When You Relapse, Do You Lose All Your Sobriety?

I get letters in another venue from people in early recovery, asking for information about the variety of symptoms and problems common to all of us when we were newcomers.  I was quite taken with the following letter, because it illustrates an extremely common issue — family members who don’t understand what we need, or who passively try to sabotage our recovery.  I thought I’d share the letter and my response with you here.  It has been redacted to remove some unrelated information, and to protect the identity of the writer.

I have abused opiates on and off for four years. Went through detox two times when I had insurance, just from being so afraid of withdrawal. Went to counceling once. Of course my abuse continued to grow. I got to the point of being just sick of it. I quit and used a recipe I found online using vitamins an amino acids. I went to get change from my husbands “spare change cup” and found eight pills there (he takes them because he needs hip replacement). By the end of the night I had taken eight to ten pills out and took the pills over the next 24 hour period. This was on the 101st day of being clean. I am so disappointed in myself and feel miserable, but I am determined to pick up the pieces and move on. …[Your] article was very helpful to me. I realize I need to be in a program and will look in to it. I guess my question is, Have I lost the time of 100 days I put into sobriety, after a one day binge? Have I lost all recovery ? I so want to be rid of this deamon and your article has helped.



Dear Jen,

Quite the contrary: that 100 day investment may turn out to have been one of the most valuable experiences in your quest for sobriety. You now know that you cannot trust your disease. It is going to be with you — in spirit, as it were — for a long time. Recovery is about learning that, and learning to live without drugs.  Addiction is a disease of relapse.  Those who have done so one or more times are far more common than those lucky ones who made it on the first try.

Your picking up should have taught you three things:

  • You must speak with your husband about keeping strict control of his medication so that you will not be tempted “accidentally” again;
  • You need a support group that you trust enough to call and talk through urges to use, and that will help you learn to cope with life — comfortably — without using;
  • Life goes on. Beating ourselves to death for being human and giving in to temptation is not productive. Learning from our mistakes is, however, imperative.

Relapse occurs long before we pick up; using simply makes it official. If we keep ourselves in a healthy state of mind and body, follow suggestions and generally live our lives as someone who is IN recovery, as opposed to someone who is thinking about being in recovery, we do not reach the state of mind that will make it easy for us to pick up the random pill laying around the house.

As the song would have it, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again,” using the very important lessons you’ve learned to help avoid further slips.  Addicts have to be extremely careful about falling down to begin with, because sometimes we find ourselves unable to get up. The good news is, as long as we learn not to make the same mistake again (and, hopefully, none similar as well) we can profit from them.

I’m seeing some wishy-washy thinking here: “I realize I need to be in a program and will look in to it” needs to be “I will call and find the location of a meeting immediately and get to it as soon as possible.” Please get to some meetings! You cannot do it alone. Your best thinking got you where you are, and you need some fresh input. The lifelong friends you will make in the process are a bonus.

Remember one other truism: Anything that you place ahead of your recovery, you will eventually lose.

Keep on keepin’ on,


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