Relapse Isn’t Failure


Recovery is hardly a straight line. The hope that a single trip to rehab would end all the misery that accompanied my addiction was an expectation my family, like many families, held. But that was not my story. My journey to a sustained recovery from addiction was a long, meandering path, sprinkled with successes, slips, and slides. I experienced many disappointments. I experienced multiple backslides into old behavior with alcohol and other substances before maintaining sustained abstinence and finding freedom in recovery. These returns to using are often referred to as a “relapse”- a dated term sometimes viewed as stigmatizing due to the term’s historical roots in morality and religion, not healthcare. 

Each time I returned to using, I became entrapped by a weighted cloak of shame. The nagging feelings and inner dialogue, telling me I was a complete failure…again. The thought of facing everyone was humiliating. Imagining my family’s faces filled me with fear. What would they say? What would they do? And now my abstinence scorecard was erased, and I was back to day 1. Many times this would evoke my “screw it” self-defeating attitude.  Instead of seeking help, admitting what happened, and beginning again, I’d choose the “easy” way out-returning to the old behavior and habits that I once literally begged God to help me escape. I’d try to convince myself that I would be ok- that this was my decision, my choice. But it was not. It was only the manifestation of my addiction.

In hindsight, I now see that each event was an opportunity for growth and learning. Relapse doesn’t have to mean failure.  The decision is yours.  Will you decide to hide behind the pain of shame and beat yourself up as I did in the past, adding years of suffering to the story? Or, will you see the episode as an opportunity to examine what led you to that moment and grow from it? Use the incidence to create a better plan of action, build a more robust support system, and get down to the causes and conditions that led to the act of using. You will often find your slip started well before the action.

When my son was learning to walk, he fell many times. I’d help him back to his feet and encourage him to continue moving forward.

I never shamed him or accused him of not wanting to walk badly enough.  Similarly, a slip by someone trying to achieve recovery doesn’t need to be guilted, shamed, or told they have undone their progress. What they do need is to continue to move forward from where they stopped. Just as I had been mentally prepared for my son to fall while walking, I suggest parents and loved ones of individuals new to recovery remember all behavior change is difficult and often never linear. 

The saying, “old habits die hard,” holds true. Each behavior or action is associated with a neural pathway in our brain. Years of repeated addictive behavior creates trenches out of these pathways. These well-traveled pathways, habits, or “default response” are the thing the brain found easy to do. When we begin using new skills and thoughts, we are forming new pathways. With time these new pathways will become strengthened, and the old ones being used less will weaken.  To better understand this, I like to visualize hiking trails.  The well-traveled ones are easy to follow, and years of activity have worn the ground free and clear of vegetation. Whereas beginning a new hiking trail, you have to push through lots of brush, you get entangled in vines and stumble over rocks. The footing is not as clear.  By returning to this trail repeatedly, it too will come to resemble a clear path.  In hiking, as with navigating recovery, one should expect stumbles and trips while trudging your way. The challenge is to turn to your tools in those moments to become a learning opportunity and not a failure.

“Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.” ~Unknown

We are all aware that fear can be paralyzing. It can stop us in our tracks and hinder us from moving forward and from pursuing our dreams. Fear of failure, fear of not being “enough,” and fear of disappointing others are among the top.  

During my active addiction, fear was my ruler- an evil and corroding thread searing through the fabric of my life. I would try anything to avoid the fear I felt. What happened last night? Do they know I am lying? I am failing again. How can I fix this? Why does this keep happening to me? These were some of the self-magnifying fears that ran through my head daily, thoughts that were filling me with anxiety. I tried easing the pressure with alcohol and drugs. The more I hurt, the deeper I went into the bottle until it became the most essential thing in my life. Before long, drugs and alcohol failed to alleviate the pain; that was when I reached my point of surrender. My solution was no longer working. In recovery, I had to be retaught how to experience emotions healthily. For me, one of the most challenging in early recovery was learning to deal with fear or, as they say, learning how to walk through fear.  

The following are tools I’ve found helpful when faced with fear and empower you to walk through it. 


Fear is not going to kill you, although I know it can feel that way. Allow yourself to move toward fear. Do some things that scare you. The experience will help strengthen your courage. Remind yourself that “this too shall pass.”


Learning to share with someone what was going on in my head in and of itself was fear facing. I lived a life of isolation while surrounded by people. I never let anyone in. But I’ve found that fear, or any negative emotion, shared is a fear lessened. You can communicate with a therapist, a friend, or at a recovery meeting. Fears thrive in isolation!


This, too, goes back to connection. Prayer and meditation are ways to connect with a power greater than ourselves, whatever that may look like for you. For many, it is during these focused moments answers are received. Prayer and meditation are states of focused attention. This concentrated attention helps by quieting our overactive minds. Meditation helps us to live in the present and allows us to process irrational fears and everyday life.  


The truth is, you cannot fail. Even if things do not work out the way we hope, we can always choose to view it as an opportunity to readjust and try again with a little more wisdom and experience. Today I can choose to learn from my experiences and the experience of others as well.


Above all, helping someone else helps me get out of me! Too often, I can get wrapped up in my own world and thoughts. Making an effort to be useful to someone else allows time for my focus to shift away from my fears and provides an opportunity for me to be of service to another.  

Walking through fear is tough, but today we do not have to do it alone. Each time we face a fear, the experience is gained, and our confidence grows. I think Franklin Roosevelt said it best, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” So my friends, don’t let fear be the thing that stops you from moving forward, creating and living the life you desire and deserve. 

“Words are important. If you want to care for something, you call it a ‘flower’; if you want to kill something, you call it a ‘weed.'” – Don Coyhis.

I want to begin by stating nobody owes anyone an explanation for their personal choices. I choose to do so because I was tired of continually hiding pieces of myself. This is a personal decision every individual must decide for themselves.

“What do you mean you don’t drink…ever?” Ugh! That question used to make my stomach tighten up in knots. I knew it would inevitably be followed by, “Why not?” Alcohol is the only substance we have to explain why we don’t use. I would become uncomfortable and shifty. I felt unprepared, uncertain of how to answer this question. But, saying, “because I am an alcoholic and drug addict” did not sit well with me. I am not these things; my addiction is a chronic brain disease I live with.

I was all too aware of the judgments and stigma from John Q. Public to follow after revealing that self-declaration. Sometimes I would try to laugh it off, tell people, “Oh, I am allergic…it makes me break out in handcuffs! Haha!” People in recovery know that comment was only meant as a bit of self-disparaging humor. But, I failed to realize the message I was sending when using that particular joke. John Q. Public hears, “I am someone who may be dangerous, probably has been arrested a few times, and I’m not trustworthy. Better watch your wallet!” This, of course, was not the image I was going for. It most certainly didn’t validate that addiction is not a moral failing. Thankfully, I was educated by others in recovery of another way to share my story. I was taught The Language of Recovery, a way to share my truth without shame or stigmatizing labels.

I noticed others being very open about their addiction recovery, not identifying themselves as members of a particular fellowship. That would break traditions. They spoke openly and appeared extraordinarily comfortable and confident while doing so. This got me curious. I had read their blogs and seen comments they posted on social media. I particularly noticed the words they used when sharing their experiences and the absence of familiar terms. Because of their example, I reached out to learn more. They told me they were a part of the new recovery movement, a social movement led by people in addiction recovery and their allies. The movement’s aim is to change public and professional attitudes toward addiction recovery. Breaking the stigma associated with addiction requires changing public perceptions, which means changing the language we use when we talk about it. Addiction is a medical condition, and the language used to describe it and those living with it should reflect that.

When I became a recovery advocate, I believed that I would be fighting against others’ stigma and misperceptions. I slowly realized how embedded the old languaging and thoughts were within myself. I began to see that I held some of these stigmatizing beliefs and spoke words and phrases that disempowered me and others. So for me, the first audience I needed to make an appeal for change was with me.

I decided to stop using phrases that diminish and demonize addiction and replace them with terms that speak to addiction’s true nature: this is a disease, not a moral failing. Using terms such as “clean” to describe abstinence insinuates that someone not yet in recovery is the opposite– “dirty.” This does not describe someone who is suffering from a disease who is worthy of recovery. Using the term “abuse” (drug/substance abuse, alcohol abuse) only reinforces the negatively held image. Think about it, what images, ideas, and phrases come to mind when you hear the word abuse? Making these changes took a lot of practice. At first, it felt awkward. I’d spoken those terms for so long, and others around me were still using them. But with practice, it has become a natural part of my speech when I speak about myself or recovery. Today, some even refer to me as “the language woman.” It’s a title I’m glad to have.

Finding my voice has been one of the greatest gifts I have received from joining the recovery movement. Now, when I am confronted with the question, “Why don’t you drink?” I am empowered to say, “I am a person in long-term recovery, and for me, that means that I have not found it necessary to use alcohol or other drugs since August 3, 2013. Recovery has brought stability to my life and to my family. It has allowed me to earn a master’s degree in social work and become a clinical therapist. Recovery gave me a voice and allowed me to work as an advocate. All of these gifts have allowed me to help others and to strengthen my community.”

I have found great strength in being able to share this truth with people. It has been instrumental in helping me let go of the self-imposed shame I had been carrying around about my disease since I was a teenager. Shame that I feel kept calling me back out to drink and use in an attempt to prove that I was not “one of those people.” Now, I speak out as “one of those” people with pride, as a person in recovery. I speak out because recovery has enabled me to change my life for the better. I must pay it forward and make it possible for others to do the same.


  • Precision guided Behavioral Health-Diagnostic Assessments. Individualized Treatment Planning
  • Psychiatric and Psychological Evaluation (where clinically indicated).
  • Family Counseling
  • Trauma Touch Therapy®
  • Intervention Program: Triage and screening of the client’s needs, a comprehensive clinical assessment, report writing, family consultation\counseling and case management\care coordination for placement in a compatible treatment program.
  • Coordination of Medication Assisted Treatment & Medication Maintenance Treatment (where clinically indicated).
  • Coordination of Primary Care, Health\Medical and Medication interventions, education and monitoring.
  • Group & Individual Therapy\education.
  • Relapse Prevention-Basic and Advanced utilizing the Gorski-CENAPS model. Design and integration of support systems that enhance wellness and recovery efforts.
  • Coping and Life Skills development.
  • Spiritual Exploration and Formation Counseling.