Many people in recovery have heard what can sound like dismal statistics for relapse.
Most treatment centers educate clients about relapse prevention and encourage them to remain active in 12-step or other groups after treatment. While education about relapse prevention is important and well-intended, sometimes the fear of relapse can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we believe the odds are against us, it’s easy to lose hope—and relapse.
To help ease this pressure, researchers have recently distinguished between lapses (or slips) and relapse. According to recovery.org, “A lapse represents a temporary slip or return to a previous behavior that one is trying to control or quit (usually a onetime occurrence), whereas a relapse represents a full-blown return to a pattern of behavior that one has been trying to moderate or quit altogether (Marlatt & Donovan, 2005).”
This definition is helpful because it allows imperfection. It acknowledges that a slip in your commitment to recovery does not mean you have failed; it does not mean that you are not committed. It’s simply an opportunity to reevaluate, then to pick yourself up and move on.
What if we take this same approach to “full-blown” relapse? What would it feel like to set aside all fear of relapse and focus instead on where you are right now? And if you slip, then relapse, what if you didn’t waste time feeling guilt and shame? What if you just worked your way back to stability without all of the anxiety and self-hatred?
But my shame and worry help motivate me to get back on track, you might say. My anxiety proves that I’m serious about recovery and want to get well, you might think. Besides, for some of us, relapse is life-threatening, so of course we should worry about it!
It’s true that fear can be a powerful motivator. But fear—fear of yourself, of your emotions, of others, of boredom, of the world—is what led to your addiction in the first place. So why put your trust in fear and believe that it will help you in recovery?
Fear may work for awhile, but it is not sustainable. A life of fear will lead to feelings of resentment and bitterness. It might lead to other, more socially acceptable, addictions like drowning yourself in work, shopping, eating, or sexual encounters. Living in fear denies your own power to live in wellness and peace.
Fear creates a dualistic mindset: you are being “good” or you are being “bad;” when you’re “good,” you feel like you deserve a reward (an easy, happy life), and when you’re “bad,” you feel guilt, shame, anger, and the urge to rebel against the rules that say you can’t have what you want. This view of good vs. bad selves is not only inaccurate: it’s harmful. It keeps you stuck in a cycle, swinging between two selves.
Consider instead what might happen if you decide to live from a place of forgiveness and acceptance instead of fear. In this scenario, there is no good or bad. There is only how you want to feel. Do you want to feel peaceful? You know which thoughts and behaviors lead to peace and which don’t. Sometimes you’ll choose peace, sometimes you won’t. But if you commit to loving and accepting yourself no matter what you choose, you’ll be less likely to experience life as a series of potential relapse triggers.
So if you relapse, don’t be ashamed. As much as possible, calm your fears, observe your behavior with compassion, and learn the lesson of the experience. As soon as you can, call someone you trust. Talk about what happened. Get in touch with your treatment center. If you experienced your treatment at Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, counselors there are happy to talk to alumni who are struggling.