Is Relapse Part of Recovery?

is relapse part of recovery

When people who don’t suffer from addiction see those who do relapse time and time again, they wonder, “what’s wrong with that person?” Moreover, if you’re in recovery and have relapsed, you might even wonder, “what’s wrong with ME?” To people who don’t understand the disease of addiction, recovery probably seems pretty simple. You just simply stop drinking or getting high – right? However, the more you know about addiction, the more you understand that it’s not that easy. Although it doesn’t have to be, relapse is sometimes part of the recovery process. 

In fact, it’s actually more likely that a person with a severe addiction will relapse at least once than it is for him or her to stay sober forever – especially on their first try. Now, if you’re new to sobriety and haven’t relapsed before, it’s scary to hear people tell you that relapse is part of recovery. The most important thing to remember is that everyone has their own journey and yours doesn’t have to involve relapse. If by chance you do relapse, that’s okay, too. When it comes to getting sober, everyone is learning, growing, and evolving. You can’t be that hard on yourself. 


What is a Relapse?

Relapse is defined as “a deterioration in someone’s state of health after a temporary improvement.” In addiction recovery terminology, this refers to a return to drug or alcohol use after a period of sobriety. After a relapse, many people feel shame, guilt, hopelessness, depression, and more. People may feel as though they will never stay sober. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Determining what constitutes a relapse is personal. Some people consider picking up one drink or one drug as a “lapse” or a “slip.” Many people find that these terms are a lot less harsh and carry much less stigma than the word “relapse.” Depending on your personal beliefs, a relapse can be a one-time-event or a long, drawn-out period of substance abuse. Regardless, the most important thing is to give yourself a break. Beating yourself up and wallowing in shame will likely only exacerbate drug or alcohol use. Instead, try practicing a little self-forgiveness. 


Do Most People Relapse?

Unfortunately, a staggering number of people who receive treatment for drug or alcohol addiction do relapse. Relapse is so common that between 40-60% of people relapse within 1 year.[1] After one year, approximately 50% stay sober and as little as 15% of people relapse after five years.[2] Clearly, the vast majority of relapses happen in the first months and years of recovery. Consequently, it is vital to participate in an outpatient program and a recovery support group.

By utilizing all of the recovery tools at your disposal, you are able to treat your addiction effectively and stay sober. Although you may get sick of being told to go to meetings or sit through therapy sessions, these things are only helping you avoid relapse. The more you participate and learn from these things, the more likely you are to continue staying sober after rehab

Although these numbers are intimidating, remember, with the right treatment and daily action on your part, you can stay sober. Relapse doesn’t have to be a part of your recovery. 


So, Is Relapse a Normal Part of Recovery?

When someone is newly sober, it’s potentially damaging to tell them that relapse is part of recovery. This statement sets the bar low and shows that person that people are expecting him or her to relapse. Suggesting that relapse is part of recovery is dangerous to newcomers, but it’s comforting to people who have relapsed. After all, it lets them know that they are normal and are not alone. Instead, changing the way we think about relapse can help.

Instead of thinking of relapse as something bad, think of it as a learning experience. For example, consider the following:

  • Did you stop going to meetings?
  • Did you stop talking to your support group?
  • Have you been attending your therapy/aftercare appointments?
  • Are you taking care of your mental health?
  • Are you taking your medication correctly?
  • Did your schedule change?
  • Did you start hanging out with negative influences?
  • What triggered you?
  • Are you experiencing added stress or anxiety?
  • What changed in your recovery?

All of these things can make you susceptible to relapse. However, when you examine your relapse and pin-point the things that led you to pick up a drink or a drug, you can learn from your mistakes. As a result, you know what to do right this time, and are more prepared to stay sober and deal with triggers as they come up. In the end, as long as you get back up from a relapse, you have at least gained some self-awareness that will help you in your future journey. 

So, is relapse a part of recovery? Yes and no. It all depends on how you want to look at it. Sometimes, relapse is a learning experience, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a part of recovery. With the right help and motivation, you will achieve long-term sobriety. 


Learn How to Stay Sober with PAX Memphis

Whether it’s your first time getting sober or your fifth, our addiction specialists in Memphis are here to help. Our clinical programs revolve around evidence-based treatment that combines clinical experience, addiction medications, and science-based therapies that will provide you with the tools you need to stay sober. 

Are you ready to move forward in the recovery process? Don’t wait any longer – contact us today. 




Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.