Can Relapse Happen After Living Sober for Years?

Relapse Years After Sober Living

The government’s current consensus on addiction, as per experts in the medical field, is that it is a chronic illness and a brain disease. Statistics and brain imaging technology reveal that even after prolonged sobriety and withdrawal symptoms, the brain continues to show signs of damage and change as a result of drug use, and relapses appear to be common even one year after recovery has begone. More than half of all people who enroll in a recovery program relapse at least once within the 12 months following their rehab.

But statistics also show that the brain recovers, and that relapses become rare with time. After five years, only about 15 percent of recovering addicts relapse. While the chance of relapsing never reaches zero, it’s important not to misconstrue the idea of addiction as a chronic illness with the idea that addiction is untreatable and cannot be managed. It is more accurate to say that addiction has no cure yet, but that as a disease, its symptoms can be managed through therapy and medication.


Relapses Can Always Happen

Relapses are common enough that they should be a crucial part of the recovery process rather than an outlier or sign of failure, even years after getting sober. Sometimes, relapses are signs of problems in a person’s recovery, whether it’s a matter of inadequate support, stress management issues, or something else. Sometimes, a relapse is a difficult yet unavoidable moment that a recovering addict must push through and overcome to continue living a healthy sober life for themselves and others.

While rationalizing a relapse can help a person come to terms with it and move on, it’s also important to recognize that relapses are harrowing experiences, and that isn’t something that can be mitigated, but must simply be survived. A relapse will often feel like a personal betrayal, and like a mark on your principles and values, and moving past it takes a lot of mental fortitude. One way to overcome a relapse after it happened is to recommit to sobriety through enrolling in outpatient programs, moving into sober living homes, or working through your issues with a counselor or therapist with expertise on addiction.


Why We Shouldn’t Fear Them

Relapses often produce fear and anxiety in the eyes of recovering addicts, because they represent a fail state wherein all the time and effort they’ve put into their sobriety appear to be for naught, and if realized, a relapse would essentially prove to them that they don’t have what it takes to overcome their demons and lead a fulfilling life despite their history with addiction.

But it is precisely these fears and anxieties that make relapses so dangerous to begin with. A relapse may sometimes be nothing more but another stepping stone in the path of recovery, but the wrong perspective can quickly turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Part of overcoming the dangers of relapses is to recognize that they hold no power over you, and that while they are a sign that something went awry, they do not mean that you have failed yourself, or are in any way incapable of eventually fully adapting to the challenges of sobriety.


Learning from a Relapse

We’ve discussed the importance of learning from our mistakes when a relapse occurs, but how does one go about doing so? Your first task after surviving a relapse should be to contact a professional. Whether you contact your therapist or a rehab clinic, get in touch with someone who can help you get back on the horse first, to keep matters from escalating past one relapse. This goes for “slips”, as well. Sometimes, we don’t go into a bender after successfully maintaining sobriety for years, but we do begin reincorporating some drugs semi-frequently, whether it’s the odd drink after dinner or a pill or two.

Rather than allowing the slippery slope to send you sliding downhill at terminal velocity, contact your sponsor, therapist, or clinic, and get help immediately. There is no evidence to suggest that responsible drinking or drug use is an option for most recovering addicts, unless their addiction stemmed purely from an emotional or psychological issue, rather than physical dependence.

Once you have established contact with a recovery resource, it’s time to address the past and reflect on the events before the relapse. What was your emotional state in the weeks preceding your slip up or bender? Can you identify the moment that drove you to decide you need to drink or use again? What did you feel before, during, and after your relapse?

By identifying how you felt and what you thought in the moments surrounding the relapse, you and a mental health professional can identify potential reasons and effective coping strategies to help prevent more relapses in the future and make major progress in your own recovery. Going sober for good is a long process, and it has its ups and downs.


How Do You Define Success?

Overcoming the portion of your recovery period dedicated to dealing with long-term sobriety and potential relapses means also defining what you think is a successful recovery. Yes, recovery is a life-long process, but most recovering addicts reach a point in their life where, despite being aware of the difficulties and challenges they still face, they have become comfortable with their sobriety and have accepted themselves, officially closing the chapter on their past addiction.

Where would you draw the line to differentiate yourself from who you were in the past? How do you define a successful transition into sober living? Is a successful recovery complete when your brain and body have completely recovered from addiction? Or is it more of a mental recovery to you? These are very personal questions that you can explore alone or with a therapist, but the answers can only lie within you.

Either way, accepting relapses and learning to turn them into opportunities for growth and reflection can help you move past the stage of fear and anxiety, and into a point of your life where you begin feeling confident in your sobriety, and content with your rate of progress.

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