What About Relapse?

“To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.”

—  Mark Twain

In the various media formats for Quitting Crystal Meth, this chapter has been the most frequently rewritten. Whenever I’d borrow portions of it for a blog post, guest article, or online course, I would carefully consider if any of the changes I’d made for the current piece should be incorporated back into the next edition.

Also, there’s this: When I wrote the original “Chapter 9,” I had yet to relapse myself. But today I can’t help but look through the eyes of someone who’s experienced relapse and recovery from it firsthand. Hopefully, this improves the advice.

The following is excerpted from:

Quitting Crystal Meth: What to Expect & What to Do (2018 Update)

Chapter 9

What About Relapse?

We don’t blame someone with high blood pressure or asthma for the biological malfunction happening in their bodies. And we certainly don’t shame them when they have acute flare-ups of their illness. Why is it different for the meth addict? And what is relapse but an acute flare-up of your addiction/illness?

It’s important to begin to understand addiction through the medical model so we can jettison the guilt and shame associated with relapses. This is not to excuse or encourage slips, but to be realistic. The fact is that many recovering meth addicts will slip during the journey of their recovery. I slipped and used several times before I finally quit. It’s part of many of our stories. The goal for you, here, is to keep that slippage to a minimum.

In this chapter, we look at what to expect when you slip and how to minimize the duration of the relapse and, hopefully, not slip again.

Get help. Get out of guilt. Don’t judge yourself or beat yourself up. The past is past.

— Nolan, 9 months clean


Lie #1:  Relapse is a Moral Failure

The statisticsvary, but none are remotely close to being good. I’ve read from reliable sources that as many as 70 to 80% of all addicts who go through treatment will relapse within the first year. I’ve read other studies finding that range to be 25 to 50%. One well-publicized estimate puts lifetime relapse rates at 92%. Treatment facilities have countered with their own statistics; addicts who successfully complete rehab average a mere 10 to 30% rate of relapse. (Personally, I can’t see it—but that’s their claim.)

And what does all this mean for you?  First, the good news is you don’t have to be average.

You can be the exception. This most recent relapse can be your last.

The key is to: 1) end your relapse as soon as possible, and 2) learn from it so it won’t happen again. We’ll look at this in greater detail shortly.

The truth? Most of us who are addictedtocrystal meth don’t stop using successfully the first time around. For most people, learning how to keep off meth is the same as learning a new skill—like riding a bicycle. Do you know many people who learned to ride a bicycle without falling over a few times? And some of us fell many times before we finally learned the skill.

Relapse does not mean moral failure. It is part of recovery for most addicts. I know I seriously tried to stop several times over a four month period before I finally quit. You could say, “Well, Joseph definitely showed poor judgment during those months because he kept picking up.” Maybe. But crystal meth profoundly affects the brain. My brain was hijacked during those four months by a terrorist that didn’t want to surrender. In those first few weeks, when the brain’s cravings are at their peak, we make impulsive decisions without thinking them through—because we literally can’t think them through. Our brains are impaired.

Also, users who smoked or injected their crystal, have extremely severe cravings during recovery.

So, yes. If you relapse it’s completely natural for you to feel discouraged, even angry. But don’t turn that anger on yourself—or others. Turn it toward your addiction. Remember, your addiction lies to you about your recovery. You have one of the few conditions in the world that tells you, you don’t have it.

Which brings us to the next lie your addiction wants you to believe…

Lie # 2:  My Previous Progress in Recovery Was Wasted

Sometimes, someone who slips will claim in exasperation, “I lost all my clean time. I’m back to day zero. I have to start everything over.” That’s just how your addiction wants you to look at it—as a huge mountain to climb that’s so big, you just might as well not even try again. But another way—and honest and truthful way—to look at it is: “I have been sober 20 of the past 21 days. Compared to any other three week period before I came into recovery, this is progress.”

Yes, you must restart your sobriety clock and establish a new sobriety date, but you don’t lose the lessons learned from your previous recovery time. I’d be willing to bet that your previous clean time experience (be it once or a dozen times) probably helped you come back to sobriety faster this time around. We just don’t lose all that clean time experience. It stays, working on us from the inside. That’s why it’s important to remember, even though you reset your sobriety date, your previous clean time counts. It’s there, accumulating wisdom.

Sometimes you’ll hear an old-timer say something like, “I have X years continuous sobriety.” If you ask them why they phrase it that way, they’ll respond that when it comes to the “total number” of sober years accumulated, they have much more—and they don’t wish to discount that other sobriety time. It’s there, just not continuous.

Look at the last several months, or year. If you have more clean time in the last three months than you have relapse time, focus on that. You are definitely heading in the right direction. Don’t beat yourself up.Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a solid program of sobriety usually isn’t either.

(Now, having said that, there’s this: there is an emotional, spiritual, and physical growth that only comes with long-term continuous sobriety. It’s something you’ll have to experience for yourself.)

Bottom line—none of this is to encourage or excuse relapse, but weneed to learn not to demonize relapse, either.If it never happens to you, great. No one is happier for you than I am. But, if you are involved in any groups of recovering meth addicts, from CMA to rehab to group counseling, you will see people relapse. You may not relapse yourself, but people you care about will. So be kind to yourself and your fellow tweakers who are with you on the journey to sobriety.

Now,if the 12 Steps are your thing,get back into the rooms of AA or CMA. Raise your hand when they ask if there are any newcomers. You have nothing to be ashamed of—in fact, you’re one of the strongest people in the room at that moment. I’ll say it again: recovering addicts are some of the strongest people I know and, when sober, become men and women of amazing character. Our suffering makes us that way.

Lie #3:  Since I’ve Slipped and Already Have to Restart My Sobriety Date, I Might as Well Party One More Time

It starts off simple enough. “I’ve used and so I’ve blown it. I’ve fucked up everything I’d built beforehand in my sobriety and have to start completely over (lie #2); and, since I’m such a general fuck-up of a person with no willpower or moral center (lie #1), I might as well just say ‘to hell with it’ and party on. I can come back to recovery in a few days, after the run.”

There are several problems with this strategy.

  • How do you know this run is going to be only a few more days? It could last weeks or months or years—until you either die of a heart attack or stroke, or crash your car while nodding off on, say, day 6.
  • You haven’t actually lost all that sobriety gained beforehand; it’s still there along with the wisdom gained and lessons learned.
  • In order to avoid your shame of using in the first place, you see the options as either: a) shaming yourself further by admitting your relapse/failure; or b) continuing to ignore the whole incident and party like it’s 1999. In reality, these are not your only options. You could, for example, jettison the self-judgment, realize you had an “acute flare-up” of your addiction, and seek immediate treatment like, say, someone with a heart condition would. The big question would then be: given this relapse, what are my treatment options?

The truth is you can stop any time and the sooner you stop the more likely you are to turn this relapse into a powerful lesson (a turn) along your road to recovery (as opposed, to a major car wreck).

Welcoming Embraces and Cold Shoulders

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “cold shoulders” you might receive from some other recovering addicts when they find out you relapsed. You’d think, when it comes to understanding and having compassion, no one would be more accepting than another addict, right? It should be that way and, often, is. There are many welcoming embraces when you come back from “field research,” as relapsing is sometimes called in the rooms of CMA.

But the truth is when people react negatively to your relapse, they are most likely scared for their own sobriety. You are, actually, a trigger. Wow, that’s comforting. (Sarcasm.)Maybe someone once saidto, “Hang around the winners only.” And they don’t have the broader perception to see that, by coming back to recovery from your slip or relapse, you are indeed an extraordinary winner. It’s their loss. Forgive them, then focus on your own recovery.

There are at least two important lessons you get from a cold shoulder. The first is: the opportunity to respond to someone else’s fear with compassion. Really, the person turning a cold shoulder needs your kindness and loving compassion now more than you need theirs. They are closing their eyes to the parts of life and recovery they’d rather not see.  This is not solid recovery behavior, but old addict behavior. You know, ignore life and pretend it’s not there.  The second lesson of a cold shoulder is: you’ll have more compassion and understanding for others who struggle with relapse in the future. Because you’ve felt the pain of a cold shoulder, next time it happens to someone you know, you’ll reach out a warm embrace and soften your heart to them.

You open your eyes. Open your heart. To yourself and to all others who are struggling with relapses.And when someone gives you a cold shoulder, remember this:You are not toxic. What’s truly toxic is their thought that makes them respond in fear. Not you, my friend.



Get Immediately Back into Recovery

The sooner you get back to your recovery the better the odds that you’ll make it through this slip to quit successfully. Often, we begin a slip by listening to our addiction’s favorite lie: “It’s only for one night. What can that hurt?”  I don’t know about you, but I’ve not met many tweakers who were successful in a one-night stand with crystal meth. (For me, at the end, it was five nights. Every time.)

Another great lie: “You’ve already slipped this once, so you might as well do another run. You’re going to have to set a new sobriety date anyhow. So what’s another few days?”

But is it ever just another few days? Get back to recovery as soon as you can. Don’t listen to your addiction. Remember, it wants you dead.

Don’t Dwell on Shame and Guilt

Infants fall down many times before learning to walk upright, but if they didn’t keep trying and falling, they’d crawl forever.

Don’t dwell on shame and guilt. Ultimately, excessive guilt is just an ego trip. It’s not the end of the world as long as you’re back into recovery.

And the most important thing to do is…

Try To Learn From This So It Won’t Happen Again

Hello? When did this relapse really begin? Here’s a hint: the relapse began long before you picked up the pipe, straw, or syringe.

It may have begun when you started flirting with old triggers—certain people, places, or things. Or maybe you started missing meetings. Then you began listening to the lies your addiction whispered. You romanticized using and the cravings quickly overwhelmed you. All of this occurred before you picked up the drug itself.

Carefully examine how this relapse came to be, so you don’t unknowingly repeat it.

5 Things to Consdier With “Chronic” Relapsing

You may hear a lot about “chronic” relapsing.  Many of us were chronic relapsers at the beginning of our using. We’d get a week, or even a month, then use again. There are social as well as brain chemistry reasons for this, but what I want to focus on now is stigma.

Let’s reframe the whole issue.  Here are 5 things to consider when it comes to so-called “chronic” relapsing.

  1. Jettisoning the “chronic.” Since I think it’s important to lift the stigma from chronic relapsers, we might as well start by jettisoning the “chronic” – we’re all chronic until we die. Why not think of yourself as a “returnee” to recovery? Considering yourself just another addict who’s returning to recovery is truthful description and not so negative in connotation. And, if you can do it, I’d lose the labeling altogether. You are a having an “acute flare up” of a medical condition located in your brain.
  2. At one point, this most recent relapse is going to be your last. Yep, that’s just a fact. It might be because you go to jail or die, but, hopefully, it’s because you were able to successfully quit this time. Remember more than a million people worldwide have quit meth successfully, you can too. When working with clients struggling with relapse, I always try to keep the attitude that THIS relapse is the last.I know it’s going to be true one day, so why not today?
  3. You didn’t lose your clean time just because you used again. Sure, you may have to reset your sobriety clock. But it’s always one day at a time, right? You just don’t lose all that knowledge, experience, and wisdom gained from your clean time—no matter how short that clean time was. For many of us, after we’ve spent some time in recovery, relapse just ain’t what it used to be: we’re constantly thinking about recovery while high. This is progress. A dear friend of mine (who’s been clean from meth for 18 years) calls any period of relapsing “interrupted sobriety.” This is not only to respect the time you’ve already accumulated, but to encourage a sense of hopefulness that you will return again to sobriety.
  4. In the medical model, as mentioned in #1, you are having an “acute flare up” of your medical condition.You are NOT a morally weak “retread” who can’t seem to find the “willpower” or “surrender” to quit. Don’t buy into what some narrowly-minded people, especially other addicts, think about your struggle. You have a conditionthat manifests itself in the brain as a mental obsession to use meth. And don’t forget, our struggles make us stronger. Which brings us to…
  5. Guilt and self-loathing over relapse is your enemy. “I’m a chronic relapser, so why not go ahead and use now? I will again sooner or later, anyway.” That’s your addiction talking. Cut yourself some slack and remember the first 4 points above. Then get into action on taking some actual steps—like talking to someone, going to a meeting, anything proactive—to interruptthe slide back toward relapse BEFORE it happens.

For those of us who are not struggling with relapse, let’s try to have more compassion and understanding for those who do. Everyone’s path to recovery is individualized.

And let’s not forget #2 of the “5 Things to Consider” above. Encourage #2.

Instead of being negative about the slip, encourage #2.


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Quitting Crystal Meth: What to Expect & What to Do (Updated 2018)


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Living the Full & Free Life After Crystal Meth & Addiction