Why addicts relapse



2- Why Addicts Relapse


The disease of addiction is known as a chronic and relapsing condition. This page describes why addicts relapse and how the nature of this disease makes addicts in recovery vulnerable to using drugs again.


1. Natural & instinctive

2. Chronic disease

3. Distorted thinking

4. Elusive process


Relapse does not suddenly occur out of nowhere. It is a process that begins long before we finally pick up drugs again. Usually we relapse because we have let our thinking and attitude slip back into the negative shapes they took when we were in active addiction. And our behavior changes too, as we revert back to our old ways of dealing with life, forgetting that we are suffering from a chronic and primary disease that we are never cured from and which needs our daily care and attention. Our disease is rooted in our minds, and our thinking is insane when it comes to our addiction. We cannot trust ourselves to make a rational and logical decision, when it comes to drugs. This is because after years of doing drugs the habit has become our second nature. It is something we do automatically without thought. On top of this, the very nature of addiction is elusive and baffling. If we are not vigilant in working our program and if we don’t use the tools and support of our Fellowship, the disease can creep up on us in recovery, giving us seemingly no warning that the process of relapse has started. At the end we find ourselves using drugs again – and we don’t know how it happened. But those of us who have relapsed and come back into recovery can see that we did in fact contribute to our relapse by letting down our guard, or failing to use recovery tools to address the changes in our thinking, attitudes and behaviors.


Our highest threat for a relapse is in our first of year of recovery. This is the toughest period of recovery for most of us as our mind and body is adjusting without drugs and is restoring itself. It takes a while for the physical and psychological damages of addiction to get repaired and we are more likely to suffer from withdrawal symptoms, which are bound to tempt us to relapse. We are also on new grounds, experimenting with and learning a new and a better way to live. Statistics also show, the likelihood for a relapse for those of us in recovery for more than five years is significantly reduced. By then, having used the tools of our program, our way of life has dramatically changed and most of us don’t feel the need to use drugs in order to cope with life. Yet regardless of the number of weeks, months, or years in recovery, the best way we can prevent a relapse is first to understand the ways in which our disease of addiction has affected us. Then we will know what we are dealing with and what we need to address to maintain our recovery. Above all we need to understand that as far as our disease is concerned, we are never cured of it. Regardless of the length of our sobriety, we suffer from a chronic condition and are forever vulnerable to get drawn back to addiction, to that familiar way of living our life. Thus if we hope to maintain our recovery, we need to take daily actions that combat the many facets of our disease and learn new ways to cope with life.


Addiction is sometimes referred to as a “Bio-Psycho-Socio-Spiritual disease”, because it affects these four facets of our lives:

Why addicts relapse - Four Facets of Addiction relapse


1. Mental facet  distorts and makes our way of thinking insane. We have a tendency to live in fantasy and denial.

2. Physical facet – our brain loses the ability to function normally and naturally without drugs.

3. Social facet – alienates all our relationships, except with drugs and so isolates us.

4. Spiritual facet – makes us believe we are in control and powerful, thereby disconnects us from a Higher Power that we can rely on. It leads us to lose our values, integrity and morals.


Below are some facts about the nature of the disease of addiction to help addicts in recovery understand the reasons why we are predisposed to relapse.

Why addicts relapse - Factors leading to relapse


1- Natural & instinctive

  • Because of the chronic nature of our disease and our learned and now instinctive way to live, as addicts, we are always at risk of going back to how we destructively coped with our lives. When we decide to get clean and pursue recovery, we realize recovery is much more than stopping our drug use. Recovery from addiction requires us to change our whole way of life, the way we cope with our emotions, the way we think, and the way we behave. Recovery is basically asking us to completely change our life around. This is not an easy task. Just ask someone to give up one of their usual habits – something as innocent as refraining from drinking tea in the mornings. They may do for a while, but chances are soon they will go back to what is familiar to them. Yet for us, recovery is asking us to change almost everything about ourselves, our way of thinking, our habits and our behavior.  As addicts, using drugs is the most natural thing in the world. We use drugs to deal with life and its inevitable problems. Addiction becomes embedded in us like a second nature. We don’t question why we use drugs despite all the wreckage and misery they have brought us. We use drugs because this is what we do best, as chronic addicts. This is how we have coped with life. It is as if we are on automatic pilot and instinctively reach out to drugs without rhyme or reason and there is a truth in this. We have trained ourselves, often for years and decades, to reach automatically for the drug as the means to fix ourselves, to help us cope, to make us forget or to bring us relief and pleasure. Normal people have learned healthy ways of dealing with life, but our normal way is to use drugs. Our way of dealing with life was by escaping into drugs which then developed into the disease of addiction, and now we are forever vulnerable and at its mercy. If we hope to maintain our recovery, we need to work our program on a daily basis for otherwise we are bound to go back to our instinctive ways. Our way of thinking will go back to its insane and distorted ways and our brains having developed a dependence on drugs will produce cravings if triggered.
  • It is not easy to give up a habit of a lifetime, and even more difficult to resist slipping back into a way of life that had become second nature. But recovery from the disease of addiction is possible. It is by applying the tools and principles of our program that guide us how to live a new life and the support of our fellowship, that slowly we learn how to live a new way of life. It is through our daily recovery actions that gradually our addictive thinking and behaviors change towards healthy ones. But it serves us well to remember that recovery from our chronic condition is a daily process. Regardless of how long we have been clean, in recovery we are on a journey, a journey where each day we need to work our program and use the support of our Fellowship. It is a journey filled with trials and errors, one where we are constantly at risk to return to our addiction. But it is a path where millions of us in recovery are travelling on and one, which has brought a new freedom and an incredible new way of life for us to live.


2- Chronic disease

  • Every time we relapse we are gambling with our lives. As they say in the Fellowships, “it is not the last drug that kills us but the first”. The point is that once we pick up that drug we lose the power of control over it, thereby landing us back in the vicious cycle of addiction — which we know is so difficult to get out of.  Some of us make the fatal mistake when we relapse of using the same dose of drugs that we had become used to. After a period of abstinence, though, our tolerance is much lower and the result is we can overdose. Many of us who have relapsed die as a result of accidents, suicide or medical problems.
  • The irony is that once we have a taste of recovery most of us don’t even enjoy using drugs again. We know how good life can be without them, but did so out of habit, our instinctive way to deal with life. But even if we do relapse, even if we go back to our natural old ways of dealing with life, it is important not to view it as a failure. Would a person suffering from diabetes give up on themselves if they had some sugar that day, or a person with a heart condition let their world fall to pieces if they forgot to take the daily precautions they needed to keep their disease in remission? Relapse is part and parcel of our recovery process. It is something that happens to many of us because of the chronic nature of our disease. In addition recovery requires us to change our whole way of thinking and way of life. This is not an easy task and is bound to have its ups and downs until we learn and adjust to this new way of living. What we are aiming for is progress and not perfection. If anything we should be compassionate with ourselves if we relapse instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it. Recovery requires us to change so much about ourselves, so what if we momentarily revert to our habitual ways, do we have to view it as a failure and reprimand ourselves?
  • The best attitude to assume if we do use drugs again is to view it as a learning experience, something that will teach us about ourselves and our disease, something that will help us grow towards long-term recovery. We have to remember that today we have a choice and our choice includes the attitude we take over a relapse. We can either use our relapse as an excuse to wallow in self-pity and feelings of failure, which gives us further excuse to continue using drugs. Or we can take a positive attitude towards the experience. “OK,” we can say, “I have slipped, I have used drugs again because that is what I know how best to do, but am not going to allow this slip take me to further drug use and despair. I will be mature about it and realize I am no longer a victim of my disease but that I have a choice today. I will find out what this relapse had to teach me about my recovery, and learn from it and start again”.
  • Unfortunately many of us who relapse continue using drugs, even though we know it is destructive and will lead us to a living hell once again. Many of us may feel guilty after a relapse, as if we are weak or have somehow failed. Our disease may convince us the program is not working for us or our pride may prevent us from going back to our Fellowship, as if prizes are given to those who have never relapsed! We forget that what each one of us has is only 24 hours of recovery each day. We forget that all of us in the Fellowship are addicts with the same problems and difficulties in staying in clean. In fact we can take pride that by sharing our experience of a relapse we can help others in the meetings to learn from our experiences. We are human, after all, and suffering from a primary and chronic illness. Maybe that is what our relapse wanted to teach us about ourselves – not to forget what kind of a disease we are suffering from and to take better care of ourselves each day.
  • For information and suggestions on how to get yourself back on the recovery track, please refer to: Actions After a Relapse.


3- Distorted thinking

  • Giving up drugs can be relatively easy. We suffer the withdrawals and somehow manage to stop using drugs for a while. But then for some reason or other we find ourselves back on them. Or we find another avenue to feed our addiction. For instance, we may turn for relief to alcohol, gambling or sex. In these cases the problem is that we have not addressed the real issue, which is that we are suffering from the disease of addiction regardless of how our disease manifests itself. So our addiction shows its ugly head through another avenue in our life and once again, we suffer the same powerlessness and unmanageability. only this time through another medium. It may be a lack of understanding about our disease that leads us to think our problems are over once we stop the drugs. We need to realize we suffer from a disease rooted in our minds, that our way of thinking is prone to distortion. Our thinking, if left unchecked, will lead us to look outside ourselves for relief. If it is no longer in a drug, then we can be prey to fantasy or obsessional thinking, and all the forms this kind of thinking can take, such as sex or gambling.
  • Recovery from the disease of addiction is far more complicated than dealing with one main symptom, namely drug use. We must go further and address the root of it, specifically our whole way of thinking and the destructive ways we learned to cope with life. Our real challenge in recovery is not how to stop our drug use. The real question is how do we stop our disease of addiction and maintain recovery from all its manifestations. How do we maintain a healthy way of thinking and living against a way of life that has become destructive yet natural to us? That can only be done when we fully accept we suffer from a chronic disease that has many facets and one that has made our mind and body abnormal. In order for us to be able to maintain our recovery, we must address our disease and not just its symptoms. This can be done most effectively through working the 12 Steps and the support of our Fellowship. Remembering as far as our disease of addiction is concerned we cannot recover by ourselves alone. It is a disease much bigger than us and one, which we need to rely on a Power greater than ourselves, if we want our way of thinking to become healthy and sane.


4- Elusive process

  • Relapse is a common occurrence among us addicts in recovery and must be taken seriously for it can lead to bigger problems and even to our death. We need to understand that we don’t suddenly pick up drugs again for no reason. Relapse is an elusive process that happens typically through three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. An emotional relapse can occur in recovery under stress that is not well managed.  We don’t have the drugs to help us cope anymore, so we have to use the tools and principles of the program to deal with our emotions. When we fail to do this, we may revert back to our old and insane ways of thinking. Having fallen once again into addictive thinking, which is called a mental relapse, we put ourselves in high-risk situations and ignore warning signs that tell us something is wrong with our recovery. If this goes on for too long, our distorted thinking persuades us that our only choice is to use drugs again – the physical relapse. Yet this process of relapse can very easily be managed during its early stages. What is necessary is that we be aware of how we are coping with our emotions and what is happening to our thinking patterns, because it is then that we have the power to use our recovery tools to cope with and challenge them.
  • As previously pointed out, our disease of addiction is rooted in our minds, which means that our thinking must be checked on a daily basis. Keeping our thinking free of the addictive thought patterns that dominated it in our active lives is the first line of defense against a relapse. This mental disease of ours requires daily vigilance and care. Two great principles of the program that help us against our mental disease are: we are never cured of our disease and it is never safe for us to use drugs again. Just like a diabetes patient who needs to avoid sugar and take insulin each day, we in recovery need to take certain daily measures to keep our disease in remission. The truth is if we practise the first Three Steps on a daily basis, there is little likelihood we will fall victim to our obsession to use drugs again because these are the Steps that help us come to terms with the nature of our disease and help us find the solution.
  • 12 Step programs are programs of action, this means we need to take daily actions that ensure our recovery and prevent a relapse. Almost every single person who returns to meetings after relapse has this commonality: they say “I stopped going to meetings and working my program”. we need to be mindful of the nature of our disease and the actions we need to take on a daily basis if we hope to maintain our recovery. 12 Step programs offer an amalgamation of tools to combat the many facets of this disease of ours on a daily basis. Our Fellowship offers us the environmental, social, emotional and cognitive support we need to challenge this disease of ours to recover, and, more importantly, to maintain our recovery. But fundamentally it is up to us to take responsibility and put into action our program and use the support of our fellowship if we want to avoid going back to our old ways. We need to keep our recovery as the number one priority in our life and look after ourselves one day at a time, if we want to prevent our disease from resurfacing and falling victim to a relapse.


There is extensive information on the different phases that lead to a relapse in: Process of relapse

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