Many people relapse in their recovery. That doesn’t make them bad people. Those who relapse however, often feel guilt and shame that makes getting back on the road to recovery even more difficult. Furthermore, those supporting them in their addiction treatment and recovery sometimes add to a relapse victim’s guilt and shame with words of disappointment, anger or tears of sadness. But despite the guilt, shame and defeat a relapse victim may be feeling, there is hope and there is a way back on the road of recovery.
Being Both an Agent and a Victim of Relapse
We’ve used the phrase “relapse victim” twice now because we believe it’s important to recognize and emphasize our victimization in the disease of addiction. Now, we aren’t attempting to absolve anyone of their own accountability and personal responsibility of recovery. But let’s not forget that nobody chose to be an addict in the same way that nobody chose to be a diabetic.
The physical action and behavior of using drugs is not the same as the disease of addiction. Most people would agree that people don’t choose diabetes. But those with a genetic predisposition to diabetes who engage in high risk behaviors such as eating a ton of junk food, weight gain, lack of exercise etc. are making bad choices that could lead to this disease, not to mention high cholesterol, heart problems and more. Similarly, those with a genetic predisposition to addiction who engage in high risk behaviors such as drinking, illicit drug use, gambling, risky sex behaviors, etc. are making bad choices that could lead to the disease of addiction. See “Addiction Vs. Using Drugs: Why Addicts Can’t Just Stop Using Heroin” for more information.
What Exactly is Relapse?
Relapse is a state of mind coupled with the action of engaging or indulging in the “object of addiction” after a period of time passes without. Relapse is not a part of recovery. Instead, it is the awakening of the addiction sleeping within us and allowing it to take control. Those who relapse are both victims and agents. In other words, there are certain parts of a relapse that are beyond an addict’s control making that person a victim while other parts of a relapse (the action part) that are within a person’s control (agent). See “From Addiction to Recovery: Step by Step Instructions For Beating Heroin“.
The Mental Part of a Relapse
All relapse starts with a cognitive compulsion that may have been initiated by a trigger (a person, place or thing that creates a thought about using drugs). Dealing with an unexpected trigger or the initial cognitive compulsion is beyond an addict’s control, making them victims. Dwelling on the compulsion however, is a choice (agent) and serves only to strengthen the addiction that lives inside of all recovering addicts.
Because there is no cure for addiction, it can never be eliminated, destroyed or eradicated. Addiction can only be treated, which metaphorically, puts addiction to sleep or behind bars. Similarly to how an addict feels enslaved by their addiction, a man or woman in recovery enslaves their disease by ceasing all drug or substance use and replacing addiction with benign obsessions, hobbies, passions, healthy friendships, activities, etc. See “Addiction Replacement Therapy: Replacing Heroin Addiction with Benign Obsessions“.
Dwelling on a cognitive compulsion to engage or indulge in the object of addiction makes resisting the urge more and more difficult. Thus, as soon as a trigger crosses paths with you and the compulsion and urges start, eliminating the trigger and purposely thinking about something else, such as why you’re in recovery and the progress you’ve made can help to reduce and even eliminate the compulsion to use.
The Behavioral Part of Relapse
Acting on the cognitive compulsion to engage or indulge in the object of addiction is what makes it a relapse. Having urges and compulsions to use by themselves are not relapses nor are they “slips”. See “Relapse – Is it a Part of Recovery” to learn the difference between a relapse and a slip and to learn why relapse is not a part of recovery.
Acting on the compulsion to engage or use is always a choice. It may not feel like a choice because the compulsion, especially the more one dwells on it can be so overwhelming and powerful that we feel drawn to use, much like the earth is drawn to the sun and to orbit around it. However, unlike the earth’s magnetic pull towards the sun, recovering addicts do have a choice. It may be difficult, but resisting is possible.
Dangers of Relapse
Relapse is dangerous for two primary reasons. First, it could lead right back into full blown addiction which will make quitting and treatment almost or just as difficult as it was before you quit the first time. Secondly, a large percentage of substance abuse addicts who relapse die, especially heroin addicts. This is because cognitively, a recovering addicts assumes they are “ok” to indulge in the same quantities of heroin they used right before they quit. In reality however, their tolerance has gone way down and taking too much heroin at once can shock the body, causing an overdose and quite possibly, death. Thus, resisting the urges and compulsions the brain generates when it comes in contact with a trigger even when you’re in recovery is crucial to avoid relapse and quite possibly, overdose and death. See “Knowing and Avoiding Triggers During Heroin Addiction Treatment“.
Eliminating Guilt and Shame
Despite what we know about the many dangers of relapse, addiction is a powerful disease and if we’re not careful, it can sneak up on us and try to take control. If we let it, and recovering addicts sometimes do, a relapse occurs.
People who relapse often feel guilty and ashamed, which is only exacerbated by a support system’s displayed feelings of disappointment, anger or potentially harsh words. An increase feeling of guilt and shame may lead a recovering addict to continue using and fall immediately back into full-blown addiction. Thus, it’s crucial that family, friends, sponsors and others don’t add to the guilt and shame they are already feeling Instead, reminding them that they are grateful to be alive because relapse often kills and that some people do fall off the horse at times. But when we fall, we have to get right back up and keep on riding. We can’t stay on the ground while the horse rides away without us.
While not everybody relapses and relapse is not a part of recovery, many people do relapse and you can’t dwell on it. You can’t beat yourself up and allow yourself to dwell on any guilt and shame you feel. Instead, shake it off, understand that you are human and get right back on the horse and the road to recovery. In other words, there is a way back from relapse and you can move forward in your recovery.
Recovery isn’t a Straight Line
Recovery is a bumpy ride and the road can take twists and turns at times. In other words, recovery is great but life in recovery can still be stressful. We will experience ups and downs, good times and bad times. We will still have to deal with loss, sadness and despair at times. But when times get tough, relapse isn’t the answer. Our old coping mechanism was our “object of addiction” but in recovery, we must find new ways to cope. Recovery is about making the best of your life and the best choices for you. But some circumstances and issues won’t be within our control. Recovery isn’t about trying to control circumstances out of our control that we don’t like. It’s about responding in new, more constructive and mature ways.
Relapse Is Only Failure If You Give Up on Recovery
A recovering addict only fails if they stop trying. If you experience a relapse, there is a way back to recovery. Recognize that you made a mistake and forgive yourself. That’s important. Don’t dwell on guilt and shame. You are only human but don’t make excuses to continue using drugs. Instead, harness your inner strength, the same strength you found when you quit and got into addiction treatment the first time, and stop using. We may not have control over the reality that we suffer from the disease of addiction. But feeding it by using drugs is a choice.
Recovery is a life-long journey. We may slip or relapse along the way, but you can get right back into treatment. Don’t give up hope. Addiction may be a disease but recovery is a choice. You can choose to control your disease and not let it defeat you.
If you need help getting into treatment or someone to talk to, we encourage you to contact us or post your concerns, questions or share your story on our free heroin addiction and recovery discussion forum.
Written and Published By,
William – Founder and Publisher of Kill the Heroin Epidemic Nationwide™
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