Many people see recovery as a linear upward progression of slowly getting better, one day at a time. But overcoming chemical dependency of any kind is an ongoing process which (more often than not) includes setbacks. However uncomfortable it may be, the simple truth is: relapses can happen. Whether it’s a minor backslide or a full blown dash back to rock bottom, these setbacks can feel defeating and threaten to compromise the work you’ve done in recovery. But substance use disorder is a chronic relapsing disease and there is no shame in relapse. It is actually quite rare that people suffering with the disease are able to go to treatment once and stay sober forever onward. More often, relapse recurs periodically and it is used as a learning experience in how to adjust one’s recovery environment.
What Causes Relapse?
Although relapse can happen to anyone in recovery, it is more likely during periods of high stress or when exposed to situations that trigger memories of use. This can be people, places, or things–anything that the person associates with drinking or using. The scary thing is that it doesn’t have to be either of these things, though. Relapse may simply result from complacency and not working a program anymore. As the old adage goes, “It works if you work it." Unfortunately the qualifier if you work it doesn’t end when you leave treatment, when you hit any length of sobriety, or whatever other recovery milestone you may hope to achieve. Milestones are not passes to stop working a program. They are to be celebrated for sure, but there is a reason people in recovery are called recovering rather than recovered. And sometimes recovering includes setbacks like relapse.
Those unfamiliar with recovery may feel that relapse means failure. It does not. Like any other disease, alcoholism may exhibit flare-ups through the temporary setback of a relapse. But the good news is that the recovering addict or alcoholic can jump back on the wagon immediately and refocus their attention on prioritizing recovery. That means practicing self care, paying attention to one’s body signals, taking any necessary medications, attending meetings to engage with the fellowship, and continuing with outpatient treatment and behavioral health therapy.
Considering Dual Diagnosis
People suffering with a co-occurring behavioral health disorder alongside addiction are also at higher risk of relapse. Dual diagnosis often presents as having depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or some kind of personality disorder in addition to substance abuse disorder. Individuals with dual diagnosis present symptoms that are often temporarily quieted by their drug of choice. For example, a person suffering from depression may turn to alcohol to stop feelings of worthlessness, despondency, and self-hatred. Unfortunately, this is a self-perpetuating and destructive cycle where substance abuse actually makes the symptoms worse rather than fixing them. Without the proper guidance of professional help, people with dual diagnosis remain a high relapse risk.
Loved Ones: How to Support Without Enabling
It can be very stressful to try and support loved ones who are suffering from alcohol use disorder. So often, things you do to help their condition actually end up enabling their behaviors to continue. Sometimes tough love is the best way to offer support–regardless of the situation though, one thing should be remembered above all: take care of yourself too. It is so easy to get lost in the problems of your loved one struggling with addiction that you neglect your own need for self care.
Supporting a loved one with a substance abuse problem presents complications that many are not equipped to handle. That’s why groups like Al-Anon exist. These groups are meant for the families of addicts and alcoholics to talk about these very issues. One of the biggest concepts to grasp from these groups is “detaching with love"–that is, removing yourself from your loved one’s self destruction while still demonstrating that you love them for who they are. If you feel you are experiencing your own bout of depression or anxiety over the issue, it may also be time to seek individual counseling yourself. Beyond that, supporting a loved one just takes patience and the willingness to let your loved one face the consequences of their behaviors while still offering them words of encouragement and acknowledgements of any small successes in their recovery.
If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance abuse issue, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 833.433.0448