When someone struggling with addiction has a relapse it can feel like the end of the world – for both themselves and their loved ones. For most people, it feels like a huge failure, like they will never overcome this affliction. They may feel like they have let people down, even themselves. It is discouraging, and sometimes seemingly unfair, but might there be a different way of seeing this phenomenon? Is it not part of the process? Is there not a place for learning here?
One setback with the experience of relapse, and why those with addiction feel so guilty about relapsing, is because we continue to judge addiction as a moral affliction. We might say we don’t, but we do. It is embedded in the drug and alcohol treatment community as well as the community at-large. It may not be as obvious as people throwing religion at a relapsing substance abuser, but the reactions of people say, “this is not right, this is wrong.” I’ve watched people working in the addictions field almost get angry that someone relapses – there is this righteous indignation that accompanies their feelings as they get caught up in the drama of one’s relapse. The effect this has on the substance abuser can be very unhelpful. This social understanding of addiction gets internalized by the substance abuser, making them feel bad, wrong, weak, and worthless. Loved ones and the treatment community feel so helpless to change this person that they get mad. The end result of this anger and frustration is feelings of shame for the substance abuser. There is nothing wrong with loved ones and professionals feeling a sense of frustration, even anger, but it should not be toward the person, but the difficulty of changing addictive behaviors. We need to separate religion and morality from relapsing and from addiction in general. It gets in the way of other perspectives on relapsing.
One way to help clients with a relapse is to see what can be learned from it. What learning still needs to occur for this person? What are they avoiding? What are they not confronting? What did they just trip on, so to speak, that will help them to further solidify their recovery? These questions come from a desire for that person to have more autonomy in their life and experience the change they want. It does not come from another form of judgment, which it could. These moments can be very positive experiences for individuals who are still engaged in trying to stop. Just because someone relapses does not mean they have failed. It does not mean they have to go back to ground zero. Staying focused on examining the relapse in order to learn from it will help keep the shame at bay. There are some negative feelings to be expected, as this person has not acted in accordance with their value of abstinence. This never feels great, but they need only feel it for what it is instead of identifying with the shame of being wrong.
Some would believe that feeling all that shame helps the person to stop using. They would also believe that what I am presenting here is making it okay for someone to relapse. That very perspective is still on the line of thinking that addiction and relapsing is bad in a moral sense. It is judgment. As well, I am guilty as charged. It IS okay. It might not be what they want, or what their loved ones want, but it happened.
So instead of a relapse being a tragic incident, how about it becoming an opportunity for growth? How about we see it as a part of the solidifying process in recovery? This way, people can get back on track must faster and not work against themselves.