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The Stigma of Addiction: What Does It Mean to Relapse?

Between 40% and 60% of all people who are treated for addiction end up relapsing. But addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder, which means a relapse is normal, and often expected. Other chronic illnesses like asthma, type 1 diabetes, and high blood pressure also have high relapse rates, though relapses associated with those diseases don’t normally have the same stigma as relapses associated with addiction.

Drug addiction and overdose deaths are a major problem in the U.S., and have lowered the average American life expectancy to only 78.6 years. There were over 63,000 overdose deaths in 2016, many of which were caused by opioids. With the U.S. being in the midst of an ongoing opioid epidemic, it’s more important than ever that the stigma be removed from addiction and relapse so thousands of Americans can get help, and stop dying.

When it comes to recovering from addiction, people need to know that a relapse is common and normal, and not to be viewed as a setback or failure. A relapse never signals the end of your journey in recovery, or that of your loved one. If you experience a relapse, know that it’s completely possible to reset your goals, and get back on track with sobriety.

Here’s an in-depth look at what relapse really means, and at how you can change your perspective on relapses so you or your loved one can continue working toward achieving lifelong sobriety.

Examining the Stigma of Addiction in Our Society

Some say that the stigma of addiction is more dangerous than drug overdoses — which is true, to some degree. Less than 12% of those who suffer from addiction actually seek help, while the remaining 88% are often too scared or hesitant to seek treatment on behalf of stigma. As a result, millions with substance use disorders are left feeling isolated, and fail to receive the addiction treatment they need.

Despite public awareness efforts to help Americans understand that addiction is a serious disease, there are many who still treat addicts like criminals and bad people — including doctors and healthcare providers. A recent study found that addiction patients were less likely to succeed in recovery when being treated poorly by healthcare providers who had negative attitudes about drug dependency. Another study evaluated nurses who worked with alcohol addiction patients, and found that 12.5% of nurses disagreed that their work was rewarding in any way.

The stigma of addiction often prevents people from seeking help, and can make them feel less motivated about conquering addiction. Stigma can also negatively affect a person’s self-esteem and mental health — both of which are exacerbated when addiction is left untreated. But gaining a better understanding about addiction and relapse can help lift the stigma attached to these serious and deadly health concerns.

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What is Relapse?

What is relapse, and what does it mean to relapse? A relapse happens when someone who becomes sober starts using drugs and alcohol again. In most cases, relapses occur when people are unable to avoid or overcome triggers and situations that lead to drug and alcohol use. Relapses can be caused by any one of several factors, such as stress, depression, or spending time in environments where drugs and alcohol are easily accessible.

People who attend therapy in drug and alcohol rehab are often taught skills that help them identify and manage their triggers so they can stay sober after treatment. But sometimes it can be difficult to face these triggers head-on in real life, especially if you’ve recently re-entered society as a sober individual.

Common triggers that can lead to relapse include facing challenges too early on in recovery, and lacking a strong support team of friends and family who help you stay accountable for your sobriety. Spending time with enablers, or suffering from a mental health disorder are other common triggers that can cause relapse. But getting help after you’ve relapsed gives you the opportunity to fine-tune your skills at staying sober so you face better odds in the future.

Changing Your Perspective on Relapse and Treatment

If your ultimate goal is to become sober and stay that way, it’s time to change the way you view relapse and addiction treatment. Approaching treatment with a different perspective and mindset could change your outcome this next time around, and lead to long-term sobriety and improved mental health.

Here are key facts to keep in mind if you or a loved one has relapsed and needs to get back on track with sobriety.

1. Relapse Doesn’t Mean You’ve Failed

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Relapse doesn’t equal failure; seek the treatment you deserve today!

Addiction is a chronic brain disease that changes your behavior in ways that rule in favor of drug use. Those who struggle with addiction often cannot control their behavior, and require extensive therapy and counseling to learn skills that help them stop using and stay sober. Relapse is NEVER to be viewed as a failure, but instead, should offer insight into how addiction treatment should be approached the next time around for that particular individual.

Asthma is an example of a chronic illness that cannot be cured, and that can only be managed by avoiding and managing triggers. For instance, asthma can be triggered by pet dander, mold, and foods like eggs and peanuts. A person who has managed their asthma for many years without experiencing an asthma attack can encounter a new trigger at any given time, and relapse. In these instances, asthma patients usually go back to working with their doctors to find new treatments and solutions without having to worry about stigma.

For treatment to be successful, a relapse from addiction should be viewed and treated in the same manner as a relapse from an illness like asthma, but without stigma. An addiction patient who relapses may need their treatment adjusted or reinstated, or may need to work with doctors and therapists to find new treatments, or new ways to handle their triggers. If you’ve relapsed, don’t feel as if you’ve experienced a setback — instead, view your relapse as a way to get closer to uncovering new methods that can help you stay sober for good.

2. Feelings of Guilt are Normal

Guilt is one of the most common relapse triggers for those who are fighting addiction. As you become sober, you may start remembering and reflecting on things you did that may have hurt others, or that may have caused serious problems in your career or education. Recovering addicts who suffer guilt often have to work harder at avoiding a relapse, since they may be tempted to “treat” or self-medicate their guilt using drugs and alcohol.

But just like relapse, feeling guilty after becoming sober is completely normal, and a natural part of the healing process. Guilt can motivate you to stop demonstrating hurtful behavior in the future, and can teach you how to be more attentive to the needs of your loved ones. Use your guilt as a learning tool that can help you become a better person and more mentally well-rounded after overcoming addiction.

3. Relapse is Common, You Are Not Alone

For every ten people who overcome addiction, up to six of those people will relapse after becoming sober. That means if you attend an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous support group, more than half the participants have most likely relapsed, and have already been in your shoes. Yet, those people are still attending support groups and bringing themselves one step closer to achieving lifelong sobriety.

While you may set high expectations for yourself in terms of recovery, you can’t be too hard on yourself if you do happen to relapse. Keep in mind that up to 60% of all addiction patients will relapse, and that all you need to do to beat that statistic is to keep receiving treatment. Every relapse you experience will bring you that much closer to sobriety, since your doctors and therapists will use the circumstances surrounding each relapse to tweak and improve your treatment as needed to prevent future relapses.

A relapse can be frustrating, and make you feel helpless, hopeless, and isolated — especially if you know other recovering addicts who have succeeded at staying sober. But always remember that relapse is extremely common, and that you’re not alone. If at any point you feel remorse, guilt, or shame about relapsing, participate in group therapy or attend a support group meeting to bond with others who have also relapsed, and who can motivate you to get back on track.

4. Relapse Isn’t the End, But an Overdose Is

A relapse never signals the end of your recovery from addiction. A relapse simply means you need more treatment, help, and support with overcoming addiction. But one of the most dangerous risks associated with relapse is the risk for an overdose, which is substantially heightened after your body becomes sober and healthier.

After going through detox, your body will no longer be tolerant to high doses of drugs and alcohol. A small glass of alcohol or a small dose of drugs could quickly cause intoxication in a body that has been fully cleansed of these substances.

Many addicts who relapse go back to using the same doses they were using previously before getting help for addiction. Unfortunately, these doses are often too high and powerful for the body to handle, and can cause an instant overdose. For some, an overdose can result in organ failure, coma, or death.

Understand that a relapse is never the end of your journey, but that an overdose is. Giving in to failure and continuing to use drugs and alcohol after experiencing a relapse is far more dangerous than admitting you need additional help and treatment. Fortunately, relapse and addiction can be treated in full using a combination of interventions at drug and alcohol detox centers.

Addiction Can Be Treated, Here’s How

A relapse only happens to those who decided to get help for addiction in the first place. If you’ve relapsed, be proud of yourself for trying to get sober, and recognize that your future attempts to become sober only reflect your willingness and drive to achieve your goal of lifelong sobriety.

No matter how long it takes you to get there, know that addiction CAN be treated, and that sobriety CAN be achieved.

Here’s what to do if you or a loved one has relapsed and needs help.

1. Get Another Detox

You may need another detox if your relapse lasted for several days, weeks, or months. A detox will once again flush drugs and alcohol from your system so you can start with a clean slate in terms of improved physical and mental health. If you’d like to try another detox method, ask your doctor at rehab about other treatments that may help lower your risk for a future relapse. For example, medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction has been shown to lower relapse rates by eliminating severe drug cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms.

2. Attend Support Group Meetings

Group therapy and 12-step support groups like AA and NA are highly effective at helping you recover from a relapse since you can talk to others who can share their own relapse stories and best practices. Support group meetings can make you feel less alone, and as part of a team where everyone’s goal is to successfully fight addiction and stay sober. If you’ve relapsed, consider joining one or two support groups, and find a sponsor who can help you manage triggers and avoid situations involving drug and alcohol use.

3. Join an Aftercare Program

Many drug detox centers offer aftercare programs aimed at keeping you on track with sobriety for months, years, or as long as needed after addiction treatment. Aftercare, also known as continuing care or extended care, usually consists of ongoing therapy, support groups, and relapse prevention training. Aftercare programs may use cognitive-behavioral therapy to help you identify your triggers, and will teach you how to manage and avoid potential triggers and situations that could cause a relapse.

If you or a loved one has relapsed and needs help getting clean, call our 24/7 confidential helpline immediately at 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) to find nearby treatment centers. Our caring, experienced drug abuse counselors will discuss all your treatment options, and help you find nearby detox centers with programs that revolve around treating and preventing future relapses.

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