For most people dealing with addiction recovery is anything but a straight line. In fact, it is typically a long, winding path, with ups and downs, successes and disappointments and often instances of backsliding or relapse, in which someone returns to using their substance(s) of choice and/or doing a problematic behavior.

For an alcoholic, for example, one drink may only be a slip, and they’re able to get back into their recovery program without a hitch. For others, that first drink is the start of a major slide into total relapse. The difference is how much the person’s life — and his or her relationships, job, finances and/or health — is negatively impacted. If the situation reverts to where it was prior to treatment, it’s like starting over. The addict may very well need to return to treatment to get properly grounded and maintain sobriety. Many addicts go back to treatment multiple times.

Relapse is not a failure but instead a common — and very frustrating — part of recovery from addiction. The truth is that many recovering addicts have one or more relapses: Up to 60% of patients who receive substance abuse treatment will relapse within one year, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association — and the relapse rate is even higher for some drugs, like heroin. Gambling addiction has similar rates: About 50% to 75% of gamblers resume gambling after attempting to quit, according to the National Center for Responsible Gambling.

What’s most important to understand is that recovery is a lifelong healing process and relapse is a sign that you need to re-evaluate and modify your strategy. If you’ve just experienced a relapse it’s probably far from easy to face what happened — and you may even heap blame on yourself, that somehow you should have been able to avoid using again. But that’s counterproductive. It’s also a mistake to think to yourself, Oh, this is it. I’m going downhill again and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s just not true. Instead, start by recognizing that you did slip and redouble your efforts to overcome your cravings and urges and better understand and control your triggers. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. What’s most important is your desire to move past your relapse and forward with your recovery.

Sources: Journal of the American Medical Association; National Center for Responsible Gambling; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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