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Relapse: Getting Back On Track

So you got out of rehab yesterday. Congratulations! Oops. Spoke too soon? A day later and you’re back to using? Not the end of the world. Rehab completion doesn’t guarantee sobriety, and 40-60% of recovering drug addicts relapse [1]. This means you’re not alone and something can be done.

Be prepared to leave your old life, however. You don’t escape addiction by stopping substance abuse, but by creating a new environment conducive to not using. You don’t have to change everything in your life, just the stuff and behaviour that leads to active addiction.

Some suggestions:

  • Practice self-care. Eat balanced meals, fortify with supplements, exercise/engage in sports, sleep sensibly.
  • Identify and avoid people, places, events, cues that prompt cravings and setbacks.
  • Avoid high-risk situations that trigger negative feelings like resentment, anxiety, loneliness, depression, anger, fatigue, grief.
  • Join a 12-Step group like Alcoholics Anonymous. Get a sponsor.
  • Don’t have alcohol/drugs at home. Appoint a spouse, family member or friend to discard them if they find any.
  • Since anxiety, depression, and stress are the most common causes of addiction, employ healthier ways to deal with them. Learn meditation and relaxation techniques. Try yoga, massage, hypnosis, acupuncture, or biofeedback.
  • Zap negative thinking and compulsive behaviour. Sign up for aftercare services, stress/anger management classes, cognitive behaviour therapy, or neurotherapy.
  • Try art/music therapy or visual entertainment. Laugh at comedies. When angry, splash paint on a canvas. Make a playlist of happy tunes for an instant lift. Proof that this works: the next time you’re irritated, play an upbeat MP3. You’ll find your head unconsciously bobbing to the beat. Your annoyance will take a backseat. For long-term smart recovery, professional help is best, like counselling.
  • Acknowledge that the reality of addiction recovery involves motivation, hard work, honesty, and patience.
  • Complement your addiction treatment and rehab plan with a recovery plan, which should include:
    • Goals on staying sober and maintaining willpower
    • Relapse prevention plan—identify early warning signs of relapse
    • Support systems
  • Join a sober home.
  • Employ a recovery coach.
  • Divert attention from yourself by helping others. You may object: “How can I help others? I can’t even help myself.” Start simple. Volunteer at a clean-up drive, soup kitchen, or charity. This serves a triple purpose: you forget to use, you improve your social/teamwork skills, and you bring joy or comfort to others. Buddha said, “If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”

Sure, this may be easier said than done, but take it from Lao Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Nothing truly rewarding was ever easy. Why do you think people cry when they receive awards?

Taking that first step is a difficult aspect of initiating life changes. If it’s too challenging, get someone you trust to give you a push—a gentle one or an outright shove. Once you get the momentum going, it will be easier. To change addictive behaviour, use positive strategies rather than threats.

Change Your Mind, Transform Your Life

Addiction is often a means to escape reality or to obtain instant gratification. When we change our thinking, we curb this constant need to reward ourselves with false fulfilment that leads to addiction.

Many self-help groups urge us to ‘achieve’ happiness. But for some cultures, happiness is not the fundamental goal in life. They believe that humans were put on this earth to serve others. Ever wonder why we’re good at solving others’ problems when we can’t even solve our own? This is probably why.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism translates to: “Existence is suffering.” Existentialists agree. Even religions that believe in the afterlife expect people to accept life as difficult and painful under the premise that they will be rewarded after they die. This may sound pessimistic, but logically, if we accept this way of thinking, we will never again be bothered when we’re suffering—or if others are happy and we’re not.

Don’t worry about other addicts. Focus on your recovery. Buddha said, “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.” Once you’ve helped yourself, you’re better equipped at assisting others.

Remember the statistics above? Well, here’s a counter-stat: a Harvard study revealed that relapse is rare after a five-year period of abstinence [2]. If you can get yourself to that mark, you’re home free!

In Perceived Weakness Lies True Strength

Ultimately, no one will save us but ourselves. We must walk our own path. We need guidance to achieve this, though. But some feel inadequate if they seek assistance. We shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help. This is never an admission of defeat but a means of getting back on track quicker.

Keeping the body healthy means ensuring a powerful mind, toughened to withstand life’s struggles, including addiction. So you’re kicking yourself today for relapsing. You still have tomorrow. Every morning, we are born again, giving us another chance to right past wrongs. Successfully overcoming obstacles and implementing lifestyle changes to improve one’s situation is quite empowering. One day, this victory will be yours.


[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
[2] Vaillant, GE. “A long-term follow-up of male alcohol abuse.” Archives of General Psychiatry, 53(3): p. 243-249. 1996.

Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.