Is Relapse Part of Recovery?

A guy having a drink in a bar
November 21, 2017
|   Updated:
November 11, 2021

“Relapse is a part of recovery.” We’ve all heard it. But is it true? While you could interpret this phrase to mean that relapse is unavoidable, that is not the context in which it is meant.

Accept Relapse If It Happens

Darryl S. Inaba explains it well in his book Uppers, Downers and All-Arounders: “Relapse must be accepted but not excused in recovery.” In other words, if a person in recovery does relapse, he should be treated with compassion, not shame, but the event should be processed thoroughly to determine the cause and prevent it from happening again.

That being said, relapse is certainly not unavoidable, nor does it necessarily have to be part of recovery. Just like there are individuals who can quit smoking “cold turkey” there are individuals who can stop drinking on their very first attempt and never touch a bottle again. However, that number is very low. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “There is evidence that approximately 90 percent of alcoholics are likely to experience at least one relapse over the 4-year period following treatment.”

It’s likely these “miracle” people had an exceptional relapse prevention plan and a very good social support system put in place prior to their cessation of alcohol use. Most who are trying to achieve sobriety have to build or strengthen these supports during their recovery process.

Relapse Causes and Prevention Plan

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are three main reasons that alcohol dependent people relapse:

  • Low-level alcohol exposure (Having “just one drink” after a period of abstinence)
  • Environmental triggers (Returning to people, places or things that the brain associates with drinking)
  • Stress (A death in the family, a custody battle, job loss, etc.)

So, naturally, relapse prevention entails managing these three areas. Most treatment centers and even 12-step programs will help individuals develop a relapse prevention plan in order to do so. Also, accountability can help. For example, regular monitoring with Soberlink can be a good option to assist with relapse prevention.

About the Author

Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.

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