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Looking Back to Look Ahead in Recovery: Why This is Especially Important After Relapse

The chronic nature of addiction means that for some people, relapse may be part of the process of recovery. In fact, relapse rates for drug use are similar to rates for other chronic medical illnesses. It happens, it doesn’t mean someone is a bad person or has failed, and they most definitely can try treatment again.

Returning to treatment for substance use disorder (SUD) can be frustrating or discouraging. Aside from the physical withdrawals an individual knows they will face comes the discomforting thought of again acknowledging past mistakes and wrongs. But this idea of looking back to look ahead in recovery can actually be one of the most rewarding and helpful experiences in someone’s life to discover who and what they want to be.

There is a lot of soul-searching in treatment whether it’s your first, second or 20th time. Recovery is about getting in touch with who you are and realizing that addiction does not define you. The 4th Step even asks that we make a “fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It requires that we face ourselves and the truth about what caused and fed our addiction. This work of looking back can give us the courage and motivation we need to move on – we face the worst so that we can become the best. It can also help us identify certain triggers that may impede our recovery.

Recovery Centers of America’s (RCA) relapse treatment program asks patients to create a “blueprint” that identifies the values that they formerly held, what matters most to them and who/what they wanted to be in order to identify who they will be in recovery. There is symbolism in having patients write their addiction stories to leave behind, and write a recovery story to take into their future.

Reuniting patients with their former values and aspirations is at the core of treating relapse in RCA’s PRISE (Promoting Recovery through Intensive Support and Education program). The way a person in recovery perceives himself or herself can influence their alcohol or drug use, thereby improving self-esteem in this process. When someone values themselves, they are much less inclined to seek out mind-altering substances that change how they feel. Patients are often asked to explore what really matters to them deep in their hearts.

The PRISE program’s self-discovery techniques help individuals come to terms with their life choices and bring out the positive parts that have been buried or unknown for years. One therapeutic model that is useful after relapse is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a form of mindfulness-based therapy, theorizing that greater well-being can be attained by overcoming negative thoughts and feelings. Obsessing over things that happened in the past keeps people stuck, but by accepting past faults or weaknesses, we can move forward. Having a patient outline the areas where they believe they need to forgive themselves can help them move forward without guilt and shame and redefine their future. Realizing that despite mistakes, they are still a unique and special person who deserves to be happy.

A positive outlook on the future also can help reduce the likelihood of additional relapses. Perception is reality. Patients might accomplish this by doing things that make them feel good (other than substances) such as community service, recreational activities, or gratitude exercises.

Relapse does not mean that a person is a failure. All it means is that they need to look inside to find that place of strength that brought them to recovery the first time and start again.

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