What Happens If I Relapse?

Written by Buprenorphine Doctors (7/10/19)

Relapse has an ugly sound to it, almost like a slap. That sound fits the definition: a return to opioid use after all the effort of detox, rehab, and sobriety. But does relapse have to be the end of recovery?

It shouldn’t be, considering how common it is. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 40–60% of substance users will relapse following their treatment. Because opioid use causes physical dependence, and because addiction is generally seen as an illness, it’s better to view relapse as a fair risk to recovering patients.

It’s a physical threat and an emotional blow both to the recovering patients and their families, but it’s not the end. There are productive next steps if you or someone you know relapses.

Re-Frame Relapse

If you relapse, the first thing to do is re-learn what relapse is. It’s not simply returning to opioid use: it’s a lot like the new flare-up of a chronic disease. The 40-60% relapse rate is just like the recurrence rates of Type I diabetes and asthma, other chronic diseases.

If you re-frame relapse as the symptom of an illness, it might help you take productive next steps. If you have a chronic illness resurfaces more strongly, you’ll need to get stronger treatment. Don’t let the illness idea make you feel like a passive victim; you can improve your health with the right help.

Rethink Treatment

Relapse doesn’t mean that your treatment was a failure. It might just mean that you need to go deeper with emotional therapies.

New therapy should focus on your triggers. The first kind of trigger is your opioid trigger: what might cause you to want opioids, whether that’s familiar stresses, old friendships, or a certain place your mind pairs with opioid use. Learn what they are so you can best avoid them. Avoiding these triggers is one way to prevent your mind’s cravings.

The second kind of trigger is your recovery trigger: what might cause you to believe in your sobriety, whether that’s meditative thought, physical activity, or a parent’s words of encouragement during your recovery. Whatever makes you think of your commitment to an opioid-free life can help you refocus on your recovery and prevent future relapses.

New therapies might mean that you need to return to an opioid treatment center, though there are also group and private counseling options outside of these centers. But if you have had multiple relapses, a strict inpatient program could help you reorient yourself for the future.

Find a treatment center near you here.

Re-Form Reformation

But maybe you didn’t relapse due to misunderstanding your triggers. Maybe it’s your first relapse, and you don’t need to return to inpatient treatment. It could be that you need to readjust your long-term sober lifestyle.

You’ll need to re-center sobriety as your daily motivation. This will mean committing to activities for the sake of your recovery more than anything else. Attend regular group meetings and recover with others just like you. Look in the mirror and commit to sobriety for yourself — not for your family or friends, but for you. After all, it’s your health at stake.

This should connect you to stronger support systems in your one-day-at-a-time life. Support systems are the trustworthy people who are also committed to your recovery: peers in your group meetings, supportive family and friends, or online groups. The key is that your support group supports you. Anyone who abuses opioids themselves, or who isn’t sensitive to your recovery, probably won’t strengthen your drive to not relapse.

All these choices are difficult. But they’re good sacrifices to make for the sake of your lifetime of recovery.

You Can Take Careful Next Steps

To come back to the first point of all this, opioid relapse isn’t the end of your sobriety. It’s a painful obstacle to hurdle, but not a dead end.

To be clear, opioid relapse is a serious physical risk: taking the drug which your body no longer tolerates is dangerous, because you can overestimate your own tolerance and fall into an overdose. It’s unwise to ignore this very real danger.

Still, relapse can be the signal that you need to double down on your recovery, that you might have a few more bugs to work out, that you need a wakeup call. Don’t become discouraged, but don’t become passive either. Embrace the ideas, treatments, and resources you need for the opioid-free life still ahead of you.


Buprenorphine Doctors