Addiction is often considered a lack of willpower or a moral issue. And relapse is considered a failure. A person who has been sober for years is may be deemed a failure after a single instance of drinking alcohol or using drugs. The truth is that addiction to drugs and alcohol is a chronic disease like diabetes and cancer. Addiction can be treated, it can go into remission, and it can relapse. The relapse of cancer is never considered a failure of the patient. Similarly, a relapse of addiction does not represent a failure, but rather a symptom of chronic illness and an opportunity to learn.
Addiction is a Chronic Disease
Research has shown that addiction is a complex, chronic disease of the human brain manifested by compulsive use of harmful substances despite negative consequences. To understand relapses, it’s important to first learn how and why a person becomes addicted to drugs.
The human brain is a 3-pound mass of tissue that controls all activity, from basic functions like breathing and eating to experiences and behaviors that make us who we are. Drugs and alcohol interfere with the normal functioning of the brain. Some drugs alter the processing of signals or mimic natural neurotransmitters in the body. Drugs produce euphoria by creating a surge of chemicals that affect the brain’s reward circuit. These bursts of feel-good chemicals are much greater than the normal amount of chemicals produced by enjoyable activities like listening to music or interacting with friends.
The feelings of intense pleasure reinforce drug-seeking and drug-use behaviors. Meaning, a person is driven to experience the same feelings again and again, which are known as drug cravings. Over time, the brain learns to respond only to these high levels of chemicals. As a result, a person who abuses drugs feels depressed, unmotivated, and lifeless without drugs and is unable to find pleasure in previously enjoyable things.
Relapse is Common
If you are in addiction treatment and have suffered a relapse, it can feel like the end of the road. But this could not be further from the truth. Addiction relapse is more common than you think. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40 to 60% of individuals trying to get sober experience at least one relapse after completing treatment. This relapse rate is no different from other chronic illnesses like diabetes which return in 30-50% of patients after treatment.
Causes of Relapse
The most common reason for an addict to return to drug use is a cue or trigger. This could mean returning to a place where they once obtained drugs, seeing drug-related paraphernalia, or hanging out with people who were prior drug-use buddies. These triggers serve as reminders of the pleasurable feelings associated with drug use.
It is not a failure of the recovering addict. Brain imaging has revealed that drugs cause structural damage to the brain. The connections linking drug use and pleasurable feelings become hardwired in the brain. That’s why addicts can react very strongly to triggers associated with prior drug abuse.
Stages of Relapse: The Critical Period and The Safe Zone
Many studies have shown that the highest number of relapses occur in the first 90 days after completion of addiction treatment. The reason is it takes considerable time to overcome the hardwiring and structural damage caused by drug abuse. Cravings are strongest in the first few days of sobriety. For this reason, it’s important to recognize and stay clear of triggers during this critical period.
Studies have also shown that people who obtain professional help for addiction treatment are more likely to achieve remission and less likely to relapse. Being in recovery creates a safe zone where a recovering addict can learn from others. If they experience a craving, they can immediately ask for help. Over time, this creates new connections in the brain, linking cravings with seeking help in a safe and reassuring environment.
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Relapse is a Sign and an Opportunity to Learn
Despite a person’s best efforts during recovery, relapses do occur. It’s important to remember that relapse is a part of recovery and not an individual failure. Experts advise that a relapse should be taken as a sign that the person’s addiction treatment needs to be changed or adjusted. For example, someone who has been receiving care through an outpatient program may need more intensive treatment with a partial hospitalization program.
Recovering addicts should embrace relapse as a learning opportunity, a chance to figure out what they’re doing wrong and what needs to change. Relapse is an opportunity to learn about triggers and manage them with healthy coping skills. It’s a chance to put better strategies in place to prevent a return to drug use in the future.
Recovery is a Lifelong Process
The idea that lifetime abstinence from drugs is the only successful outcome of addiction treatment is inherently flawed. A better approach is to take every day that a recovered addict lives in sobriety as a measure of success.
Another way to look at it is recovery is a lifelong journey. There are bound to be some hurdles along the way. But as long as you keep moving in the right direction, a relapse is nothing more than a temporary setback that can be corrected.
Building a New Life: How to Respond to a Relapse?
In an ideal world, you could walk into an addiction treatment center, complete treatment, and never use drugs or alcohol again. In reality, relapse is a common occurrence among recovering addicts.
The attitude that relapse is a failure can be dangerous because it can lead to feelings of shame. These feelings of shame and failure can encourage a person to return to drinking or using drugs at previous levels. In reality, a relapse does not have to escalate into a full-blown catastrophe. The important thing is to work through it with a proactive approach, so you can get back on the road to recovery.
If you are in addiction treatment, remember a relapse is not a failure, but a small misstep in the lifelong journey of recovery. Learn to recognize a relapse early on and get the help you need without secrecy or fear of judgment. Only then can you bid goodbye to drugs and alcohol forever.