Relapse Is Not Failure: Moving Past A Common Recovery Experience


Five years ago, a medical scare got me sober from alcohol and on my 150th day alcohol-free, I relapsed. I had a family trip to Ireland on the horizon which I was anxious about, and I decided I couldn’t be sober during that trip. So three weeks ahead of it, I drank. After that relapse, I didn’t put the drink down for another two years. 

Among the most significant challenges faced by those in recovery is relapse. More often than not, the relapse happens before the person ever picks up. But understanding relapse and why it happens can help prevent one and lead to sustained sobriety.

Relapse is the return to substance use after a period of abstinence. It is often seen as a failure, but it’s important to recognize that relapse is a common part of the recovery process — and NOT a failure. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40% to 60% of people recovering from addiction experience at least one relapse.

Relapse can happen for a myriad of reasons: stress, situational or environmental triggers, emotional activators, overconfidence, peer pressure, etc. But relapse doesn’t always happen over something “big.” Sometimes stress piles up in sobriety, and suddenly one finds themselves drinking because they can’t open a jar of pickles.

It doesn’t matter what the relapse is over, but one thing is for sure — relapse fucking sucks and can be a very painful experience. For me, drinking again was nothing like I had romanticized while I was abstinent. I was once again stuck in the cycle of not being able to stop despite not always wanting to drink. I felt like a failure because I “lost” my 150 sober days and I viewed that perceived failure as an excuse to give up and continue drinking, rather than trying again. 

However, at the time of that relapse, I lacked a lot of what I have in place now — a strong sober support network, regular therapy, healthier habits and coping mechanisms, better stress management, and self-awareness around my drinking triggers. All these “tools” help maintain my current sobriety and minimize my risk of relapse. 

Rather than immediately seeking help for my relapse and getting back on track, I tried to manage the situation on my own when I really didn’t know how to. I also lacked the self- awareness to understand how big a trigger international travel would be for me. If I had been more self-aware at that time, I probably would have canceled that trip.

But in hindsight, I realize I wasn’t entirely ready to quit drinking and used the trip to Ireland as an  excuse to relapse. The relapse happened before I ever drank because I had already decided  to drink on the trip. It was only a matter of whether I waited until I got to Ireland to relapse or relapse prior to going. This was all unconscious thoughts, but nonetheless, a part of my relapse experience

Gathering the necessary tools early on in recovery will better prepare you for the day when you feel like you may relapse. If you haven’t already, take the time now to put a plan in place in case you find yourself on the verge of using. 

There are countless recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Recovery Dharma that offer free services which include community support for overcoming substance use disorders. Getting into therapy has also been crucial for me, as it has given me insight into my triggers and how to better cope with them without drinking. Avoiding triggers, getting exercise, leaning on support systems and healthy habits can also help prevent relapse. But the most critical thing you can do if you find yourself with your substance of choice in hand is to ask for help. Both you and the person you reach out to will be happy you did. 

Looking back, I wish there had been someone to tell me that my relapse didn’t make me a failure and that it was just another experience inching me toward sustained sobriety. So please, remember that relapse is not the end of the road or a failure; it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and reinforce your commitment to a healthier, substance-free life.

Have you experienced a relapse in your recovery journey? Tell us how you overcame it in the comments.


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