spectrum. It might be more accurate to say that relapse is often an unfortunate part of the lifelong recovery process since that puts things in perspective without approving of the behavior that accompanies relapse. Otherwise, the seemingly innocuous expression could create confusion, uncertainty, and even be considered encouragement for addicts to make excuses for their relapses.
Downplaying the Significance of Relapse
Everyone has different, unique needs, but each addict’s goal in recovery is the same: achieve lasting sobriety by abstaining from alcohol and drugs. And although most will experience more than one round of rehab before remaining sober for good, recovering addicts will generally be less likely to relapse as they accrue more and more sober time, which has been verified in a number of studies. For instance, it was found that only one in three people who have been sober for less than a year will remain sober indefinitely. After a year of sobriety, the number of people who remain abstinent increases to 50 percent, while just 15 percent relapse after achieving five years of sobriety 4.
Telling someone that relapse is part of recovery could convey compassion if the person has just relapsed and feels like they’ve failed at their recovery altogether. In such instances, the popular saying would encourage them to forgive themselves and quickly continue with their recovery process. But when this expression is being advocated like propaganda, it could promote a cavalier attitude toward relapse, its significance and its consequences. Recovering addicts shouldn’t live in fear of what relapse statistics say, but it should also be clear that relapse is a dangerous situation that should be addressed with an honest and serious effort to return to sobriety.
Does Relapse Mean Failed Recovery?
It takes a lot of time and effort to undo all the damage that’s caused by addiction. The majority of relapses occur within the first 90 days of abstinence because the brain has been rewired by noxious chemical substances, 5 and it takes time to unravel all of that and finally heal. This is just one of many reasons why programs lasting three months or more are so often recommended over minimal 30-day options. There are a variety of reasons why so many people in recovery relapse at least once. And any discussion of relapse must make mention of another important dilemma, which is whether or not a relapse means a failed recovery.
Obviously, relapse should be avoided at all costs. But whether or not relapsing means negating all the progress that had been made up to that point is going to depend on how the person reacts. Someone who relapses and returns to active addiction is tragically giving up on seeking recovery, at least temporarily. On the other hand, if the relapse was a momentary mistake followed by an immediate return to one’s recovery plan, that person should feel encouraged about their recovery progress. In fact, one’s reaction to a relapse is indicative of a person’s strength of conviction, perseverance, surrounding support and commitment to change.
Written By Dane O’Leary
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