Six lessons about recurrence (or relapse)

Published Dec. 13, 2017

When someone suffers from addiction, a recurrence of symptoms (or relapse) can happen for a variety of reasons. Stress, fear, doubt and emotional highs or lows are just some of them. 

But no matter the cause, recurrence is tough for everyone involved. People with addiction feel guilty and ashamed, like they’ve let everyone down. Loved ones are frustrated and often lose hope.

When people talk about a “relapse,” they’re talking about a recurrence of the most common symptom of addiction – substance use. At Face It TOGETHER we try to avoid the term “relapse” because it’s wrapped up in a lot of moral judgement. We prefer “recurrence” because it’s more consistent with medicine and other chronic diseases.

It should also be understood that recurrence is by no means a part of everyone’s journey to wellness. But it is fairly common. Rates of recurrence for addiction are about the same as they are for other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension.*

That said, here are six take-aways to help you or a loved move on from a recurrence:

1. Let the shame go.  Behavior change is hard work. Consider all the times you’ve failed making relatively simple changes like eating better or exercising more. Getting well from addiction requires changing deeply embedded behaviors that have complex causes and are rooted in brain chemistry. It’s not easy, so don’t let the setbacks overshadow the hard work you or your loved one has done.

2. Don’t overreact. Many times, the recurrence is nothing more than a small slip. Blowing it out of proportion can do more harm than the recurrence itself. If it happens to you or a loved one, don’t panic. Put it in perspective and reflect, but don’t make it out to be more than it is.

3. It’s a learning experience. Instead of focusing on the recurrence, focus on what can change going forward. Talk about why it may have happened and what you can do to prevent it again. Be prepared for some honest self-reflection.

4. You’re not "starting over." A recurrence in almost all cases doesn’t mean you’re going back to square one. The wellness process is not a straight line, and there will be stumbles along the way. You’re still making forward progress.

5. Stay connected. Don’t isolate yourself, whether you’re the person with addiction or an impacted loved one. And do this as quickly as possible – the sooner and more honestly you share the event the better. Talking to others can build up your resolve and ensure you get the support you need to move on in a positive way. A healthy loved one will appreciate the candor and help build up your recovery capital.

6. It can make you stronger.  A recurrence can be a powerful opportunity to refocus on taking care of yourself. Recommit to your emotional, mental and physical wellness and you’ll be laying the foundation for long-term health and wellbeing.

These are important lessons to help put a recurrence in perspective. But make no mistake, in some cases a recurrence can be dangerous. Accidental overdose is a serious risk for opioid users in particular. So be sure to take action to get yourself or a loved one help right away.

About coaching

 *Source: Drug Dependence, a Chronic Medical Illness, JAMA (2000)