Is Relapse Really Part of Recovery?
A recent confession by Kelly Osbourne about getting drunk on a plane brings up the issue of relapse. For those who don’t recognize the name, Kelly is the daughter of Ozzy Osbourne and has been in recovery for drug and alcohol addiction since at least 2009. She explained her slip up as a reaction to coming to grips with just how serious her brother Jack’s diagnosis of MS was after watching troubling video online about the disease.
Sounds plausible. Finding out your brother is destined for a shortened life with a progressive and crippling disability would rock anyone to the core. And we expect those who have sought the false comfort of alcohol to return in times of deep distress. But is this just part of recovery?
The commonly cited statistic for relapse rates in alcoholics is 90%. This can be misleading however, as it doesn’t give a time period, nor does it outline just what relapse means. If one drink is a lapse, the numbers will be high. If relapse means the more dramatic return to previous drinking behaviors and dependence, the numbers are lower.
One study at the National Institutes of Health compared relapse rates (a return to addiction) as ranging from 20 to 80% of patients over a 16 year period, depending on whether they stopped drinking on their own, sought treatment and whether they had maintenance treatment. The lowest rate came with rehab and attendance in AA. The highest was in those who didn’t. But there were also other hallmarks that were linked to economic status, education level, and gender.
Still, even the best case has a very high risk of relapse, especially if anything other than total abstinence counts.
Learning to fail well
The real danger of a minor slip is to then abandon all hope of a full recovery and use it as an excuse to go all the way back. This is probably the worst thing that can happen with a relapse. It’s a kind of “all or none” style of thinking. Either I am completely sober and recovering, or I am a worthless drunk and might as well accept it.
The reality is that a single drink will clear the system in a few hours. Even a binge will be gone from the body in a few days. There is no reason to think of a failure as a permanent blot or an excuse to give up on recovery altogether.
Expecting that a relapse may happen (if for no other reason than the statistics) means we can prepare for it and respond positively. The critical factor is to not abandon the correct belief that every drink represents a choice, and that bad choices can be stopped at any time.
A positive approach
A relapse is discouraging, especially when it’s framed as a permanent character flaw. But like any failure in our lives, we can learn from it and lessen the likelihood of it reoccurring. That’s a positive thing. In the same way that we learn to be sober we also learn how to forgive ourselves when we slip up and use the experience to our benefit.
What was the trigger? How did it happen? What links in the chain that led to the relapse can be broken so it doesn’t happen again? These are the types of question that turn a bad experience into something valuable.
Does this mean that relapse is necessary for recovery? Not always. The factors that keep relapse from happening are the same as those that get people into recovery in the first place and keep them abstinent in the short term – solid relationships, social support, a positive sense of self, and recognition of just how damaging alcoholism is. There are even those that create a kind of phobia about drinking and alcohol – a kind of artificial fear that a single sip will immediately put them deep into their previous addiction. As long as they can use this fear to stay abstinent, it has a purpose.
Photo by John Nyboer