Relapse & Recovery: Addiction Recovery Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint

Tracey Helton Mitchell, author of The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin, explains why relapse shouldn’t be treated as a dead end.

When I started my process of addiction recovery, my life was focused around the absence of pain. If only I could stop feeling this way… but how? I knew I wanted to stop using drugs and alcohol, but I had no idea how to make this happen. I tried ten other times until on time number eleven, things started to fall into place. That was nearly twenty years ago. There were many relapses that I turned into learning experiences. That accumulated knowledge of what worked and what did not work for me was eventually translated into a program of long lasting recovery. Recovery is a marathon not a sprint. While not welcomed, relapses shouldn’t be treated as a dead end. They are an opportunity for self examination and course correction.

“I tried ten other times until on time number eleven, things started to fall into place. ”

Statistically, we are at highest risk for overdose death when we have had periods of abstinence.

This includes periods of incarceration, trips to rehab, after an extended hospital stay, or voluntary attempts to curb use. When we have had a period where we have been “clean” or “sober,” the expectations around us reach new levels. Our loved ones embrace us tightly. The pressure slowly mounts to regain responsibilities. Suddenly, our fragile grasp seems to slip — we are ashamed to admit to cravings. It doesn’t matter if it is a good bad or a bad day. Our relationship to drugs has become so complicated, a simple memory can set our mental wheels turning. We are told we should be feeling “grateful” when, in fact, we may be feeling isolated. It is easy to fall back into that groove of self medication. Relapse can be a sole event or an extended incident. No matter what the circumstances of a relapse, the most important thing we can do is protect our health and safety by practicing harm reduction.

“We are told we should be feeling ‘grateful’ when, in fact, we may be feeling isolated.”

Leaving a relationship with drugs and alcohol is like leaving any abusive relationship.

It may take multiple tries until we finally leave. It is okay to admit that for awhile, these substances feel good. Until they don’t. When we finally decide to get into the process known as recovery, one of the most challenging hurdles may be rebounding after a relapse. If we have spent months, years, or even decades using drugs and alcohol to solve our problems, it is entirely rational that in times of emotional upheaval, we would return to our old solutions. We used when we were sad, happy, angry, lonely, and every place in between. Healthy behavior changes are hard. Like the diabetic who may have issues resisting sweets or the asthmatic who craves a cigarette, a person with addiction issues deals with significant temptation on a daily basis.

“If we have spent months, years, or even decades using drugs and alcohol to solve our problems, it is entirely rational that in times of emotional upheaval, we would return to our old solutions.”

Your first thought after a relapse might be to think “I’ve thrown it all away!”

Don’t get stuck in this trap. You still have retained all the accumulated knowledge, you just need to create a new situation in which to apply it. Don’t let yourself get pulled into the cycle of guilt and shame. First of all, guilt and shame are useless emotions in this situation. Shame is fuel for the process of cutting off your support system. Guilt breeds the desire to keep drinking or using drugs. You had 98 days sober and relapsed? That means in 99 days, you used one day? You have 98 days worth of experience to draw on. You can start from today. Ask yourself — What can you do differently? What worked for you? What are my goals? What are the things that really make you want to change? Make a list. This is a time for action. Whatever your program of recovery, the tools are inside you. Tap into those.

“Shame is fuel for the process of cutting off your support system. Guilt breeds the desire to keep drinking or using drugs.”

A relapse does not have have to end the journey. This can be a new beginning. Learn from this experience and move forward.

 

 

This Is An Article About A Heroin User

Activist and author Tracey Helton Mitchell reminds us heroin users are “mothers, employees, advocates, and friends.”

I woke up this morning thirty minutes before my kids. Ten of this is spent checking my social media. I had set my phone on vibrate last night to provide myself a bit of a respite from the flurry of messages I get in the wee hours of the evening, mostly from twenty-somethings trying to make it past day four of opioid detox or get naloxone in the wake of an overdose. Last night I was up dealing with a crisis of another sort. My son peed the bed. After cleaning him up, he had to be moved to the couch in an attempt to disturb him as little as possible.

Now, I am forced to tiptoe around the adjacent kitchen. I stop the toast in the middle of the browning process. I’m afraid the noise might wake him. I slather on homemade jam, made extra sweet in that it was created with my daughter’s tiny hands. A close friend volunteered their mother to assist her in navigating the process. I heat up some green tea in the microwave. Again, I halt the process before the loud DING. I gobble down my toast on my bed while I scroll through emails. I know the alarm is going off soon. Three bowls of Honey Nut cheerios and lots of whining, then we are out the door. An uneventful morning – just the way I like them.

Is this an article about a heroin user? Yes. That would be me – the same mother from the story. I am, in fact, a heroin user in long term recovery from addiction. Nineteen years, 34 abscesses, and eleven arrests ago, I had my last shot of heroin. I had been using opioids for ten years, heavily for eight of those. Like many users, my journey to recovery began in handcuffs. Jail was the only reliable place to receive access to services. My recovery was facilitated by incarceration but certainly was not a result of it. I was already highly motivated at that point to stop using.

“Nineteen years, 34 abscesses, and eleven arrests ago, I had my last shot of heroin.”

As a homeless “junkie” in the 90’s, limited resources were available to me. The only way I knew to get into any type of recovery center was through the county jail. Rehabs were scarce, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) options were both limited and unaffordable. While twelve step was widely available, the stigma that surrounded not being sober while attending meetings existed and persists today. That day, those handcuffs, ultimately changed my life.

People who use drugs, are just that – people. We want to be seen as people first. We are beautiful. We are flawed. We are capable. We have hopes, dreams, ideas. I wasn’t born a drug user. I might have continued on that path to the grave if it wasn’t for a core group of caring folks telling me that I deserved more out of life. Hope was the light that guided me out of darkness. When I was sitting in a jail cell, the idea of having a family of my own was a dream that burned just bright enough to help guide me through the early hopeless days of recovery.

Another dream was to attend school, two degrees and a substance abuse counseling credential later, I can say I have achieved more than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams. I wanted a job back then. ANY job. I started as a volunteer and slowly worked my way into a career. I even dreamed of a furry companion to love me unconditionally. While a cat may seem like a strange recovery icon, having the ability to learn that I could care for something besides myself made me less likely to use drugs.

This article is about a heroin user, a heroin user in recovery.

I am a mother, an employee, an advocate, and a friend. I am loved.