Does Relapse Mean Failure?

Ron Grover, as a young water skier, with his wife Darlene.

He relapsed, does that mean he failed?

It seems like over and over it’s the same old crap, every time.

Won’t he ever just GET IT?

Those words were expressed very loudly by a father of a son with a drug addiction: Me.

No, no, no, this isn’t a current rant. Everything is still good with my son today. These are the words that still echo in the walls of our home.

We all evolve and learn in the process of parenting someone with an addiction. When I first entered this world, my way of thinking was cut and dried, black and white. You either recovered or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you failed.

Well, learning is hard, especially if you happen to be an adult. And when learning involves first unlearning what you believe to be true, it is particularly difficult.

I struggled a lot. It literally took me years to understand what so many people told me over and over: Relapse is a part of recovery. It was hard to accept this idea when I couldn’t relate it to what I’d experienced and believed in my life.

I can remember sending Alex off to his first inpatient rehab. So easy that was. Why didn’t we think of this sooner? Send him away, write a really big check and he comes home cured.

Boy, was I dumb!

It didn’t take long for the anger to surface. Two weeks, in fact. What the hell, two weeks and it’s the same old thing — except my bank account is minus $6,000.

Fast forward through a lot of anger, time and way too many more dollars than I want to think about. Relapse is a part of recovery. I don’t know the statistics on how many people who are addicted happen to “get it” the first time, but they aren’t really relevant to our story.

What I have learned is that recovery is a process that involves many things and numerous variables of which relapse is just one component. That’s not to mean I accept relapse because it is part of the package — it just means I have a better grasp of the process and I am able to live in reality.

So, does relapse mean failure?

Failure is the act of not trying. This is how I broke it down in simple terms and concepts for myself. When I was younger, I used to water-ski a lot. The first time I ran a slalom course I fell, and if I remember correctly, it was on the first attempt to ski around the ball. When I tried to do some tricks, I fell on my first attempt at a 360.

Failure wasn’t me falling. Failure would have been if I climbed into the boat and never skied again. Failure isn’t the result of not succeeding. Failure is the result of not trying or giving up.

It’s the same with my son’s relapse. I’ll stand by his side. No matter how many times it takes.

5 Things You Need to Know About Relapse

People in recovery and their families are often uninformed about relapse. Here are five points to keep in mind during this difficult and scary time.

5 Things you need to know to avoid relapse

This post was originally published in 2013 and has been refreshed and republished.

12 Responses

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    Dennis Knowles

    August 17, 2017 at 4:20 AM

    Finally, an article I can relate to, at least partially. My son must have “relapsed” at least 7 or 8 times. To be honest, I’ve lost count. My wife and I realized that we were part of the problem and had become enablers in a off hand sort of way. Each time our son got himself cleaned up and straight, we let him move back home. Always temporarily and always with the understanding that a) no drugs in the house and b)if you do drugs you’ll have to leave immediately. You see, we realized early on that his being home while going through rehab was never going to work. He needed to hit rock bottom if he was ever going to recover. My son is stubborn. He hit rock bottom many times before he finally really did recover. In the end, what really worked was his leaving all of his friends and moving to another state. Completely on his own. For him it really was sink or swim. Luckily, he got into an AA group that really works for its members. He’s been clean and sober now for well over a year and it looks as though he may just make it this time. We pray that it is so. In the end I think that the realization that he had to make his own way in this world without us to prop him up is what helped him most. He finally realized that the drugs were preventing him from having a life. A life he now protects jealously. He has a sense of belonging and self worth. And one final thought. All recoveries are different. What works for one may not have any effect on another. There’s a reason for that. All addicts are unique human beings. For each, the solutions to their addiction (aside from the physical) are also unique. There are no “pat” answers.

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    Beth Ducharme

    August 16, 2017 at 12:08 PM

    Relapse is just a bump in road of recovery! To me 11 years sober, as long as you realize your mistakes and jump right back into your recovery a relapse is normal! I know that during my recovery having a relapse made me feel so horrible and a total failure in my recovery program! Yet after my pity-party was over and I realized my mistake I jumped right back into my recovery program! Every time I relapsed I would go to the soonest meeting I could get to! However, I wouldn’t just go and sit quietly! I would speak! I would tell the group the truth about my relapse and everything that led to said relapse even though I am really shy about speaking publicly! It helped me to not only be honest with myself but, others as well! We are not perfect! So sometimes we hit that bump in the road! So with relapse, it’s that bump in the road of recovery! The most important thing after having a relapse is that we are honest with ourselves and others, and we don’t give up!!!!Thank You for letting me share!!

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    Gurudatt Kundapurkar

    August 15, 2017 at 11:02 PM

    Ron Grover, thanks a million for sharing your views about relapses. You are so very down to earth not only in your observations but also in expressing your views. They are straightaway lodged into the reader’s heart. Your perspective and the insightful message will help me in my volunteering for the cause of the mentally ill persons. Relapse indeed can be highly challenging and demotivating factor for the caregiving family members as also inexperienced service providers. I realize how sharing can indeed be empowering. Gratitude to Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

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    August 15, 2017 at 5:25 PM

    We are never forced into relapse. We are given a choice. Relapse is never an accident. Relapse is a sign that we have had a reservation in our program. We slighted our program and left loopholes in our daily lives. Unaware of the pitfalls ahead, we stumbled blindly on in the belief we could make it on our own. Sooner or later we fell back into the illusions that drugs would make life easier. We believed that drugs would change us, and we forgot that these changes are lethal. When we believe that drugs will solve our problems and forget what they can do to us, we are in real trouble….

    from the NA literature

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    Jess Antanaitis

    August 15, 2017 at 3:03 PM

    A comment on the article (which is very helpful, thanks) – I think there’s a middle ground between viewing relapse as “part of recovery” and viewing relapse as “failure.” Relapse may be part of an individual’s process on the road to recovery; to me it is NOT “part of recovery,” it is part of the disease of addiction and it occurs when the disease process is not in remission. Just as with any other chronic illness, “recovery” may not be a one-shot deal, it may require multiple attempts and strategies to accomplish, and requiring more than one attempt is by no means “failure” any more than it would be for any other illness requiring multiple treatment episodes. I don’t view relapse as part of recovery, I view it as part fo the disease of addiction.

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