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7 Steps: What to Do When You Relapse

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man reflecting - What to Do When You Relapse

Relapse is the end of the world only if you let it be the end of your recovery efforts. What is more important than the fact that you have relapsed is what you do after you relapse. It is in the critical days and weeks after a relapse that a person determines whether they can regain and continue their life in recovery. Addiction is not a moral failure. It is a physical and mental health condition that requires your vigilance and commitment to your health, as well as support from others.

These steps can help you accept, learn from, and move on after a relapse.

1 – Acknowledge the relapse to someone else.

People will often relapse and keep it a secret in the hope they can turn it around on their own. What ends up happening is the substance use increases, as do the consequences and addictive behaviors such as lying, hiding, and manipulation.

2 – Don’t let shame be an obstacle to taking action.

The shame associated with a relapse is intense and self-destructive and can lead to mental and emotional paralysis. Acknowledge the shame you feel, but don’t let it be an excuse to continue relapsing. Talk with others who have experienced relapse and ask them about how they addressed their own shame. Shame is a very isolating feeling. The answer to shame is engagement with others.

3 – Take opposite action.

The use of a substance is the end of the relapse, not the beginning. We are often on a relapse path long before the substance is used and have therefore been drifting deeper and deeper into addictive thinking. Counteraction is the only answer to changing that way of thinking. If you want to isolate, reach out to others. If you have feelings of shame or worthlessness, write a gratitude list. If you don’t want to go to a 12-Step meeting, go to another kind of meeting. The rule of thumb is this: if you don’t want to do it, you should be doing it.

4 – Get uncomfortable.

The strength and quality of recovery can be measured by a person’s willingness to be uncomfortable. Do something in recovery you’ve resisted doing in the past. Maybe that’s asking someone to be your sponsor, working through the 12-Steps, sharing at 12-Step meetings, entering sober living, going to an outpatient or residential program, or just getting honest about your struggles.

5 – Go easy on yourself.

Use the relapse as a learning experience to make adjustments in your recovery program. You are not alone. You can learn from your own mistakes, and from the mistakes of others as well.  

6 – Take ownership of the relapse.

Much like shame can bog us down in the relapse, so too can blaming. Resist the urge to blame people, places, and things for the relapse and focus on solution-oriented action. Even if it was only one time, acknowledge and take responsibility for it. Try to understand what led to that use and make adjustments so it won’t happen again.

7 – Develop a recovery routine.

Fill your time with repetitive daily action that keeps you connected to recovery behavior such as calling another person in recovery, attending a 12-Step meeting, practicing meditation/mindfulness, exercise, walking outdoors, and so on. This routine will feel unnatural compared to the desire to continue using but will over time rewire the brain so that the routine will become a natural part of your daily life.

Stay vigilant.

Recovery is a muscle that needs regular exercise to stay strong. There are two times to stay engaged with recovery: when life is hard and when it’s easy. It is easier to be engaged when we first stop using due to the desperation of our situation. But as life gets better, many of us drift from recovery practices and begin to forget the need for our recovery routine. It is easier to stay engaged even when we don’t want to — or don’t feel like we need to — than it is to reengage once we’ve disengaged.

Practice trust and faith.

One of the toughest actions in recovery is to practice trust and faith in a solution that is not our own. If our own solution worked, we wouldn’t need the help of others. The trick is to maintain that trust and faith when our own addict thinking tells us not to.

Be rigorously honest

Being rigorously honest means being transparent, giving voice to how you truly feel, whether it’s good or bad, whether you think it’s the right or wrong thing to say, whether it’s embarrassing or not. If you don’t want to be clean and sober, say it. If you’re feeling miserable, say it. If you’re full of fear or dread, make it heard. It is better to save your life than to save your face.

Encore offers a variety of programs and services that can help you get back on track or keep you engaged in recovery even if you haven’t relapsed. Our addiction treatment programs provide various levels of care to meet your needs, including a general outpatient program that can serve as an additional level of support for people in recovery. Our vibrant alumni community meets weekly and also comes together for social events.

Addiction is hard

Getting help shouldn’t be.

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