Ben* has been battling a drug and alcohol addiction for more than a decade. At 32 years old, he has experienced more than the average person his age.
Ben suffered a horrific injury in a car accident when he was 21 and became dependent on painkillers. From there, he tells me in his first group therapy session in rehab that he began experimenting with a range of different drugs and drinking “whatever he could get his hands on”. Ben is known as a serial relapser. He has had two one-week stints in rehab and countless sessions with psychologists and therapists over the years to help him recover from his drug and alcohol addictions. After sharing his story, he admits to the group that this three-week rehab is his last hope.
The realities of relapse
Relapse is not uncommon when first attempting to recover from alcohol addiction and other addictions. While rates vary, it’s been estimated that between 40% and 60% of people with addiction will experience a relapse.
The most common reasons for relapse are: having unrealistic expectations of how your “new life” is going to be; trying to continue to live your life the way you used to, such as mixing with your drinking friends; and socialising at your usual places and trying not to drink, which can be extremely difficult when attempting to maintain sobriety or abstinence. Other triggers that can lead to relapse are being unaware that stopping drinking completely is the first step, and that you will have to reshape your life to accommodate your recovery. Recovery has to come first.
Many clients, like Ben, think that once they stop drinking or using, their problems will disappear. This is often referred to as the “honeymoon period”, and it will end. The truth is, rewiring the brain can take up to 90 days after abstinence, and the more intense the treatment is during those days, the more successful clients can be. Writer Johann Hari says that “the opposite of addiction is connection” and the flow-on effect of being in programs with others on the same path can greatly enhance recovery. Some clients benefit from 12-step programs, in conjunction with treatment programs which focus on their trauma and underlying issues such as depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD.
Connection and support are key to recovery
Long-term sobriety is possible for serial relapsers if they commit to the process. It’s important that patients like Ben know past relapses don’t define you. I have had patients who have had many relapses and gone on to be sober for decades. I tell Ben that it’s not uncommon for many of us to feel overwhelmed when we’ve gone off course, but it’s important to recognise that a relapse doesn’t equal a failure. This is the time to reach out for extra help. It’s essential that a person receives ongoing care and support to break the addiction cycle in early recovery and continue on their road to sobriety. They need the tools, education and accountability …….