The Most Common Causes of Relapse

I often hear that “relapse is part of recovery.” While I know that many of us do; I remind folks all the time that it doesn’t have to be part of our story. Following a relapse, the most important thing we can do is to return to everything that was previously working. In my experience, folks in recovery who relapse often see in retrospect that there were a lot of good habits they stopped engaging in before they relapsed.

Conversely, some of us get stuck in the “why” of things. We feel guilt and shame. We catastrophize and say that we’ve let everyone down. This is a recipe for disaster and often no small amount of hypocrisy. When others relapse, we encourage and support them. When we relapse, many of us bemoan that we have to “start all over again” or worse, that we’ve “lost everything.”

I am a huge fan of old school accountability. I worked with an older gentleman many years ago who happened to be active in AA. As I was walking him out of session, he was greeted by a friend from the program. His friend expressed concern, saying, “I was worried because I’d heard you had a slip.”

My client was outraged. He barked:

“I didn’t slip. I got drunk. A slip is something you don’t mean to do – like losing your footing on an icy driveway. I got drunk and the reason that I got drunk doesn’t matter. I know better. I’m an alcoholic and I chose to drink.”

Those words have always stuck with me.

Some of us get stuck in analysis – examining our mistakes is a great way to procrastinate and avoid taking on the responsibility of change. Below are some of the top excuses/explanations I’ve heard as an addictions counselor and in parentheses are what I translate them into:

  • I fucked up. (No, you chose to drink/drug. Speaking in euphemisms is not accountability)
  • You’re going to be so disappointed in me. (Nope. You hurt you, not me).
  • I didn’t know what else to do (I couldn’t imagine doing anything else).
  • I just couldn’t deal with it (I was trying to manage life alone).
  • I just got overwhelmed (I have unrealistic expectations of myself).
  • I was hurt and angry (I hurt myself because others hurt me).
  • I just said, “F%ck it!” (Don’t say, “It”. Say, “me.”)

As painful and disappointing as a relapse is, it is an important opportunity to fortify our program. It’s a chance to add supports, increase our efforts, add accountability, and most importantly, make further investments in how we cope. Recovery is hardest when we go it alone.