Relapsing Is Not a Failure

July 12, 2018. Article by: Dr. Patricia Daly

Opioid use disorder is a chronic relapsing condition. This means it’s common for people to use opioid drugs again even after completing detox and treatment and recovery programs.

Opioid use disorder makes changes to the brain which cause cravings long after a person has stopped using opioids. Long-term support and treatment with opioid substitution therapy is essential, even after a person has finished completing detox, treatment and recovery.

Banishing Shame and Blame

There is tremendous stigma – shame and blame – around relapse because it is seen as a personal failure.

This is the case for many people who have reached out to their families or friends and have been supported to get into treatment. Often the successful completion of detox is celebrated, treating it like a "cure.” The person affected later feels ashamed to admit when they relapse.

For those with opioid use disorder, relapse is normal. And relapsing – even several times – is entirely normal. Detox is not a cure, relapse is NOT a sign of failure and recovery is a lifelong journey.

People who stop using opioids lose their tolerance to these drugs, which puts them at higher risk of death when they relapse. Many, many deaths across B.C. share this pattern of detox, treatment and recovery, relapse and eventual accidental death by overdose.

Seeking Help

Detox programs should always be paired with other treatment and recovery programs. Detox alone, for any substance use disorder, does not address the underlying emotional, social and behavioural trauma a person may be dealing with, and does not address the expected risk of relapse.  

All opioid detox, treatment and recovery programs must include opioid substitution therapy, and supports to maintain people on this medication after they finish a program.  

As with other chronic health conditions, opioid use disorder requires a lifetime of treatment and support. Long-term recovery is possible and is a sustainable reality for many. If you have people in your life you’re supporting, keep having caring and compassionate conversations. Compassion and respect is key to helping someone face an opioid use disorder.

Author's Bio: Dr. Patricia Daly is the Chief Medical Health Officer and the Vice President, Public Health for Vancouver Coastal Health. She also serves as Executive Director and Clinical Lead for the Provincial Overdose Emergency Response Centre, based at Vancouver General Hospital.

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Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research: Patients Helping Patients Understand Opioid Substitution Treatment (PDF)
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