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COLUMN: All is not lost: relapse and hope

Advice on relapse from a substance withdrawal nurse
Ashley parsons is a withdrawal management nurse at Axis House. Photo: Betsy Kline

Submitted by Ashley Parsons and Matthew Wheating, Axis House Withdrawal Management

When people embark on a management plan to address their substance use, it can be a very hopeful time. But alas, the road to recovery is not the yellow brick road. It is far more dark, windy and steep. Tragic life events, past traumas, temptations and frustrations lie along the way.

Relapse happens. It may be a “slip”. It may a full reversion to previous harmful use and dangerous behaviors. It is likely to cause a total disconnection from a person’s recovery plan. They may feel like all is lost. Whatever that relapse looks like, it is important to recognize it is a part of recovery. The occurrence of a relapse does not mean failure. It can and should be seen as an opportunity to learn.

What should a person who has relapsed learn? Structured relapse prevention is a tool used by professionals featuring cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing. It is evidence-based and offered via private counselling as well as community mental health and substance use resources. It works well for people. Capitalizing on relapse to learn some new skills and build resilience may mean reaching out to your local mental health and substance use service via Interior Health for some supports.

RELATED: Advice on managing alcohol withdrawal from a Castlegar withdrawal nurse

For many people recovery involves spirituality. Spirituality is not the same as religion. Think of it as connecting to a higher power, defined or not. This helps people in developing awareness of a world outside of themselves. Meditation and mindfulness can have a significant impact as well, which is compounded over time, further assisting a person to make meaning of their life and experiences.

The most effective solution for learning from a relapse is to build a community of support. Professional supports offer proven techniques and clinical advice. Family and friend relationships fill the space between counselling sessions, but we must be aware that emotions can run strong in these relationships and biases can get in the way of honest reflection.

Time honoured, peer-led non-professional support groups such as AA often offer support 24/7. Its members are uniquely equipped with their own experiences that may help a person who has relapsed evaluate on their own.

Whomever is included in the support network, it is important to remember to use the support network and not try to prevent relapse by oneself. All is not lost.

Relapse is an opportunity to learn new skills, to tap back into things that worked before, to address the speed bumps in the road. To reengage with hope, to reengage with others. What a person will learn during relapse is as unique as each and every one of us, but managing a chronic illness like a substance use disorder requires work every single day. One must consider what is working and what isn’t and always be adjusting. And know that there are people here to support you.