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Reframing Relapse: Destigmatizing and Preventing Relapse

Written by O'Connor Professional Group
Published on January 11, 2022

By Jonathan Benz, MS, CASAC, ICADC 

This is an article about a personal account of relapse during substance abuse recovery used with permission from the individuals discussed. Names have been changed for privacy protection. 

Mary is a friend of mine. As families go, hers was a healthy one with focus on spiritual, psychological, and physical wellness. However, around adolescence, Mary moved from experimentation with recreational drugs to regular use resulting in chemical dependence.  Her addictions to various drugs prompted many a prayer, 12-step meeting, and substance abuse treatment program, all with the goal of ridding her once and for all of her affliction.  

Fortunately, Mary found recovery. But her journey to addiction recovery was a jagged, nonlinear one. Along the way, there were multiple recurrences of use, extended stays at the local county jail, and many a disingenuous prayer for healing and relief.  

Recurrence of Use – Not Seeing Relapse as a Failure

Unfortunately, the term “relapse” often carries stigma. This stigma is due in part to a common belief that if a person returns to using substances, it’s a lack of their will or a moral failing.  In other words, they are to blame for using again.  

But that’s not always the case. The American Society of Addiction Medicine states that addiction is a “treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”  

ASAM continues: “People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. Prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases.” 

Like other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease, relapse with addiction is often a regular occurrence and does not mean failure. So, now it is increasingly common to speak of recurrence of use when referencing a person’s slip, period of misuse, or return to using substances.  

How can one avoid using substances again, especially when returning to use can be so very common?  

Addiction Relapse Prevention Tips 

Steps that can help prevent recurrence of use include: 

  • Avoiding possible triggers (this may mean changing people, places, or things) 
  • Developing new hobbies, activities, and ways to stay busy (too much idle time is never a great idea) 
  • Attending some kind of recovery meeting or other mutual aid support group (we all need community and connection) 
  • Maintaining a strong support network of healthy friends, treatment providers, and recovery coaches or sponsors (healing happens in the context of relationship) 

For a person struggling with substances, recurrence of use can often be very frustrating and disappointing. In some cases, it can even be fatal.  

But not everyone’s journey of recovery will involve returning to use. And if it does, it’s important to remember that this does not equate with failure. Rather, it is a sidetrack, delay, or bend in the road. Learning from these experiences can be very useful and even vital to an individual’s recovery. 

As with my friend Mary, the journey has twists and turns. That’s because recovery is about learning a new way of life. The falling down need not be final. It’s the getting up that counts. If one is equipped with the right tools, surrounded with the right support system, and guided by the right principles, recovery is indeed possible. 

O’Connor Professional Group (OPG) offers a breadth of behavioral health services to address the needs of individuals and families living with addictions, eating disorders, mood and personality disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and other behavioral health conditions. If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental health disorder or are in need of support, contact us today. Our compassionate professionals are here to help find the resources to support you and your family. 


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