Relapse Isn’t Failure
My recovery from addiction was hardly a straight line. My family, like many other families, hoped and expected that only one visit to rehab would put an end to all the misery that addiction created in our lives. Unfortunately, that was not the case with me.
My journey has been a long, meandering path that was sprinkled with successes, slips, and slides. I experienced many times of disappointment, times when I would backslide into old behavior and return to using alcohol and other substances before I could maintain sustained abstinence. Returns to substance use are often referred to as a “relapse”.
Each time I returned to using, I became entrapped by a cloak of shame. I would always feel that I was a complete failure…again. The thought of facing everyone was humiliating. My abstinence score card was erased each time and I would go back to zero. Many times this would evoke my “screw it” attitude.
After using again, I could have sought help, admitted what happened, and began again. Instead, I’d choose the “easy” way out. I would return to the very same old behavior and habits that I previously begged God to help me escape. I’d try to convince myself that I would be ok– that returning to substance use was my decision, my choice. But it was not. It was simply the manifestation of my addiction.
In hindsight, I now see that each event was an opportunity for growth and learning. Relapse doesn’t have to mean failure. The decision is yours. Will you decide to hide behind the pain of shame and beat yourself up like I did? Will you allow shame to add years of suffering to your life? Or, will you see the episode as an opportunity to examine what led you to that moment and grow from it? Use the incident to create a better plan of action, build a stronger support system, and get to the causes and conditions that led to the return to use.
When he was small, my son would fall many times while learning how to walk. I’d quickly help him back to his feet and encourage him to continue moving forward. I never shamed him or accused him of not wanting to walk badly enough. In the same way, a person who is working toward recovery does not need guilt, shame, or discouraging statements when they make a mistake. However, that person does need to move forward from where they stopped. Just as I had been mentally prepared for my son to fall while walking, I suggest that parents and loved ones of those trying to recover not be afraid of relapse.
The saying, “old habits die hard” holds truth. Each behavior or action is associated with a neural pathway in our brain. When we repeat addiction behaviors, we solidify those pathways even more. The old well-travelled pathways, habits (or what I call my “default response”) are the thing my brain finds easy to do.
When we begin to use new skills and thoughts we form new pathways. With time these new pathways will become strengthened and the old ones will weaken. To better understand this, I like to think of hiking trails. The well-travelled trails are easy to follow and years of activity wear down the vegetation and carve a deep dirt path. If you begin a new hiking trail, you have to push through lots of brush, vines, and rocks. The footing is not as clear. But, with time and continued use of this trail it, too, will become a clear path.
Whether you are hiking or working toward recovery, you should expect a few stumbles and trips while you walk your path. The challenge is to turn to your tools when those moments happen so they become an annoying learning opportunity and not a total failure.
Every year, 23 million people suffer from addiction and mental health issues. Approximately three million seek help annually. Heroes in Recovery seeks to break the stigma. Be a hero. Join the movement by:
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