One of the most common questions I get asked by my clients in recovery is "What do I do after a relapse?" This is a really good question, and I will answer it, but first I want to define relapse.
Relapse depends entirely on what you're recovering from. If you're in eating disorder recovery, it could be a binging and purging episode, overexercising, restricting, downloading a calorie counting or weight loss app, binging, etc.
If you are recovering from substance use, then using that substance (or a similar substance) would also be considered a relapse. Only you can really know what your biggest triggers are, and what constitutes an unhealthy behavior for you.
It can get tricky, though. Let's say you're recovering from alcohol abuse. Using sex or a codependent relationship to cope could still be considered a relapse if it sends you backwards on your recovery path. Ultimately, if you're being really honest with yourself, you know what is moving you forward or backward in recovery.
I had bulimia, so binging and purging, weighing myself, starting a diet, drinking alcohol (which led to binges) or counting calories are all things that I consider a relapse. It's also important to keep evaluating your list, because things can change over time. I didn't used to have alcohol on my list, but I do now. It became too slippery for me, and it wasn't worth the risk.
So if you find yourself in relapse territory, and you don't want to get sucked back in, what do you do?
1. First things first: tell someone. If you're working with a coach, therapist, support group or mentor, tell them immediately. If you're not currently getting help, I recommend finding someone as soon as you can.
In the meantime, tell someone you trust. This could be a non-judgmental friend, sponsor, supportive significant other or spouse, or an emotionally healthy family member. Tell someone that will listen compassionately without having a huge reaction.
This is important. If you're dealing with a relapse, you don't want to have to deal with someone else's freak out on top of everything else. A professional or an emotionally stable, compassionate friend/loved one will be your best allies here.
It is VERY difficult to recover on your own, and having at least one person in your corner provides a lot of strength when recovery gets tough. As I advanced in my recovery, I promised several people I would reach out if I relapsed. Just knowing I had to tell someone was usually enough to keep me on the recovery path.
Instead of calling to tell them I relapsed, I would call and say "hey, I'm feeling the urge, so I'm talking to you instead." That accountability and support was priceless, so the sooner you start getting vulnerable with people, the stronger your support network will become over time.
2. The second thing to do after a relapse is to be gentle with yourself! Beating yourself up does not make you less likely to relapse. The opposite is true. Being too hard on yourself will make you MORE likely to have another relapse, so please be kind.
Recovering is a tremendous challenge, and requires a great deal of strength and courage. Falling down is part of the process, but so is getting back up.
Watch your inner dialogue, and if you find yourself being harsh, stop for a second. Take a deep breath, and say "You know what, that wasn't what I'm committed to, but I am still on the recovery path, and it's OK to make mistakes because I'll learn from them. I am getting wiser every day."
Then you can pick yourself up with the support of the people around you, and be one step closer to getting better.
3. Then naturally what follows is to get curious about what happened. What were you feeling right before the relapse happened? What was the trigger? What did you need that you weren't getting? How can you give yourself that in the future? How can you be more compassionate toward yourself, or more generous with yourself?
Ask yourself these questions, and learn as much as you can from the experience. I guarantee you there is valuable information in there that will help you understand yourself and your needs more deeply. This will give you an expanded ability to take care of yourself and honor yourself as you move forward.
4. Once you have an understanding of what led to the relapse the final step is to come up with a self-care plan. Start small, because sometimes the tendency once we've relapsed is to go into overdrive fix-it mode. This can be an almost manic surge of energy where we get inspired to take a bunch of actions, but sometimes that can set us up to fail.
Pick something small you can do every day, and 2 other supportive actions that will help you meet the needs that weren't being met before.
To give you an example, a daily self-care task would be something like meditating for 15 minutes or taking 20 minutes after work everyday to do something you enjoy. Two supportive actions could be making a date to hang out with one of your favorite people and going to a community yoga class.
There are a million possibilities, but those were some of my go-to's in recovery. I also highly recommend getting out your calendar and scheduling a few things every week that help you feel your best and connect with the people/things that matter most to you. Yes, it may be hard to make the time, but maintaining your recovery takes much less time than staying stuck in unhealthy patterns. The time investment is worth it.
It's also important to continue trying new coping tools. If you keep relapsing and going back to the same strategies, that's a good sign those tools aren't working for you. If you usually journal, try meditation. If you usually meditate, try calling a friend. If you usually call a friend, try painting or expressing yourself creatively, etc.
What I really want to leave you with is this--relapse is a part of recovery. I've worked with hundreds of people in recovery, and I can't name a single one that never had a relapse of some kind. I lost count, but I estimate that I relapsed over a hundred times in my recovery.
Relapse is not a sign that you're failing, or that recovery isn't possible. It's just a sign that you need new coping strategies, that there's something you haven't learned about yourself yet, you have some needs that aren't being met, or feelings you haven't learned to process. That can be GOOD news, because once you know, then you can do something about it.
Truthfully some of my biggest relapses came right before my biggest breakthroughs. Relapse can sometimes be a sign that you're processing some really big, important things, and that you're actually getting closer to where you want to be.
If you relapse, all is not lost. Talk to someone, be gentle with yourself, get curious, make a plan going forward, and most importantly stay on the path. You're doing better than you probably realize. I wish you all the best as you continue your recovery journey!
If you're recovering from bulimia or binge eating disorder, check out my free book Recovery Survival Guide for help managing daily recovery challenges, getting support from both professionals and peers, and more. I've gotten feedback that many of the principles are helpful in other forms of recovery as well, so feel free to check it out even if you don't have an eating disorder!