Reflecting, I wonder how many times I have restated the phrase, "Relapse is a part of recovery". Possibly 500 times...maybe I have repeated it one thousand times, or ten thousand times? With certainty, I definitely utter it at least one time per day, sometimes several.
Substance abuse treatment has made the term relapse commonplace but it applies to every other type of experience, it merely means a return to a behavior that was previously changed. Spending, overeating, overuse of leisure activities, working too much, nail-biting, yelling, promiscuity, hand washing, any of these can be revisited. Returning to past behaviors is part of healing and creating life-long changes.
It is rare that I have worked with a client who had a significant behavior pattern, made a decision to stop, ceased, and then never went back. Personally, in all the behavior changes I have successfully made (and there have been many due to developing several unhealthy coping strategies) each and every time I have relapsed. It is never easy, but it is part of changing.
What we know is that when we attach judgment and shame to these periods of regression, they may last longer and have more negative and lasting emotional consequences. Clients have shared with me that when they binged for the first time in a long period of recovery they immediately experienced self-loathing, which only made them want to eat more. Clients who were depressed or lethargic, and then solved this by taking action may return to undermotivation from time to time. Combine this lack of drive (relapse) with guilt and negative emotions and it only takes longer to stand up off the couch and create goals. We cannot prevent relapse, but we can incorporate compassion because we are doing our best, trust that it will resolve, and knowledge that even in our return to old behaviors we are learning.
Relapse is difficult to manage with many feelings associated; it is disappointing, sad, frustrating, and scary to return to our old patterns. This being said, remembering that there are legitimate reasons we return to old behaviors is critical. The changes we have made are often discontinuing a pattern that helped us cope more effectively at one point. Those patterns are done repeatedly on countless occasions and are in some way programmed. The behaviors have a pleasurable quality, or at least used to. The pattern may be directly related to some unresolved emotional challenge that will be triggered again. These reasons create the likelihood that we will return to them.
Knowing that relapse is a part of recovery is the first step. Being compassionate and understanding with ourselves is the second step. After we relapse, letting our old pattern of behavior go as quickly as possible is the third step. The final step is to look back and identify what led up to our relapse by understanding our triggers and where we need to shore up our recovery.