Is Relapse a Part of Recovery?
Author: Justin Mckibben
Every once in a while there is that daunting cliché you may hear in the recovery community; that relapse is a part of recovery. It may come from someone who has experienced a relapse themselves, or it may come from someone trying to reassure an individual who has relapsed that they still have a place in recovery. It is never meant to be harmful or frightening. In fact it is typically a phrase used to comfort people who have tried to get clean and sober but sadly found themselves again using substances.
It is an idea used to remind those who slip and fall on the path to recovery that they are still in the fight; that they still have a chance. A lot of people do experience relapse in their journey to get off drugs or alcohol. So, is it true? Is relapse a part of recovery?
Is Relapse a Part of Recovery: What is Relapse?
When looking at the basic definition or relapse, we can break it down a little to show some depth.
- In general – a relapse is to suffer deterioration after a period of improvement.
- In medicine– relapse, also referred to as recidivism,is a return of a past condition.
- With the context of drug use (yes, including alcohol) – relapse is a reinstatement of drug use and drug-seeking behavior. It is the recurrence of pathological drug use after a period of
So the common thread here is that a relapse is when someone:
- Is able to start a period of improvement…
- Is healing from a previous condition…
- Has a period of abstinence… THEN… they use drugs or drink, which ends their period of abstinence and they fall back into drug-seeking behavior and using; activating their condition which can undo their overall improvement.
While some people might have a drink or take a pill and call it a “slip” it is essentially a relapse. Some would say having “recovery” means making improvements to behavior beyond just abstinence, so they might say the real relapse actually starts before you even use drugs; when your behavior regresses to the old destructive or compulsive patterns.
Whether you believe the relapse is the behavior or the actual physical manifestation while getting high, it may determine what your views are on the question is relapse a part of recovery.
Is Relapse a Part of Recovery: What is Recovery?
Before we have discussed that some people will define recovery differently. We will note that in general, recovery is:
- a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administraion (SAMHSA) there are 12 “Guiding Principles of Recovery” stating recovery:
- There are many pathways to recovery
- Is self-directed and empowering
- Involves a personal recognition of the need for change and transformation
- Recovery is holistic
- Has cultural dimensions
- Recovery exists on a continuum of improved health and wellness
- It’s supported by peers and allies
- Recovery emerges from hope and gratitude
- Involves a process of healing and self-redefinition
- Recovery involves addressing discrimination and transcending shame and stigma
- It involves (re)joining and (re)building a life in the community
- Recovery is a reality. It can, will, and does happen
All these definitions emphasize the fact that recovery is about healing, and some even concede that there are many paths to recovery and many different beliefs around how people can successfully recover. Now some people may not like it, but hear me out.
Relapse is not a part of recovery.
Is Relapse a Part of Recovery: Why Not?
Now before anyone gets upset and drops a few choice words in the comments, let me explain.
This answer isn’t so black and white. It is just one way to look at the question and try to answer in a supportive and logical way. Because when we say “is relapse a part of recovery” we are not asking about the general concept of recovery as a whole, but about the definition, and specifically the requirements for “recovery”.
To elaborate; relapse is an option. Relapse is a reality many of us face. I have been sober over 3 years myself… after I had a relapse. My opinion is not meant to exclude people who have relapsed. I do not intend to say they weren’t in recovery. I don’t intend to say they aren’t recovering now. What I am saying is that relapse is not a requirement for recovery. While it may be a part of my recovery, it is not a defining feature of recovery. Recovery can exist without relapse.
Let’s say I have a car. If the car has a sun-roof, then of course the sun-roof is a part of that car. It adds a new element to the experience that not every car has… but if the car doesn’t have the sun-roof… does that make it any less of a car? Is the car considered incomplete without it? Some cars come with accessories and features that not all cars have, while having wheels and a gas pedal is a standard. And that is what this whole conversation is about; setting standards.
A relapse is a similar concept. Plenty of people in the world of recovery from drugs and alcohol have never relapsed. Hopefully they never will. They are recovering the same as the man or woman who has relapsed countless times.
Is Relapse a Part of Recovery: Make it Count
The point of all this is to put forth the idea that maybe we shouldn’t put forth the idea that relapse is part of the recovery process. Surely it is a possibility for everyone, and surely some will consider a relapse one of the most critical moments in their recovery, but that does not mean people should minimalize or “normalize” the idea that relapses are the standard.
Setting higher standards is crucial to lasting change. We don’t want to kick anyone while they are down or fault them for their relapse(s)… however we also don’t want someone who has never tried to get clean before thinking they are going to relapse because it is “part of the plan” and everyone is doing it.
This is especially important because a lot of people have died because of relapsing after periods of abstinence. When the body goes without such potent drugs for longer periods the body is no longer as tolerant to them, and when people relapse and don’t realize their threshold has dropped they often overdose and die. If we let people assume they will have to relapse eventually in order to really get it right, they might never get the chance to get it right again.
We should stop telling people relapse is part of recovery. We should continue to tell them there is recovery after a relapse, but once you stop you never have to start again.