Relapse is a devastating blow to anyone’s recovery. You were doing so well and then BAM! That inner voice got the best of you.
Now you’re searching on the internet for ways to piece your life back together. It sucks.
But for now, let’s deal with where you are at this moment.
Let’s get you back on track.
Relapse Recovery: What To Do Next
1. Don’t start feeling sorry for yourself.
Just don’t. What good does it do? It’s bad for you and the harsh reality is that nobody wants to hear it.
Sure, you’re probably going to wake up the next day feeling like a miserable turd, but that’s to be expected.
Not only have you let yourself down, but you’ve got alcohol in your system which is causing you to experience a major “hangxiety.” Here’s where I want to reassure you a little bit.
Yes, you feel absolutely awful about drinking again. But there is actually a medical reason why those bad feelings are amplified the day after drinking.
Why you feel terrible after a night of drinking.
According to David Nutt, professor of neuropsychology at London’s Imperial College, alcohol stimulates GABA in the brain which releases that chill, the feel-good vibe we all enjoy from a good buzz. He explains that the first two drinks are pure GABA bliss, but once you get to rounds 3, 4, 5, etc., your brain starts blocking glutamate.
More glutamate means you have more anxiety. The reverse is also true. When alcohol blocks the production of glutamate your anxiety falls to near nil.
What’s so bad about that?
Well… what comes up must come down. And that is EXACTLY what is happening to you the day after you drink.
Our bodies like balance. When we do things to it that throw our internal state out of whack, it will actively work to correct it. It is not normal to have GABA levels so high and glutamate levels blocked.
So what does the brain do?
Your brain will drop GABA levels and spike glutamate. That means a depressed mood and sky-high anxiety.
According to Professor Nutt, it can take 1-2 days to return to normal. If you’re routinely putting your brain through this cycle, it can take even longer.
Add that to the fact that you just broke your sobriety and it’s no wonder you feel like the most horrible person in the world right now.
But here’s the thing.
Understanding why you feel terrible after a relapse
Instead of feeling sorry for yourself after a relapse (which is completely normal) and running the loop of 4,592 ways you’re the absolute WORST, use the information I just gave you.
Step away from the internal war in your brain for a second.
Say to yourself, “I’m not ‘me’ right now”. There is a little chemical war raging in my brain. I need to let everything get back in balance and then I can tackle this with a clear head.”
The more can you can prevent yourself from identifying with the shame parade stomping through your brain, the better equipped you will be to handle it in a constructive, healthy way.
It’s not going to be easy. I am VERY familiar with the “hangxiety.”
I know how overwhelming the thoughts and emotions can be as they whirl around your body. There were days I had to wrap myself tightly in a blanket and breathe slowly just to get my wits about me.
Please God, let me jump out of this skin before I go crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to disappear quite like I did those mornings.
Stepping away from yourself in those moments is HARD.
But it must be done. To the greatest extent possible, drink a ton of water, find a way to distract yourself until you feel like the storm has passed, and then recognize it’s time to reach out for help.
2. Take responsibility for your relapse.
Sometimes relapses happen and it’s hard for us to identify why. Maybe you’ve been to a dozen parties in your sobriety with no problems at all. Why was the party last night the one that got you?
Other times, relapse is a result of major life disruptions. Somebody dies. A significant other leaves. Or maybe home is lost.
Sobriety is a hard responsibility. But if we’re going to recover after a relapse, we have to be ready to take ownership, even under the most terrible of circumstances.
I don’t mean that to be insensitive because there are some things in life that are incredibly hard to face sober. But you still have to learn how, my friend.
When you relapse in response to a tear in your world, you’ve now doubled your problems.
Not only are you dealing with a loss you have no control over, but you’ve added to your deficit by tossing your sobriety in with the rest of it.
Only you can choose that.
There is a 100% chance that drinking will make things worse. You can never truly numb yourself from pain. The body will always adjust and that adjustment will force you to face it one way or another.
If this is you, I’m wrapping my arms around you right now. I understand why you did it. Let’s make sure it doesn’t go this way again.
3. Find the lesson in your relapse.
Relapses are hard. Don’t let it be for nothing. Learn something from it.
If your relapse happened after a major life disruption or tragic event, the lesson might be that you aren’t emotionally prepared for handling the REALLY big stuff without alcohol yet.
Your responsibility is to make sure you are so it doesn’t happen again.
This could mean connecting with your sponsor if you’re working the steps, tackling this in counseling, or starting counseling if you haven’t already.
Maybe you realize that you need to call on your support systems sooner before your emotions get the best of you.
It’s good to have a relapse plan in place so you know exactly what to do when a part of your world comes undone.
Sort of like planning your evacuation route in the event of a fire. We’ll get to that in #7.
Unpack your relapse.
I’ll use a happy hour slip-up as an example.
Let’s say you went to a happy hour after work with your besties. In the past, you’ve managed fine with a couple of mocktails. But last time, you started to get envious.
That’s when the voice popped up whispering, “you’ve been good for a long time now. It’s out of your system. You can have a couple of drinks. It’s fine.”
This is the point where I’d have you stop and dig deeper.
Why did you get envious? Was it because you had a rough day at work and wanted to unwind with alcohol like everyone else?
Or maybe you wanted to feel “normal.”
In which case, the lesson could be that you need to find ways to handle your work stress differently. Or maybe a happy hour is off the table for now if you’ve had a rough day.
The lesson could also be that you still have some hang-ups with your relationship with alcohol that you need to work on.
Perhaps you still cling to the notion that you can drink again one day and aren’t as committed to your sobriety as you thought.
Whatever the case, recovering from relapse means forcing yourself to confront it head-on and grow from the experience.
Otherwise, it will continue to happen.
4. Get back in touch with your reasons for sobriety.
One of the most important things you can do to recover from a relapse is to reconnect with your sobriety.
It’s not lost forever. Far from it.
Your relapse can be as big or small as you want it to be. (Hint: you want it to be very, very small).
If you’re journaling right now, go back to the reasons you wrote down for wanting sobriety. Revisit the entries that talk about the advantages of sobriety and how it changed your world.
Get back in touch with your sober self.
If you’re not journaling, start.
Write down all the reasons sobriety is the right path for you. Recommit to it.
The more you can recalibrate your brain towards the positive, the better you’ll be at leaving this relapse in the past where it belongs. Then you can move ahead with stronger sobriety than you had before.
5. Take what you’ve learned and then adjust accordingly.
If your relapse occurred as a result of people or places that you’ve kept in your world but shouldn’t have, then it’s time to let them go.
It all connects back to the lesson in your relapse.
You’ve learned something about yourself. Now, you’ve got to take that knowledge and apply it so you won’t repeat this mistake.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
I touched on this earlier with the happy hour example. If bars or boozy hangouts are triggers for you when you’ve had a stressful day, then don’t go anymore when you feel stressed or worn out.
Maybe your friend talked you into having “just one.” What was that all about?
Talk to that friend. Explain why sobriety is important to you. Tell them you can’t be around people pressuring you to drink and then see where it goes.
Hopefully, your friend is apologetic and commits to respecting your sobriety. If not, well you know what to do.
6. Forgive yourself.
Your relapse does not define you.
It’s a big deal and you should certainly take it seriously but as a learning experience. A big, fat warning sign, if you will.
You aren’t a bad, weak, stupid, worthless, or hopeless person because of it. (Or whatever names you’ve called yourself in the aftermath.)
Here’s what happened.
You made a mistake. Forgive yourself for the mistake and commit to fixing it. Since you don’t have a time machine, you can’t undo the drinking or anything horrifying you may have said or done when you drank.
But you can recover from the relapse. You can take responsibility for it, learn from it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
If you hurt somebody else with your relapse, ask for forgiveness. Find a way to be of service to them and help them out. If they aren’t willing or ready for you to do that, accept what is and move forward.
It may be that you’ve damaged some delicate trust and it will take time to earn it back. I’ve found the best way to earn back the trust of those you have hurt with your drinking is by not drinking anymore and being relentless in your desire to be a better person.
Those things take time and you have to be willing to give it to people.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
7. Make a relapse recovery and prevention plan.
How are you going to bounce back after relapse? What’s the plan?
Having a relapse recovery plan is good for a variety of reasons.
- It gives you a clear vision of the path forward from here.
- Writing down your plan will help you commit to it. It becomes more “real” when you give it space to live outside of your head.
- Planning provides structure, which is incredibly important at this stage in your recovery.
A good relapse recovery plan should:
- Identify the trigger, problem, or emotions that led to the relapse.
- Provide solutions for handling the underlying causes of the relapse.
- Inspire you to get back into sobriety.
- Outline detailed next steps you need to take in order to learn and grow from this experience.
- Provide actionable steps you can take in the event a relapse threatens your recovery again.
Want some help? I’ve created 9 pages of worksheets you can use to build your own relapse recovery plan. Plus, I made an effort to have them look nice, so there’s that.
Commit To Moving On From Your Relapse
There is a part of your brain that is going to try to pull you back into the madness of drinking. It will do this by berating you in your own voice for being a punk and drinking again. If you get swept up in this internal monologue, you will NOT like where it leads.
Trust me on that.
The other option is to DO something about it. Get out of your head and into the world. Okay, you messed up. What can you DO about it?
Get back into your routine, find some new hobbies to get into, and fill your life with things that can keep you healthy, and sober.
Is that voice still going to pop up to say hello? You betcha!
But you’ll have too much going on to indulge it. I’m approaching five years of sobriety and I STILL have moments when I think about a dumb thing I said however many years ago. That person probably doesn’t even remember, but I do and it makes me CRINGE every time.
And then it passes like a sneeze.
I don’t give it space to grow or fester. Sometimes I say, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” out loud and hope my apology reaches the intended via, I dunno, the wind maybe?
It’s weird, but it helps.
It all comes down to mindset shifts. Are you going to let this thing define you and drag you back into that drinking pit?
OR, are you going to look forward and do better from here on out?
It’s your choice, my dear. And I’m here as well as the entire Sober(ish) community to help you out along the way.