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Relapse Is a Process, Not an Event, Not Part of Recovery

Relapse does not just “happen” by accident and without warning. There is a process to every relapse, and the process (believe it or not!) can become very predictable.

Since relapse follows a predictable process, it follows also that relapse is preventable. That is why we insist that relapse is not a part of recovery (see below)!

That is also why we insist that people do not lose their sobriety the way someone may lose a sock, or lose a game. “I lost my sobriety” sounds to us like an unavoidable accident. That is not the case. Relapse, at least after a period of some sobriety, is a resignation back to active addiction – either by choosing to notbecome intimately familiar with one’s personalized relapse process, or, by choosing to not utilize the specific intervention strategies necessary for interrupting the relapse process. Either way it is a choice, not an accident.

A particular path that one follows to a relapse may have highly individualized trigger points and each person’s life can introduce seemingly unique challenges. Every recovering addict, or family member of an addict, must become knowledgeable of his or her personal path to relapse if they are going to be successful in maintaining a relapse free recovery. Here are some thoughts to consider:

  • What have historically been your personal trigger points that have preceded or coincided with relapse?
  • Are there any traumatic origins in your life which may be at the core of continued compulsive behaviors or relapse?
  • Are you currently trying to grit your way through a hostile, or oppressive, work or home environment, as if you are participating in an emotional endurance contest?
  • Are there unresolved resentments in your past or present life? Resentments and blaming others often drive relapse.
  • Or perhaps there are unresolved harms that you have caused to others causing you chronic discomfort that may be keeping you stuck in emotional perseveration.

This bullet list is a small sampling of some of the personalized questions that will need to be addressed if you are planning to avoid relapse. Relapse prevention will not happen by accident!

Perhaps the most important tool that will help you learn your personalized path to relapse it to study your past relapses. Whether you have recently relapsed or whether your relapse has occurred some time ago, it is imperative to learn from it. In traditional recovery wisdom this is called being a “student” of recovery.  Students of recovery usually have the most long term success.

In this exercise you will write down on paper as much of the emotional and environmental challenges that you can remember experiencing in the days and weeks leading up to your past relapses. Include even those challenges that you do not believe are related to your decision to relapse. Share your findings with trusted members of your support network or with your therapist so you can make appropriate changes in your life and develop appropriate intervention strategies for preventing future relapses.

Perhaps two of the most misquoted expressions of all time are from Edmund Burke and George Santayana. Edmund Burke said “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” while George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However those two quotes really go, we think they are both right. So we have decided to say “Those who are not students or their own relapses are most probably going to relapse again.” Yes, very profound, we know…

In summery: relapse is preventable. While there may not be one path to avoid, no one-size-fits-all recovery plan, there are predictable phases that we pass through before we reach the decision to resign (not lose) our sobriety and choose to relapse.

Relapse is Not a Part of Recovery

Actually, relapse by definition is a return to active addiction. Active addiction is not part of recovery. That makes no sense. The two are mutually exclusive.

It is a very dangerous sinkhole left open if you believe that a relapse is normal and to be expected.

You may get confused when you see other members of addiction recovery groups whom you have come to admire relapsing, but make no mistake, the hardship others face with relapse does not mean that it is normal or to be expected.

We are well aware that many still espouse the notion that relapse is a part of recovery. We adamantly disagree. We have found that those who preach that relapse is a part of the recovery process, and as such is an example of a low point or setback in recovery, have probably never freely climbed out of the wreckage left by an active addiction. We who have known the shame, the prevailing sense of indecency, the insanity of the broken promises, and shattered dreams of active addiction would never describe relapse as an expected aspect of recovery in the normal course of things.

So no, relapse is not a stage or an aspect of the recovery process. Relapse is the eventual outcome for someone who has languished in the process of relapse without intervening or accepting help.

We use the word process, because relapse is always a process, never an event. For most, a relapse begins long before we first reintroduce our drug of choice. This is good news. Since relapse is a process, it is therefore preventable. Our job is to become well versed in that process. To learn about the process and to develop the appropriate interventions that work for each of us individually when we are faced with the various challenges that we all will face along the way.

Relapse Is a Process, Not an Event, Not Part of Recovery

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on June 22, 2017.

John Leadem, MSW, LCSW and Shawn Leadem, MSW, LCSW

Both John and Shawn Leadem are Licensed Clinical Social Workers in private practice in Toms River, New Jersey.

John has recently celebrated his 45th year in recovery and believes that “service to others is the cornerstone of spiritual maturity.” His professional service to addicted individuals and their families has included the development and direction of addiction treatment services in a full array of modalities from half-way houses to large residential treatment facilities over the past 44 years.

Shawn's lifelong exposure to the recovery culture and his personal recovery experience has left him with a deep personal empathy for the social and emotional suffering endured by others and a strong faith in a person’s ability to change. He has received his certification as a Sexual Addiction Therapist and as a Multiple Addictions Therapist by the International Institute for Trauma & Addiction Professionals.

Together, John and Shawn have co-authored and brought their unique treatment model of relapse prevention, An Ounce of Prevention: A Course in Relapse Prevention, to residential treatment centers across the United States, they have trained therapists at numerous national and international conferences, and most recently have trained many EAP programs associated with many State Unions.

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APA Reference
Shawn Leadem, J. (2019). Relapse Is a Process, Not an Event, Not Part of Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 May 2019
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