The sting of relapse really sucks. It can hit differently depending on where you are in your sobriety journey. Early recovery feels like very emotionally volatile time, full of highs and lows as dormant emotions start to come back to the surface. While early recovery statistically shows the highest risk for relapse, long term recovery offers no guarantees either. As the saying goes, “Sobriety is not owned, it’s rented. And rent is due every day.” Few normies appreciate how much work it takes to stay sober. But hope is out there: most stories of recovery include relapse. It doesn’t mean failure. Rather, relapse acts as a useful indicator that something needs to change. So why do addicts in recovery relapse so often, exactly?
The Power of Denial
First and foremost, relapse only becomes a tool for those willing to admit their problem. Relapses cycle into full blown addiction for those overtaken once again by denial. Unfortunately, denial rears its ugly head even for those who have been in recovery for years. The stages of change clearly document relapse as a potential stage after maintenance.
Cunning, baffling, powerful: these three words coined in AA and NA perfectly encapsulate denial’s role in addiction and relapse. If an addict chooses the path of denial, no amount of wisdom or love makes a difference. In clinical terms, they regress back to stage one in the stages of change (pre-contemplation). The stages of change act as a clinical tool to explain how relapse happens to people in recovery. Although individuals relapse for different reasons on a superficial level, clinically it all traces back to the stages of change.
Early Stages of Change
Drug and alcohol rehab treatment offers two main services: damage control and recovery tools. Recovery programs teach that patient don’t “finish” going through the stages of change while in treatment. In fact, many patients go through their entire rehab experience in stages 1-3:
- Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
- Stage 2: Contemplation
- Stage 3: Preparation
These first three stages of change are prerequisites to what most consider “early recovery.” For early recovery relapses, these tend to happen because the person has yet to progress to the action or maintenance stages of change. They exist in a headspace of contemplation (stage 2) or preparation (stage 3), both of which characteristically include some level of denial. In order to move on to the later stages of change, the individual must work a daily program of recovery.
The Daily Grunt Work of Recovery
The DSM-V categorizes substance use disorder as a chronic relapsing disease. That means individuals in long term recovery can snap back to stage one (active addiction) at the drop of a hat. Sobriety certainly gets stronger and more self-sustaining with time and the daily grunt work of recovery. Getting a sponsor, working the twelve steps, and talking to a counselor/therapist regularly also really helps. These actions typically signify that an individual is either in stage 4-5:
- Stage 4: Action/Change
- Stage 5: Maintenance
- (Optional) Stage 6: Relapse
Recovery relapse may happen at any stage. But there are steps to circumvent it.
How to Prevent Recovery Relapse
The stages of change, therefore, offer a clinical explanation for relapse. But understanding the cause of relapse only goes so far. More importantly, individuals in recovery must take proactive steps to prevent relapse. This holds true for every stage of change. Whether you’re in contemplation and sober for a month or maintenance and sober for five years, the saying still goes, “Sobriety is not owned, it’s rented. And rent is due everyday.” So what work does it take to continue being sober? What does “paying rent” to avoid recovery relapse actually look like?
Work a Program Daily
The top priorities of working a recovery program: work the steps, get a sponsor, go to meetings. This is the basic program directive of AA and NA. Other recovery programs such as Celebrate Recovery and SMART recovery have slightly different, albeit similar, directives.
Live with Integrity & Rigorous Honesty
This comes with working a program daily. But unfortunately, many individuals in recovery go through the motions of “working a program” without the integrity and honesty required. Relapse waits for those who work a program without rigorous honesty.
Get Help with Evidence-Based Treatment
Few individuals can achieve sobriety without help. For a select few, working the 12 steps with a sponsor proves sufficient.
But for most people struggling with substance abuse, more help is required to avoid recovery relapse. Particularly when medical detox is required. Substance use disorder rehab centers offer a continuum of care including acute medical detox, inpatient residential care, partial hospitalization programs, intensive outpatient programs, and more.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for a substance abuse problem, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-997-4702