Relapse—or recurrence—happens when someone returns to using a substance or drinking after they’ve decided to quit. It is a difficult experience that can make someone feel shame, guilt, disappointment or feel like they’ve lost progress in their recovery.
But it’s only a moment in time and does not define who you are or determine the rest of your life. Try to be patient with and forgive yourself for what happened.
Like learning any new process, it takes time to get better. When someone learns how to ride a bike, they lose balance and fall many times before they get it right. And each time they fall, they get back on the bike. Recovering from addiction is like learning how to live again—there may be recurrences, but you can get back up and keep going.
Recurrence is a part of recovery
A compulsion, not a choice
While using or drinking may have started as a choice, addiction is not one. Between 40-60% of people in recovery experience a relapse.  When your brain and body have been dependent on a substance for so long, it can feel almost as essential as breathing.
These cravings are compulsions, not choices—they are out of your control. And having a moment of recurrence doesn’t mean that you’re not trying hard enough. It means that the recovery process is hard. But it is possible.
If you experience a craving or go through withdrawals, it may be difficult to stay strong, but you can do it. Try focusing on what coping strategies are working and what has worked for you in the past to resist using your drug of choice or drinking.
Accepting recurrence and moving forward
The truth is that relapse can be very serious. Sometimes it could just be one drink or lead to an overdose. Accepting the recurrence and understanding that you can’t change what happened is the only way to move forward.
It’s important to practice radical acceptance. This means accepting reality without fear or judgment—not being angry with the universe because of the way things are. Radical acceptance is about being honest about what you can and can’t control. For example, you can’t control the past (you already relapsed), and you can’t predict the future (you could relapse again), but you can control which coping skills you are using, and you can be honest about whether or not they’re working.
We have to accept things for the way that they are, and not what we wish them to be. We all wish it were easier to quit using drugs or alcohol, but it’s not. It’s hard to confront yourself, but it’s necessary for healing. This worksheet can help you start practicing radical acceptance.
Learning your triggers
I usually ask someone: “Do you feel that there’s something that we missed or skipped over, something that’s coming up for you now that we haven’t worked on?”
After a recurrence, take time to reflect on what triggered you to want to use or drink. Sometimes triggers can happen faster than we realize—overwhelming us before we can figure out what’s going on. Trying to slow down and identify the feelings and situations that led you to this point can help you learn your triggers. Think about how you felt in the situation:
- Were you in a stressful situation?
- Were you around certain people?
- What were your surroundings like?
- Did you want to escape?
- Did you want to feel less anxious?
- What did you want to feel in that moment?
Self-reflection can help you manage your triggers in the future. You can do this by starting a mental health journal, using this tool to reflect on your addiction, or talking with someone you trust—a friend, a peer recovery specialist, etc. You can also make a plan that includes using coping skills, setting limits and boundaries, and removing yourself from stressful environments.
Using your recovery capital
Recovery capital is anything that you’re doing to work on your recovery. It’s anything you can gain within your recovery that supports you. You can think of it as time and energy you’re putting in a bank. Or you can think of it as a toolbox and consider what tools you have to help you in your healing. It can be spiritual or tangible. For example, your recovery capital can be coins, quotes, bracelets—anything that keeps you motivated in your recovery.
No matter what your recovery capital is, it should hold value to you. And be what you can lean on when you feel like you’re unmotivated or straying.
I needed to chase my recovery like I chased my addiction
There are many ways that you can find support following a recurrence. Here are several that you might want to try:
Talking to someone
Call or text someone before you use next time. You may want to call someone you trust, a sponsor, a peer support specialist, etc. Finding someone to talk to at that time—especially someone who has gone through this has the best outcomes.
If you need immediate help, you can reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or using the chat box at 988lifeline.org. You can also text “MHA” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. Warmlines are an excellent place for non-crisis support.
Give yourself some self-compassion. Use self-care tools like affirmations or quotes to empower yourself. This may be a good time to lean on your recovery capital. Reframing your thoughts to change your self-talk is one way of caring for yourself and this tool can help with that.
Try something different
If what you are currently doing isn’t working, then try something new. For example if you’re going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), you can change the number of meetings that you’re going to. Trying a different pathway to healing such as learning a new coping strategy, medication assisted treatment (MAT), or doing something you haven’t done before, may be the change you need.
- National Institute of Drug Abuse.( 2022, March 22.) Treatment and Recovery. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery