The Shame of Relapse
Those on the road to recovery from a substance abuse problem would like to believe their journey to wellness will follow a straight and true path to its final destination. The reality is, however, that there are many forks and unexpected detours on this long and twisting road, which makes it incredibly easy for recovering addicts to stray off course.
If the roadmap to recovery is not read with the utmost care and diligence, a wrong turn can be made that will lead not to a golden valley of peace, health, and contentment, but rather to a festering swamp of darkness and despair. ‘Relapse’ is the name of this dank and miserable destination, and it is unfortunately a land that many recovering addicts have come to know all too well.
For most substance abusers, a relapse at any stage of recovery can be a cause for personal recrimination and shame, as the return to drug or alcohol use is seen as a sign of weakness and failure. But there are some revealing statistics that everyone should know about when they decide to enter treatment for a substance abuse problem. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of all recovering addicts will suffer a relapse at some point after they decide to stop using – and this does not even include brief relapses that frequently occur in the early stages of recovery, which will be experienced by 9 out of every 10 people who attempt to give up drugs or alcohol permanently. So it appears that the map to sobriety is not an easy one to read, interpret and follow, which immediately raises an important question – if relapse is such an ubiquitous part of the recovery experience, does it really make any sense to feel shame or guilt when it happens?
A Culture of Shame
In our culture, we are often taught to believe that we must be strong and self-sufficient in every circumstance. But this attitude only sets us up for failure – whenever we suffer some kind of setback in life, instead of recognizing this as inevitable we see it as proof that we are not good enough or strong enough to handle things on our own. Shame and guilt then follow, and these emotions are quite destructive because they take momentary feelings of weakness and inadequacy and turn them into cancerous existential states that eat away at our determination to change. Shame is the enemy of resiliency, and this is why we must work to banish it from our lives forever if we hope to persevere in the face of difficulty.
For those dealing with the terrible demons of drug and alcohol addiction, getting rid of negative emotions that rob us of our motivation and self-belief can be literally a matter of life or death. No one likes to fail at anything, it is true, but we have to realize that the most successful people in life are those who accept their failures but refuse to be defined by them. When we fail, it is perfectly natural and healthy to feel regret, which is necessary if we are going to learn anything so we can do better the next time. But feeling shame over the fact that we suffer from the same human frailties, vulnerabilities, limitations as everyone else will accomplish nothing. The statistics on recovery and relapse clearly demonstrate that leaving substance abuse behind forever is a difficult task for all who make the attempt.
When addicts do make that first courageous step and decide to seek help, their counselors will give them a roadmap to recovery that if followed carefully can help them stay on the path to sobriety. But on those occasions when a recovering addict fails to read or interpret the map correctly, or forgets that he or she has it and does not turn to it for guidance, it can become very easy to veer off course. When this happens, there really is no time for shame – the only sensible and constructive course of action is to take out the map and look at it again, only much more carefully this time, to figure out where the wrong turn was made. After this has been discovered, it should be possible to backtrack to the point where things went astray so that the recovering addict’s journey to the land of peace, health, and contentment called ‘sobriety’ can be resumed once more.