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depressed woman in bed

“Relapse is a part of recovery.” This idiom was recited time and again in the inpatient treatment center where I spent 30 days in January 2008. The other thing I heard a lot was “addiction is a chronic disease.” Meaning that this alcoholism/addiction thing I had wasn’t going anywhere. There were treatments for it, yes, but no cure.

Taken together, the two remarks were depressing, to say the least. Was that the life that all alcoholics were destined to live? Struggle to get sober, drink or use again (relapse), struggle to get sober, relapse, and repeat until death? If that were the case, how come half of the staff at the treatment center bounced around like freakishly happy people, talking about their 20+ years of sobriety?

Now that I have a little more perspective than I did in those first 30 days, I can see how both statements were true but don’t necessarily lead to the dire outcomes that I had predicted. Relapse can be a part of recovery. Relapse is often a part of recovery. For those who relapse and are then able to get sober? Relapse was a part of their recovery. These distinctions seem small, semantics even, but for me understanding them was crucial. There is another truism that I don’t hear as frequently but is no less powerful: relapse doesn’t have to be a part of recovery.

Before I found my way to inpatient treatment, I had my own kind of mini-relapses. I never managed to pull together any solid stretches of sobriety, but I would make a couple of days here and there without drinking. Always, I had the intention of abstaining from alcohol. When I picked up a drink after those few days, I was heading on one of two paths: death from drinking or recovery. So every drink I took was either going to be part of my eventual recovery or part of my eventual demise.


Why, then, is it so common to hear the phrase “relapse is part of recovery,” and what does it mean for the chronic relapser? Ultimately, that question is up to the addict or alcoholic to decide, hopefully with the support of a doctor, therapist and/or support group. But here’s what it can mean: it’s time to change. It’s time to reevaluate, it’s time to reflect.

Relapse is an indication that something isn’t working. The easiest argument to make is that sobriety simply isn’t working, hence the relapse. That conclusion, however, is oversimplified and ultimately inaccurate. Consider this highly imperfect analogy: I have clinical depression. There are a number of things I have done and continue to do to maintain my mental health and keep depressive episodes at bay. Antidepressants, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, playing with my dog (100% serious), making sure I get enough sunlight, and sleep all play an essential role in stopping depressive episodes before they start.


If I do find myself in the throes of depression, it means I need to take a look at which part of that complex mental health puzzle I either let slip or is no longer working. Several years ago, I started noticing that I was feeling the way I had prior to taking antidepressants. The thing that seemed to magically click when I found the right drug had somehow “unclicked.” It was hard to get out of bed. Everything was a flat, grey landscape of blah. I was keeping up with the other parts of my mental health program (therapy, exercise, etc.) so I didn’t descend too far into the abyss but it was clear that something had to change. I went back to my doctor and talked about how I was feeling. We decided to try a different medication and, fortunately, that medication worked.

Sobriety cannot be achieved simply by taking a pill — if that were the case, we’d have many fewer chronic relapsers in our community. But just as in recovery from depression, there are many components that contribute to long-term sobriety. Relapse is a sign that one of those components is no longer working or needs extra attention. It can also mean that an addict needs to include something in their sobriety program that is currently missing. For example, many people begin drinking and using as a form of self-medicating an underlying mental health issue. Until that issue is addressed, sobriety can be difficult to achieve.

When we say “relapse is a part of recovery,” we mean, “if you want it to be.” Relapses happen and when they do, addicts who use the experience to strengthen their program of recovery may well consider that relapse and important part of their recovery. Relapse is an opportunity for reflection. It’s an opportunity to examine what went wrong, to try to figure out where their recovery program needs to be strengthened, and most importantly, how to reach out for help before picking up a drink or a drug.

By Katie MacBride

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