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The Controversy about Relapse

Michele Happe, MA, LADC Updated: Mar 17th 2011

Some say relapse is a part of recovery and some say it is a failure and not an option. I don't really take either position.

man deep in thoughtRelapse can be devastating. It can cause any number of calamities. A relapse can be the cause of the end of a relationship or a job. A relapse can land us in jail or an institution. It can be the cause of our death. So it is very important to do everything we can to prevent relapse and to keep the awareness that dire consequences may occur. Sometimes a relapse will eliminate our chances of recovering again. Each relapse makes it harder to come back into recovery. That is why we hear, "I don't have another recovery in me".

But if we do relapse, it is essential to learn from it. What caused us to relapse. Can we amend our life such that we don't have to relapse again. Relapse can often alert us to further inventory in an effort to "uncover, discover and discard". If inventory is not enough, it can lead us to further guidance from a spiritual teacher or therapist.

In the case that we do survive our relapse, it is essential that we make it a part of our recovery. Many are afraid that if we see relapse as a part of recovery, we will use it as an excuse to use again. If we are aware that we may not make it this time, we might not be so cavalier about using again. Suffering is a part of life. If we relapse and learn from it we can become closer to an enlightened state as the result of learning something new about how to stay clean and sober.

The question is, is it worth the risk. A healthy fear of relapse is in my opinion a good thing. Some relapse is unavoidable, until we learn what it takes to stay clean and sober.

Be well.


Michele Happe, MA, LADCI am a licensed addictions therapist that specializes in addiction and codependency. I use Buddhist principles to aid in recovery and to help promote happiness. I also write and teach about these issues. I have a private practice in Minden, NV and Reno, NV and work nationally on the phone(775)230-1507 and through skype (mhappenow). My webpage is Join me on Facebook for lots of mini teachings.

Reader Comments
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Relapse and Life - John Mertes, Msw, RSW - Mar 21st 2011

If you look at relapse as a trial and error process, we as humans relapse each time we try to learn something new.  Look at development milestones of a growing baby.  Being able to hold their head up, sit by themselves, stand, crawl, walk, talk, ride a bicycle, etc.  All these activities include successes and failures. 

Lets look at walking as a primary example.  Toddlers take steps and fall down.  They get back up and try again and fall down.  As they perfect this skill they fall less, but even when mastered, they still fail down.   

As an adult who has been walking for 40 some years now, I still fall down on occasion.  If I look at my track record, I am pleased that I have way more successes at walk than failures, but when I fall, I don't stop trying.  Nor do I consider falling as a life or death struggle.  I recognize that I have to maintain the skill set that I have developed and not take walking for granted.

For me, in my practice as an addictions counselor, I explain this same analogy to my clients.  Recovery is a process of developing the necessary skills to overcome the triggers that cause the behaviour.  It also involves dealing with the internalized issues that maintain the behaviour.  If you learn the necessary coping strategies and deal with the internalized unresolved issues, recovery is possible.  However, if at times you struggle with recovery a relapse will likely occur.  When a relapse occurs we address it like we would a fall.  We accept the behaviour, discuss the contributing factors and work on being mindful as we get up and continue on our way.  In this analogy I also look about degrees of relapses (i.e., a lapse, a prolapse and a full blown relapse).  I explain these as follows, a lapse being like a lapse in judgment.  A prolapse being a decision to use for a period of time.  And a full blown relapse equating to giving up on recovery.  Again, like walking, a lapse equals a trip/stumble, prolapse equals walking with your shoe laces untied until you get to the other side of the street and full blown relapse equals walking into the woods while blindfolded.  We deal with the severity of the relapse based on what category it falls into.


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