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Advice on how to recover from a drug or alcohol addiction relapse

Complete recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction is absolutely possible. However, for some it can be a long and challenging journey—a journey that can have more than a few bumps in the road.

Relapse can happen. The following is some expert advice for those experiencing relapse or watching a friend or family member go through it. 


Do

Do remember that relapse is a slip

Slips don’t have to stay in an ongoing downward spiral. It can end as soon as you reach out for help, with honesty and sincerity. As with any slip in life, you get up, dust yourself off, and start again. There is no empirical evidence indicating that a relapse means that recovery is no longer possible. It is always possible and achievable. Relapse is reversible, especially if you are willing to learn from it. For many people, it can lead to a deeper understanding of Step One in the recovery process.

Do get back in recovery

The most important thing to remember after a relapse is to get back in the recovery game immediately. Tell someone who can help you what happened. Go to a meeting as soon as possible. Not only is it important to get back on track, but you need to be surrounded by those who truly understand you and can provide the support you need at this pivotal time. Don’t think you have let them down; you have not disappointed them. The world is full of people who eagerly extend criticism and judgment. Those who frequent 12-step meetings are rarely part of this group. They will welcome you with open arms just for having the courage to show up.

Do learn from your relapse

Try to understand what factors, triggers or circumstances led to the relapse. Take this knowledge with you on your journey. It will make your recovery stronger.

Do ask how you can help your friend who relapsed

When someone you know has a relapse to their addiction make sure to ask how you can help during this difficult time. A relapse doesn’t just impact one person. Go to a meeting and talk with your own sponsor, if you have one.

Do have a relapse plan with your friend, and be prepared

Such a plan often delineates what steps should be taken if relapse occurs, up to and including calling the person’s treatment team or taking steps to get them back into treatment. So allow this plan to serve as your guideline. If you do not have such a plan, learn from this experience. At some reasonable time in the future, create a plan with input from all relevant parties just in case a relapse occurs again.


Don't

Do not keep your relapse a secret

Tell the people in your life who care about you what is transpiring. They cannot provide help if they are unaware that a problem exists.

Do not be hard on yourself

Everyone makes mistakes; it’s simply part of being human. Relapse is a bump in the road to recovery. Recovering from addiction is not easy, especially if your relationship with drugs or alcohol was problematic for a long period of time.

Do not give in to guilt or shame

Additionally, do not suffer guilt due to the time and/or money that has been extended on your behalf for care. Turn any feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt into increased motivation to return even stronger to a life of recovery.

Do not look at relapse as starting over

The distance you have made in your journey before this slip occurred is experience that cannot be taken away from you. You need to get back into recovery, and all of the actions that entail, but you are not back at square one. 

Do not shame your friend who has relapsed

Remember that addiction is a disease and it’s a huge challenge for anyone to overcome. This may be difficult to remember—especially if promises have been broken or relapse has occurred more than once. Although we respect how hard it is, chastising the person is not only ineffectual, but can cause a great deal of damage. The “I told you so” approach is not beneficial.

As well, don’t tell them what to do. Instead, model recovery for them. Take care of yourself. Go to a support meeting for loved ones. Talk to your alanon sponsor. If you tell someone to go to a meeting, you may meet resistance, but if you simply suggest that it might be a good idea, and go to one yourself, the chances that they may do it are dramatically increased. 


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Addiction to drugs and alcohol is widespread throughout our country. Fortunately, whether an individual is addicted to tequila, methamphetamines, or heroin—recovery is possible. Those who have previously been chemically dependent have gone on to live happy and healthy lives.

Although addiction—especially to the more extreme drugs—can literally happen overnight, getting clean and sober doesn’t happen in a day, week, or even month. It can require a great deal of time, treatment, and commitment on the part of the addicted person—and even of devoted family and friends. Even with the best therapy and the most earnest desire to be free from addiction, relapse can occur. If that is the case, this expert advice will help you get back on track. 


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Kim Dennis MD, CEDSMedical Director and CEO

Dr. Kim Dennis is a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorder treatment, addictions recovery, trauma / PTSD and co-occurring disorders. As CEO & Medical Director at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, she superv...

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