You're in addiction recovery, when suddenly, something goes wrong. You've got a foot on the slippery slope, and you're close to backsliding. What do you do now?
Can addicts stop themselves from slipping? What even counts as a relapse? It can depend on the person's addiction.
Jeannine Hale, a group leader in the Celebrate Recovery program for people with "hurts, habits, and hang-ups," says, "Determine whether your addiction requires total avoidance or healthy moderation." For things like drugs and self-harm, the goal is to cut them out completely. "But," Hale adds, "an addiction to something like food or exercise isn’t resolved by vowing to never eat again or never work out."
Understanding your addiction will help define what your recovery plan should look like and how to avoid relapse.
ARE RELAPSES AVOIDABLE?
Most people do relapse at some point during recovery. But generally, the longer someone goes without relapses, the less likely relapses become.
Dr. Timothy B. Walsh, vice president of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, says people with addictions are most vulnerable to withdrawal and relapse during the first few months of recovery. However, at 18 months without a relapse, two-thirds of addicts will stay clean.
At three years, 86 percent will stay clean.
FIRE AND WATER
Think of addiction as a fire, and recovery as water. "Even if you think you've extinguished a fire, there are still a few embers, or triggers, that have the potential to reignite the fire," Walsh says.
Look at the pattern of use closely and see what prompted the addiction. A trigger might be boredom, loneliness, conflict, or something else. Stay away from triggering situations when possible, and develop a plan for a healthy way to deal with the trigger if it should come up.
And if triggers include certain people, like drug dealers or enabling family members, says Walsh, "you should cut off communications from those unhealthy connections."
Hale agrees, adding, "A clear no-visit boundary should be set in place if the family member is actively abusing drugs." And before entering potentially triggering situations, set a time limit on how long you’ll stay, adds Walsh.
RECOVERY BEHIND BARS
Since prisoners can’t always just walk away from certain triggers and temptations while behind bars, they need a plan for handling them. Hale recommends, "Ask yourself, 'What do I do, not if the temptation comes, but when? What tools do I have to handle the temptation?'"
Hale also suggests keeping a daily inventory journal, regardless of whether the addict is a prisoner. First, she says, list "What has been done to me? What have I done to myself and others? And what are some of the good things I’ve done?"
The goal of the inventory journal is to write in it every day, tracking what helped and what was a relapse risk, and looking for the deeper reasons the person is self-medicating in the first place.
'SUCCESS IS ASKING FOR HELP'
Multiple relapses are common. Before they reach sobriety, "addicts have an average of six treatment episodes in their background," says Walsh. "Recovery is an ongoing process, and every single time you relapse, you learn something, your motivation gets greater, and your emotions get stronger."
A relapse doesn’t mean all the progress made is suddenly gone. Walsh says, "Don’t say, 'Since I slipped, I might as well go all the way now.' All-or-nothing thinking is dangerous. 'Abstinence equals success, and relapse equals failure' is not true. Success is asking for help."
Faith is also an important part of avoiding and overcoming a relapse. Walsh explains that research shows many spiritual practices help minds and bodies to heal. "Prayer and meditation, mindfulness, Scripture reading, and other spiritual practices are highly effective at transforming our bodies and brains," he says.
Dr. David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research and Dr. Dale Matthews of Georgetown University found higher religious commitment had a beneficial effect in 16 of 18 studies on alcoholism recovery and 12 of 12 studies on drug addiction recovery.
Even programs without a specific faith foundation, such as 12-step programs, emphasize the importance of surrendering yourself to a higher power and admitting you are powerless.
FORGIVE AND FORGE AHEAD
In the end, it's about forgiveness. "We all make mistakes, but we need to let go of the unforgiveness and the offense," says Hale. "If you don't give yourself over to God's grace and forgiveness, you will sit in your guilt and self-loathing for a long time."
Relapses are like any slip-up in life—people need to learn from their mistakes and move forward. Before and addict can be truly free, they might just need to give themselves a second (or third, or even thirtieth) chance.