Updated: Oct 3
When my daughter relapsed after six years of sobriety, it took her less than five months to lose everything she had worked so hard for: her job, her savings, her good credit rating, and – most damaging – her self-respect.
“How could I have done this to myself?” she cried when the fog had lifted enough for her to see the wreckage. “How could I have been so stupid?”
She – and I – had believed that her drug days were over. We thought she had moved on, built a new life, and left her old destructive ways behind.
Now, we both faced the stark reality that addiction is seldom completely “in the past.” Like some insidious illness lurking deep in our loved ones’ physiology, addiction can re-emerge when they – and we – least expect it. When it does, the results can be devastating.
Yet relapse, like many difficult experiences, contains hidden opportunities for personal growth. Here are five surprising things that relapse can teach those of us who love an addict:
1. We can choose how to respond to relapse. Watching a loved one relapse can be like
watching a train wreck in slow motion. All our old fears, anger, and sorrow can come flooding back, tempting us to argue with, berate, or “rescue” our struggling loved one.
But these gut reactions, while understandable, help no one. Instead, we can choose to step back, remind ourselves that relapse is a common part of the recovery process, and put into practice those time-honored tools for coping with addiction: acceptance, loving detachment, and focusing on our own well-being.
2. Sometimes, relapse can be a blessing in disguise. No one would claim that
relapse is a good thing. It’s a setback, often a serious one, in the struggle for recovery. But sometimes, relapse can bring about a deeper commitment to personal growth.
This was the case for an acquaintance who relapsed on benzos after four years’ sobriety. “I was complacent,” he admitted after he got back on track. “Now, I know that I have to work at recovery every single day. I’m more honest and open with friends. I meditate. I’m trying to be a better person.”
His words are a reminder that none of us knows what the future holds. Even relapse, which can seem like a disaster in the moment, can sometimes lead to a positive change.
3. Relapse can deepen our sense of gratitude. Too often when things are going
well for our loved ones, we allow ourselves to be distracted by possible storm clouds on the horizon. Instead of being grateful for their sobriety, we worry about the possibility of relapse.
Yet worry has never been shown to benefit anyone. It simply dims our enjoyment of what is good in the here and now.
When we accept that relapse has happened and may happen again, we can turn our attention in a more positive direction. We can remind ourselves to be grateful for every sober day.
4. Relapse can give us a more compassionate view of success and failure. Everyone
who loves an addict dreams of a perfect recovery: the addict gets treatment, commits to recovery, and never abuses drugs or alcohol again.
Unfortunately, many addicts who embark on recovery stumble more than once along the way. That’s because they’re human, change is hard, and addiction is powerful.
Nevertheless, addicts who relapse have not failed in their recovery. Every day, every moment of sobriety is an accomplishment. Relapse reminds us that success doesn’t mean that we never fall down. It means that we get up again after we fall.
5. Relapse can promote our own spiritual growth. I once heard someone say in a meeting
that he was grateful for one thing about his daughter’s addiction: it had made him a better person. He had become less judgmental of others and more accepting of life as it is. In other words, he had become a more spiritually grounded person.
Relapse can have the same positive impact. If we avoid judging our relapsing loved ones and accept life as it is in this difficult moment, we tap into something much bigger than ourselves: the powerful, enduring bond of our shared humanity.
Beverly Conyers is the author of three books about addiction, including the newly updated classic Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope and Recovery.