Life in Recovery

What if There’s a Lapse? How to Avoid a Downward Spiral of Shame

Returning to substance use or other unhealthy behavior can have significant consequences. But shame and fear only magnify the costs of a lapse, and make it possible to spiral into a longer relapse. Life, and growth, are about moving forward. Our pasts, even our recent pasts, do not have to define us. And our value and worth is far greater than a timespan. The nature of the brain disease of addiction makes lapses possible, particularly for deeply-rooted addictions. If someone lapses, look for something on which they can focus that is a reminder of their value and worth, and that stirs hope. Learning is possible in every circumstance, but most effective in the light of hope.


Lapses and Relapses

For those of us struggling with addiction or another mental health disorder, returning to the substance, behavior, experience, or emotional state can have harmful consequences for oneself or for others — our families, friends or co-workers. However, fear, guilt and shame are not great motivators in the long-term. If a lapse happens, know that your value and worth and potential are not gone. Over-focusing on the possibility of a lapse or relapse can stir fears that hinder healthy recovery. In the case of a lapse, moving from guilt, shame, and self-criticism as quickly as possible is crucial to step out of the destructive cycle.

A lapse, or brief return to an unhealthy or addictive behavior, does not have to spiral into a full-blown relapse. In that moment, It can feel like a risk, or step of faith, but finding forgiveness for ourselves is crucial for experiencing growth and preventing further damage. Understanding challenging contexts for us in our process, via creation of a relapse prevention plan, can help us avoid future lapses.

Guilt and shame may feel right or deserved in the situation, but they are not going to be your friends in the long-term. Learn, involve community, move forward, and let go. You don’t have to live with the fear of failure. While it can help one avoid things that might present risks, it can also drag down one’s emotions or increase pressure to the point where a stumble actually occurs.

A person takes a step on a staircase, and is likewise moving forward in his recovery journey after a lapse

Love Moves Us Forward

If self-forgiveness is hard for you, look for sources of external truth that help you understand that you’re loved, valued, and accepted. Sometimes we can fear accepting love and forgiveness because we’re worried about doing it again. But, for most of us, the consequences of returning to that mistake again are already clear. And it’s the receiving of love and grace that actually can powerfully motivate change in us; when we recognize our value and worth, we may find the answers to the questions we are seeking, or find something worth fighting for. What’s most important to know, wherever you are in the journey, is that there’s hope for you. You’re taking the bold step to attempt something important — recovery. It can be difficult. But, whether a lapse comes after five days or five thousand days, it does not have to define you. Yes, the feelings and consequences of a lapse can be serious and negative. Involving people in our process with whom we can be honest and vulnerable is crucial so that we don’t spiral further back into the addiction. But a lapse does not undermine your identity as a person, and a person in recovery. Life is about progress, not perfection.

Related: Enjoying Adventures after Recovery from Heroin Addiction: Dylan’s Story

You are more than just the sum of your past choices. Is the value of a two-year-old the sum of their small wobbles, broken words, and a mountain of dirty diapers? No! Their value is not limited to their past, and neither is yours. Failure only represents a further opportunity for learning and growth. One can take a moment and reflect. What was I feeling or experiencing that caused me to want to medicate or escape? What situation or relationship may I want to approach differently? How would I approach the situation the next time?

A woman holds her friend's hand as he tells her about a relapse in his recovery process. She supports him in his mental health

Responding to a Lapse: Moving Forward

What do we do if a lapse occurs?  (1) Set our eyes forward. (2) Make a decision that we’re not going back to that substance or choice again. In fact, the choice does not have to reflect who we are;  it’s only a parting reflection of who we used to be. (3) Invite trusted community into the process. Fight that urge that tries to keep us disconnected, and reach out to our supporters. (4) Find an aspect of yourself that you’re thankful for, and hold onto that. Sobriety is beautiful and important, and you are worth even more than a time period or number of days.

Some in recovery report the period just after a lapse as some of the most difficult times to reconnect with a current support system. But, connection is so important at this stage. We would be surprised at the welcome embrace that most, if not all, will offer and extend, because they’ve likely been there and can empathize. Be honest, as there’s freedom in the honesty. If your community and group do not offer that type of acceptance, you may want to try out a new support group. The journey is yours, and you are worthy of having acceptance in your community.



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