Okay—so you’ve suffered a lapse in your sobriety.
Now you’re reading this article and wondering what to do next.
Good. You’re already willing to return to your path of recovery.
The first thing to do is objectively process your actions and determine if you experienced a slip or a full relapse. There are distinct differences:
- A slip is a temporary lapse of sober living. Perhaps one of your primary triggers from the past challenged your ability to avoid substances. Maybe excessive stress, workplace challenges, or a personal tragedy forced a reaction that you decided to cope with by using alcohol or drugs. A slip is often a short-term experience—one that you recognize right away and are determined to resolve.
- A relapse, usually after a period of abstinence of three months or longer, is more complicated. It might involve a conscious awareness that even though you’re triggered by someone or something, you’re choosing substances over the behavioral modification techniques learned in treatment. It’s possible an initial slip is turning into repeated abuse of varying degrees. Your safety and/or wellbeing might be compromised. Because of what you learned about addiction during rehabilitation, you understand your mental and physical states are once again altered by chemicals, affecting your health, decisions and reactions. A full relapse is often longer in duration, and involves many of the same excuses and avoidance tactics of addictive behavior.
If in your assessment you realize a slip is now a much larger problem, here are some things to consider.
Return to the Start of the Problem: Triggers
Whether someone is addicted to substances or certain actions such as gambling, sexual compulsion, or shopping, there’s a universal connection: triggers.
In an article for The Fix, Dr. Chad Coren provided this definition of a trigger: “Any high-risk situation or stressor that sparks a thought, feeling, or action to use drugs or alcohol. This spark, which is experienced as a temptation to use, is called a ‘craving’ or ‘urge.’ Triggers lead to cravings and urges to use.”
Triggers are deeply personal, and vary widely among people. It’s also important to keep in mind that like other catalysts for addiction, such as genetic or environmental factors, not every triggered person responds the same way.
If you completed an inpatient rehabilitation program, hopefully you received a continuum of care plan that outlined points specific to your recovery. Key triggers were probably included, too, so you could apply new learned behaviors as coping mechanisms.
Here’s a refresher. Triggers can be mental, emotional, and physical. For example, a common acronym used in addiction rehab is H.A.L.T., which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. While literal transference applies, e.g. you’re physically hungry because you’re not eating as healthfully as you used to, it’s more likely that emotional needs aren’t being met either, and you’re hungry for affection, attention, acknowledgement, and so on. Experiencing aspects of H.A.L.T. may be trigger-inducing.
Your triggers may be the reason for a temporary slip, or indicative of a more severe relapse. Either way, it’s important to work with a treatment professional to understand your triggers and develop more effective ways to control your response to them.
Why You’re Unique, But Not Unusual
Often the last thing someone wants to hear is they’re just like everybody else. Yet it’s also remotely comforting to know that addiction relapse happens to a lot of people: up to 60 percent, in fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
The science of addiction recovery, NIDA reports, includes remission—which is when individuals “overcome their illness and regain health and social function”; and recovery—when “positive changes and values become part of a voluntarily adopted lifestyle.” So, in essence, depending on what stage you’re in, it’s quite possible your brain chemistry is still adapting to improved cognitive function and is less affected by artificial stimuli.
Some experts believe that for many people with substance abuse disorder and other addictive behavior, it can take up to two years for a settlement of healing. This includes not only adopting positive changes and values, but also perhaps total abstinence from any addictive catalyst, as well as the ability to, as NIDA states, “handle negative feelings without using substances, and living a contributing life.”
Relapse is not a sign of failure. However, it may be a warning that certain elements of treatment need to be modified to reflect your:
- Current state of progress
- Changes in lifestyle
- Previous or new stressors
- Awareness and acceptance of trauma
Many addiction specialists want you to understand that you shouldn’t throw up your hands and quit the process of recovery after a relapse. It’s crucial for your long-term health that you accept this short-term consequence, and trust that with dedicated effort, your chosen life of sobriety will happen. There may be trying times occasionally, but like any other human being, you’re continuing to learn new ways of dealing with them, and uncovering better aspects of yourself.
Use All Tools Available to You
Earlier, we mentioned a continuum of care plan. This is living document, meant to be assessed by you and your treatment team frequently to address how you’re changing. It may be necessary to go through this process again and consider additional care options for your continued wellbeing. These may include sober living environments, 12-Step programs, different therapeutic methods, continuing care community groups, and other applications.
The Willingway model of recovery is to provide you with whatever resources necessary to help you maintain the course of true health. From short-term inpatient and full inpatient care to extended treatment and outpatient services, you can trust that we’ll help you move past this temporary setback and live with purpose.