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Fallen off the wagon? Don't panic. Relapsing is actually part of the addiction recovery process. explains how to cope if temptation is too strong.

If you're an addict, the road to sobersville is often a long and hard one. There's bound to be temptation along the way and you may slip up. But this isn't a reason to freak out and brand yourself a failure. Relapsing is very common and something you can learn from.

What is a relapse?

It's important to distinguish between a 'lapse' and a 'relapse', and not give up hope of recovery just because you've lapsed once. A lapse is a one-off occasion where you indulge in drink/drugs, a relapse is where is becomes a regular thing. The self-loathing generated by a lapse can even lead to a proper relapse.

"The danger with lapsing is people think they've let themselves down and [decide] there's no point in staying sober," says Dr Robert Hill, a consultant clinical psychologist and addiction specialist.

"But a lapse doesn't have to become a relapse. Instead, you can use the experience to learn from it. What happened that made you want to use again?"

How common is relapsing?

More than you think. Much as you'll be quick to jump to the conclusion you're a weak and hopeless failure, your behaviour is actually an accepted part of the recovery process. So stop the self-hate, please.

"If I don't mention the high possibility of relapse to an addict, I'm doing them a disservice," says Dr Hill. "We accept people often need to come into treatment more than once. It shouldn't be seen as a failure of treatment if you go back. No one will be surprised."

I've relapsed! Now what?

The most important thing is to avoid thinking: "Well, I've obviously failed - I may as well have another drink/line/smoke." It's also vital you don't feel shame or embarrassment over your relapse and miss appointments with your key worker or GP as a result.

If I don't mention the high possibility of relapse to an addict, I'm doing them a disservice.

"My message is, go back and get more help," says Dr Hill. "Relapsing is all part and parcel of having an addiction. Lapse, relapse - it's what happens. Go back as soon as you can. The quicker you do, the better the outcome and the less damage you will do."

How do I avoid relapsing?

Dr Hill believes you need to ask yourself three questions. If you answer 'yes' to all three, you have a better chance of avoiding temptation:

  • Are you ready? Is this the right time for you to seek treatment and work on your problems?
  • Are you able? Do you have the skills needed to say 'no' in high-risk environments? Can you work with a craving?
  • Are you willing? Motivation is the best predictor of success. If you want to get clean, it's much more likely that you will.

Sometimes these three yes's don't come together all at once, and that's why you shouldn't be afraid to go back into treatment if you need to.

Relapses often happen when an addict is caught off guard. It's therefore worth identifying potential high-risk situations and mentally rehearsing how you should react. Remember, these danger-times probably aren't when you expect. Addicts assume they're most prone to relapsing when they're down or depressed, but sometimes it's the opposite. If you're in a fab mood, chilled, relaxed, and everyone around you is celebrating (probably with drugs and alcohol), the urge to join in can be overwhelming. 

But the more you practice resisting in your head, the better chance you have of leading a happy, addiction-free life. Just don't expect a magic wand-type cure. Recovery is an ongoing process that takes time. Never be afraid to seek help if you're struggling - even if you've been clean for what feels like years.

Can I still be friends with people who use?

If you've created a shiny new substance-free life, it's sometimes hard to combine it with your old one. Often you can make the best of friends when you're using, but the real test of a friendship is what happens when you stop. "True friends stand by change - others don't," says Dr Hill. "If you're trying to beat addiction, you can afford to keep true friends, but say goodbye to the others."

A real friend will think it's brilliant you've decided to stop using and won't pressure you to lapse. Unfortunately, others - your usual acquaintances - will find your sobriety a threat, and may try to tempt you. The old cliché is true: with friends like that, who needs enemies? Ditch them. It's hard. But so is recovery, and you'll find plenty of real friends in your new life.

Updated: 21/04/2011

Holly Thompson

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