What To Do After a Relapse

September 11, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

Relapses can occur when recovering from many chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. This also includes substance use disorders, such as opioid use disorder.

Recovery from a substance use disorder is a lifelong journey, and even the most well-planned journey will have bumps in the road. Many people with substance use disorder will experience relapse at some point. It can be brought on by stress, environmental triggers or treatment approaches that aren’t a good fit.

Substance use disorders can also create changes in the brain that cause cravings even after a person has stopped using drugs and is in recovery. And there are often root causes – such as a history of pain or trauma – that led someone with substance use challenges to use substances.

For a person in recovery, it is important to address the physical symptoms of substance use, as well as the personal and psychological reasons they started using drugs. For example, a person with opioid use disorder may receive opioid agonist therapy to manage their withdrawal from opioids, speak to an addictions counsellor to gain a better understanding of the root causes of their substance use, and access peer groups to build supportive relationships. 

People who follow this kind of treatment are less likely to experience relapse than people who focus only on detox, which can make overdose more likely in the event of a relapse. 

Whatever the cause of the relapse, as Opioids; A Survivor’s Guide (PDF) says:

A relapse should not be considered a failure, but rather an experience to learn and grow from.

What to do after a relapse if you are in recovery

There are steps that everyone involved in a person’s recovery journey – from the person in recovery to the friends, family and loved ones supporting them – can take to move forward following a relapse.

Look to the future, not the past. A relapse can feel like a step backwards. But it’s important to remember that relapse is common, and not a sign of failure. Set realistic goals and focus on what you want to achieve. That may be more stability, improved relationships with loved ones, reduced substance use…whatever your objectives, setting goals can reinforce your sense of purpose and confidence.

In a time where we may not be feeling our best, it’s important to boost our own self esteem every now and again. - Opioids, A Survivor’s Guide

Look to supports and services. Speaking to a doctor, pharmacist, nurse or other trusted practitioner can help you evaluate your treatment plan and see if anything needs to be changed. If you are taking opioid agonist therapy, update your doctor if you’ve experienced a relapse.

Supportive relationships can help reduce the isolation that makes relapse more likely and reinforce the idea that you are not alone, you haven’t failed, and that recovery is still possible. Peer support groups can provide invaluable support and insight.

Look out for yourself. Relapse can be dangerous – especially if you have not used substances in a while. This is because as a person’s tolerance for substances goes down, the risk of overdose increases. Even a small amount of a substance could cause an overdose.

Opioids, a Survivor’s Guide provides some simple dos and don’ts to help reduce the risks of overdose in the event of a relapse:

  • Do carry naloxone (the drug that reverses opioid overdoses) and access an overdose prevention site if possible.
  • Do use drug checking services, e.g. fentanyl test strips or FTIR drug checking machine at your local overdose prevention site
  • Do not go back to your old dose. Start low and go slow – remember you can always use more.
  • Do not use alone. Your life is more important than what others might think or say about you.

How to help a family member or friend who has relapsed

Recovery can be both a hopeful and difficult experience for everyone affected by substance use challenges – including the family, friends and loved ones of the person walking their recovery path.

A relapse can be an especially emotional time in this journey. Non-judgement is key – it’s important for people in recovery to be supported throughout the process, with all its ups and downs. Keep in mind that:

  • Change takes time, steady effort and support
  • Stress and isolation make recovery more challenging
  • Recovery is a life-long journey and relapse is part of the process

It’s important to support yourself, as well as your family member or friend in recovery. Practicing self-care, including getting regular exercise, maintaining a good diet and healthy sleep schedule will help avoid burn-out when playing a role in someone’s recovery.

Don’t go through it alone. Consider finding a counsellor or joining a support group for those impacted by addiction. Find a list of services on the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use website.

Celebrate wins – no matter how big or small. Each step towards recovery is something to be proud of, and being open, optimistic and supportive helps everyone walking this healing journey together.

Learn more about recovery and treatment services in BC.

Learn more about opioid agonist therapy.

Learn tools to cope with substance use challenges in your family (PDF).

Read Opioids, A Survivor’s Guide (PDF).