Life After Relapse: How to Start Over…Again

by Renee W.

Although I’ve had a handful of relapses, one will be cemented into my memory forever.

Around three and a half years of sobriety, the restlessness began. I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t just be, I couldn’t concentrate.

Then, the thoughts. The ones I never shared with anyone until way later.

You’re probably not really an alcoholic.

You probably only drank too much because of stress from toxic relationships, jobs, kids, family, expectations.

You are in a better place in life. It’s fair to try alcohol again.

The thoughts festered for weeks until one day in September 2017, I stopped on the way home from work and bought a huge bottle of wine. I drank the whole thing that night, and the lapse led to a full-blown relapse, full of intense emotional pain and shame that lasted over a year.

If this sounds like you, first know that relapse is common. The National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that approximately 40-60% of people in recovery relapse at least once before achieving long-term sobriety.

In some cases, it may be a lapse, also known as a slip, which is where someone starts using or drinking after a period of sobriety but turns back to recovery quickly. By contrast, a relapse is where someone has completely fallen back into an addiction.

Three Stages of Relapse

Research shows that relapse starts gradually and includes three steps: emotional, mental, and physical.

Emotional relapse starts the process, and this stage begins long before you ever pick up a drink. Signs include isolating from others, bottling up emotions, or poor eating or sleeping habits. A lack of self-care characterizes the emotional relapse.

Then, there is a mental relapse, and during this stage, the mind is a battlefield. There is a strong need for escape and a lot of bargaining. For example, I could still go to the bar and just order one beer. Often, someone will look for relapse opportunities.

If emotional and mental relapses aren’t stopped, a physical relapse is inevitable. There is no time limit here. Some people spend years in emotional and mental relapse and finally start drinking or using again. For some, it may be a few days or weeks.

While there are many reasons for relapse, the bottom line is they typically start slowly and within the mind. If you ask someone why they relapsed, they may not have an answer. I know in my situation, I could not point to one specific reason why other than I had stopped putting my sobriety first.

The real work starts with what you do with a relapse.

You have two choices. To stay in your addiction or to choose recovery again. No relapse is too big or hopeless. Here’s how to start over after a relapse.

How to Start Over After a Relapse

First, take action immediately. If you don’t, you will talk yourself out of getting help. You may think you are too far gone or that there is no hope.

If you are still breathing, there is hope. 

Reach Out for Help

Personally, shame kept me from reaching out for help after I relapsed. Sure, all my family and friends knew I had started drinking again, but I was incredibly ashamed and didn’t know how to get out of that awful emotional pain cycle.

The best thing to do is put one foot in front of the other and seek help. You may need to go to a treatment center, and if you’ve already been to treatment before, don’t let that be a reason why you can’t go again. Addiction recovery is lifelong.

Attending support meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, provides a non-judgmental place to reach out for help for others who have been there.

Understand and Avoid Triggers

Just like I said that shame kept me from reaching out for help, I also realized that feelings of shame were some of my most intense triggers, and I desperately needed to deal with this painful emotion.

It is not enough to commit to quit. You need to explore the reasons behind your relapse and understand your triggers. Sit down and make a list of your triggers, the people, places, and things, that make you feel like drinking or using. Share these with someone you trust and keep them at the forefront of your mind. Avoid them at all costs.

Practice Self-Care

I used to scoff at the mention of self-care and attribute it to getting a pedicure or facial, roll my eyes and think, “Yeah, I’m sure that will solve my problems.” That is until I really understood what it actually is.

Addiction recovery research shows that despite its importance, self-care is one of the most overlooked aspects of recovery. One reason is that recovering individuals tend to be hard on themselves and don’t feel they deserve to be good to themselves.

Self-care encompasses all aspects of your life: physical, social, mental, spiritual, and emotional. When thinking about how to practice self-care, ask yourself, “What do I need?” For example, you may be feeling stressed and need some downtime. Maybe you feel lonely and need connection. Maybe you’re restless and need to talk to someone or journal your feelings or exercise.

There is no one-size-fits-all plan when it comes to self-care. Your self-care practice will entirely depend on you and your needs. Self-care is a key aspect of a strong recovery program, and for me, it was a game-changer.

Develop a Relapse Prevention Plan

A relapse prevention plan sounds so official, but this plan can keep you on track in recovery. Before you build a relapse plan, you need to really do some soul searching and determine specific steps you will take when triggers and cravings hit (and they will!)

For example, part of my plan is when thoughts of drinking come into my head, I tell someone right away. I call it “telling on myself.”

Maybe I am scrolling through social media and see pictures of a group of people drinking together. Photos like this could trigger feelings of being left out, which then may lead to thoughts of drinking again. I have to stop this sequence of thoughts right away because if I don’t, they will lead to obsession and, ultimately, a physical relapse.

The Bottom Line

The sooner you take action after a relapse, the easier it is to get back on track. Don’t misunderstand: it is not easy, but the longer your relapse lasts, the harder it becomes to get sober.

However, the bottom line is that life after relapse can be fulfilling and freeing, and no one is ever too far gone.


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