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Relapse and Addiction: The Straight Truth

There has been a lot written lately about addicts who relapse, whether that’s after leaving residential treatment or after a number of years of sobriety. Most of the articles I’ve read recently take the position that relapse is a “‘normal part of recovery” from addiction. Some even distinguish between a lapse and a relapse as a way of justifying this position, as if that terminology makes any difference at all – and then they go on to encourage us to not be surprised or dismayed should relapse happen.


I don’t agree with this premise at all, and I know that it’s in no way helpful for an addict – or for their loved ones – to be armed with that kind of biased and ultimately untrue information. To me, this is enabling at its most dangerous.

The Choice to SLIP

When addicts of any kind have been abstinent for even a little while from their addictive behavior – such as when they’ve participated in a structured treatment program – a “relapse” is, simply put, a decision to use again. Once they have proven to themselves that they can remain sober for a time and have begun to live life on life’s terms, a relapse is a choice to medicate their feelings once again.

For some addicts in recovery, when life becomes just a little too uncomfortable and they don’t want to continue to make the effort to accommodate this discomfort in a healthy way, they return to their old ways of coping. These addicts begin to “slip”-another word for relapse – which actually stands for Sobriety Loses Its Priority.

And that is a choice.

Let’s face facts: no one is exempt from dealing with difficult life situations. For some, like myself, it can be an ongoing situation. I live with Crohn’s Disease, a serious, often quite painful and debilitating illness. I’ve now struggled with it for over 40 years and have learned how to take much better care of myself, but there is no known cure, so I’ve chosen to learn how to cope with the daily symptoms in as healthy a way as possible.

My own addiction began when I was diagnosed in the early 1970s and prescribed valium, codeine, and Demerol – as much as I wanted – for this condition. When I added pot to the mix, smoking up several times a day, I became a full-fledged drug addict. Anybody’s body would have become addicted to what I was putting into it day after day after day. My body definitely did.

Fast forward 15 years and I found myself at a pretty desperate bottom – extremely depressed, suicidal, and still very sick physically. I’m so grateful that I reached out for help at that point and began to learn about addiction and recovery.


A huge part of that choice to get help – and remain in recovery – was that I had to be willing to learn how to face a life that wasn’t always pleasant without the use of mind-altering drugs. That’s a choice that all addicts committed to their sobriety must make, every day.  And now, nearly 30 years later, I’m still abstinent from all mind-altering substances.

How, you ask? Simply because I make that choice every day.

What if I had been told while in rehab, or while attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, that relapse was a normal part of recovery and that I shouldn’t be too surprised or worried about it? I may well have thought of that as a “free pass” and started using again.

In fact, when I had my third major surgery for Crohn’s in 1988, a mere eight months after choosing to practice abstinent recovery, I recall waking up in my hospital bed connected to a morphine drip – scary stuff for a clean and sober addict. I immediately knew I was buzzed and that I loved the feeling. Pain? What pain?? The pleasure center in this addict’s brain was delighted!

I knew that it wouldn’t take long for me to become addicted to this drug, so I made the decision to stop using morphine two days after the surgery. Instead, I used ice packs on my deep abdominal incision and took extra strength Tylenol to manage the pain, even when I wanted to scream for medicinal relief. Little by little, day after day, the pain subsided – as pain generally does when we give ourselves some time and learn healthier ways to deal with it. And I was still clean.

Removing the Possibility

Now, I’m not trying to give you an “I walked to school for 5 miles in the blizzarding snow – and you should too” story. Everyone is different, and we all know what we can handle and what we absolutely can’t. For example, some people who struggle with severe mental health issues, and who are not receiving professional help for that, may have a more difficult time staying away from addictive behaviors.

But I deeply believe that there is a line between use and abuse. Sometimes we need medication, and sometimes that very medication can be potentially addictive. We need to be honest with ourselves at those times (and perhaps accountable to someone else, like a sponsor) and not use to the point of abuse. My experience of addiction was an extremely difficult time in my life, but I came out the other side with inner strength and self-respect. The same can be said for any number of other physical and emotional hardships I’ve gone through during my many years in recovery, but I continue to make the choice not to relapse. Today, I am proud of myself and confident that I can handle the tough times. I’m very grateful to know this about myself – and I’d love it if we could all feel that way about ourselves.

Aren’t we taking that possibility away from addicts when we tell them that relapse is a normal part of recovery, and that it’s essentially okay if they choose that instead of squarely facing their discomfort? Aren’t we basically cutting loved ones off at the knees by giving them that message too, by essentially telling them that they just have to put up with it when the addict they love relapses?

Relapse is Not Normal

I’m reminded of Robin Williams – how very sad I was to hear of his death by suicide. I do so fervently wish there had been more help out there that he felt he could have accessed for both his depression and his evolving Parkinson’s. But at the same time, as I heard the details of how he took his life, I was struck by how much his recovery meant to him. It likely would have been a much easier death for him, had he used enough drugs and alcohol to simply overdose and pass out, never to wake up. But he made the choice to be clean and sober to the end – and I respect that decision.

It’s absolutely up to the addict, whichever way they go in terms of staying abstinent or not – millions of clean and sober addicts all over the world show us every day that relapse is NOT a normal, expected part of recovery – while others use whenever they want to because it’s the softer, easier way out.

But make no mistake – at the end of the day relapse is a choice, nothing more and nothing less.



Images Courtesy of iStock


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