Relapse is Not Recovery


Is it a groove or a rut? Glacial grooves take time to form, so do our habits, addictions, and recovery efforts.

You have been biting your nails for years and are tired of it. Your nails are bloody stumps and they hurt all the time. So you decide to make a change. You start with a spray to make your fingers nasty enough that you won’t want to put them in your mouth. Lexapro becomes a regular morning companion at the advice of a doctor. And you start meditating 20 minutes every morning to relax because the main problem is anxiety and nail biting is a symptom. You feel great. Your fingers are feeling wonderful, you are more relaxed, and you look down and thing, “I could be a hand model.”

Then one day it’s raining and cold outside and you have a major deadline at work that day for something you are not sure will get finished. Tired after weeks of hard work you refuse the Lexapro, the spray, and the meditation. When you get home that night, you need bandages because your fingers are bloody stumps because you chewed them to a pulp that afternoon. You take a Lexapro and go to bed, back at Day 1.

Was going back to biting nails part of the recovery process? I have heard some ideas supported that say relapse into the very behaviors that a program of recovery is trying to prevent is part of the process of recovery itself. But that is like saying sitting down is a necessary part of running or that getting into a car accident is a necessary part of driving. Sitting down is highly probably and a car crash is probable but less so, but both are symptoms or consequences of both running and driving. Neither must happen for running or driving to be possible.

It’s a fact that relapse happens. Depending on the strength of one’s addictive patterns of behavior, it might happen more than once. But even if relapse is highly probable or if it is even inevitable in some cases, it does not make it a part of recovery. Highly probable does not mean necessary. Facts are not necessities. So what is relapse?

Relapse is a symptom of addiction, not recovery.

This is important. Nail biting probably won’t kill you. But alcohol, cutting, drugs, and even compulsive eating can. Stopping medication or other important behavioral modifications in illnesses like depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia stir the pot for a suicide soup. Relapse in any of these cases is not part of recovery, it is part of the illness from which you are trying to recover. And it can kill you.

When we have habits that are powerful shapers of our lives and around which our relationships and behaviors seem grounded like some gravitational or magnetic force, escape velocity is really hard to achieve. Like a ball tossed in the air, the tendency of our bodies and minds is to fall back down to the place where “normal” has existed as long as we can remember. But that’s the delusion. That “normal” feeling of being stuck to the addiction is anything but natural. It’s not a natural part of the brain to do things that put our very survival as human beings in danger. The brain is there to keep us alive, not kill us. Yet with many of these strong addictions, the brain turns on us like a bad scene from M. Night Shayamalan’s terrible film The Happening.

Relapse happens because addiction is powerful and change is difficult. Change in order to stop addictive behaviors seems insurmountable because addictive behaviors have formed absurdly deep grooves that our lives seem to automatically follow whether we want them to or not. Getting out of these patterns requires a radical program of behavioral change to fill in those old grooves and make some newer, healthier grooves for our lives to follow. This takes time, patience, and a hell of a lot of hard work and consistent, repeated effort. Relapse shoots us back into those old grooves and when we fall into them, they feel deeper and more impossible than before. For many they are inescapable.

Relapse is not a part of recovery, it is a symptom very addiction that people are trying to recover from. That distinction is important enough to make because it will save lives.

2 thoughts on “Relapse is Not Recovery

  1. I just want to try and generate dialogue around this, because it’s a great subject in general. I’ve often found that people are mired with ideas, information, pressures and timelines. There can be a sense of urgency in recovery — you either do it, or you don’t. And from what I can tell, the grey area (or grey-matter…ha!) behind those two choices, is what makes the difference. For my partner, getting up and changing habits had very little to do with being recovered. Out of a twenty year addiction to Opiates, she spent eight years in a state everyone around her called, Recovered. She wasn’t using. She had come off Methadone. She was working, supporting herself, engaged in positive relationships — things, we working out. On the surface — for sure. She never looked back, didn’t care to. She just forged ahead. In a moment, that changed. She relapsed — and she relapsed hard, ending up on the DTES of Vancouver, where we met. Her process now, she can see. She is trying again — and she is taking her very, sweet time. She is dissecting her habits, looking back and trying to make sense of how all the secrets formed, how all the relationships in her life were impacted. She is dealing with the root of the problem, instead of putting it in a box and sticking it in a corner. For her, the relapse was definitely a part of recovery, and also a symptom of her addiction.
    It is both. Relapse is both recovery, and addiction. That’s why it can be so devastatingly perplexing to navigate. Appreciating this difference will also save lives.

    • Thanks for such an open and honest comment. I don’t totally disagree so let unpack ot a little. I think this speaks to what we mean when we use words like recovery. For some, it’s simply abstinence. I’m more rigorous with it. The substance is one part of something deeper and more complex. These are behaviors and chemical reactions in the brain that need to change and stay changed if the substance abuse is to stay down. So that’s why I say relapse is still part of the addiction. And picking up the substance starts in a progression of behaviors that will end with getting the fix.

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