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Embracing Relapse: Not Giving up on Yourself, Even When You Mess Up

Sometimes in recovery, we trip and fall. The temptation becomes too much–the stress of life has built up or we weren’t using healthy coping mechanisms–and we decide to pick up drugs or alcohol again. Relapse can be debilitating and bring feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. However, relapse is not the end of recovery; it just means you have to pick yourself back up and try again. 

Why Relapse Happens

Addiction treatment is incredibly effective. However, the rate of relapse is staggering. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 40-60% of people treated for substance use disorder (SUD) experience relapse. Addiction is a lifelong illness, meaning you can never be “cured.” Like other chronic illnesses, relapse can happen and it serves as a sign of the need for resumed, modified, or new treatment. 

There are a variety of reasons why people end up relapsing after treatment. One of the most significant factors is environmental triggers. For those in recovery, it’s common for certain people, places, and emotions to bring up memories that create an urge to use substances again. They are often reintroduced into the same environment that caused their addiction. They might also be surrounded by the same unsupportive family members or friends who encourage them to engage in risky behaviors. Unless you remove yourself from that environment, relapses can happen quickly.

Another contributing factor to relapse is the length of drug or alcohol use. Someone who used drugs for many years before finally getting treatment will generally have a more challenging time maintaining their sobriety than someone who used drugs for one year. As with any habit, the longer you do it, the harder it is to break.

Relapse can also mean there is a gap in your recovery. If you attend 12-Step support groups, this could mean low attendance or a lack of step work. It can also mean not engaging in healthy coping mechanisms, not finding the fun in sobriety, or having too much time on your hands. Although relapse can happen, there are ways to step back onto the path of recovery. 

Change How You View Your Relapse 

Viewing your relapse as a mistake rather than a personal failure is crucial. Seeing it this way increases your chances of getting back on track instead of abandoning your recovery altogether. It’s the difference between thinking, “Okay, I made a mistake; I can learn from it and move on,” and “Well, clearly I can’t do this, and I already messed up, so why not keep using?” When you can accept your relapse as a mistake, you are more likely to find lasting recovery in the long-run. 

Reflect on What Happened

If you have relapsed, there are likely several things that led up to the event. These can include environmental triggers, underlying emotional issues, stressful relationships, and more. It is essential to spend time to think about what led to your relapse to be able to avoid another relapse in the future. You can do this by journaling, calling a friend, or meditating. You may want to ask yourself things such as:

  • Have I been spending time with the wrong people?
  • Have I been putting off responsibilities like paying bills and subsequently feeling overwhelmed by mounting tasks?
  • Is my self-talk negative, particularly in not believing that I can successfully recover?
  • Have I been getting lax with my recovery efforts?

Take time to identify what happened so you can make the needed adjustments. If you are having trouble figuring this out for yourself, you may want to seek professional help from someone who can help you sift through the potential reasons for your relapse.

Forgive Yourself

While it is common to experience shame and guilt after a relapse, these will not help you move forward. Guilt may initially help you realize that you want to adjust or make changes to your behavior, but holding on to it will only weigh you down. Both of these feelings can also be triggers that enable your using further. Instead of wallowing in regret over your mistake, acknowledge the relapse, make changes, and let go of your negative emotions. Recognize that you are human and that all humans make mistakes. A relapse is not the end–it is only a bump in the road. 

Reach Out for Support

After a relapse, you need to reach out for support as soon as possible; this could be your sponsor, trusted friends, family members, or maybe a professional counselor. These people can hold you accountable to sobriety, suggest action you can take, or just be a shoulder to cry on. The sooner you tell someone and ask for help, the sooner you can get back on the road to recovery. 

Go Back to Treatment

Don’t be afraid to go back into a treatment program and try not to see it as a sign of failure but rather as a conscious and deliberate choice in the interest of a life without substances. Sometimes, relapse indicates that something more needs to happen or that a treatment strategy needs to be adjusted in some way.

It may help to view your recovery like any other skill that requires practice–you likely won’t be great at it right away. Think of a child learning to walk; he will tumble down over and over again, but he’ll keep getting up and, eventually, he’ll be running. Learning to live in recovery is essentially like learning to walk; you must discover how to live in a whole new way. Be understanding with yourself when you tumble and commit to getting up again. You can keep trying and making tweaks so that you can maintain sobriety. 


Relapse doesn’t have to define you or your recovery; it is only a bump in the road. You can get back up and try again. Although feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment may accompany relapse, this doesn’t have to be the end of the road. Learn to embrace your relapse and not give up on yourself. You can change how you view your relapse, reflect on what happened, and forgive yourself. All humans make mistakes, even you! However, if you are struggling with finding recovery again, reach out to RECO Intensive. RECO Intensive is a leader in the South Florida addiction treatment field with proven success in facilitating long-term sobriety. Through our experiential and comprehensive treatment solutions, we aim to provide a secure, respectful, and empathetic environment in which individuals can truly recover. We know where you have been and will invest every ounce of our effort and limitless compassion to ensure a continuous transformation toward the person you will become. Call us today at (561) 464-6533. 

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