It has long been understood that relapse is often a part of the disease of alcoholism.
The chronic nature of addiction means that relapsing to drug use is not only possible, but also likely. Relapse rates are similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components.
Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors. For the addicted patient, lapses back to drug use indicate that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.
But what are consequences of relapse?
Alcoholics Anonymous members often talk about the phenomenon of the person who relapses and then returns to AA only to report that his disease has progressed in the time that he/she spent sober in recovery. Most recovering people who have relapsed will adamantly agree with this statement. There has to date been no conclusive research to agree or disagree with this statement although research reported by NIAAA, while not specifically answering the question, points to interesting research that demonstrates that the person who relapses will drink more, faster, at each relapse. If we read their results correctly, they say that alcoholics, in an attempt to lessen withdrawal from alcohol, will drink more than they did in the previous relapse. They are quick to point out that this is not definitive and much more research is needed, but it is provocative work that may in the future contribute to the relapse literature and is excerpted here:
“More direct evidence supporting increased alcohol consumption as a consequence of repeated withdrawal experience comes from animal studies linking dependence models with self-administration procedures. For example, rats exposed to chronic alcohol treatment interspersed with repeated withdrawal episodes consumed significantly more alcohol than control animals under free-choice, unlimited access conditions. Similar results have been reported in mice, with voluntary alcohol consumption assessed using a limited access schedule. Likewise, studies using operant procedures have demonstrated increased alcohol self-administration in mice with a history of repeated chronic alcohol exposure and withdrawal experience. “ (NIAA)
If we do not currently know the exact mechanism of physical relapse consequences, we do know the human consequences.
Long-suffering families who had hoped the storm was over certainly are distressed with the relapse of a loved one. Trust is broken, and the family system is once more at risk. There may be a loss of income, status, and trust on every level.
The relapse consequences for the user is even more acute, being comprised of hopelessness, shame and a profound sense of failure. It is helpful to understand that relapse is a part of this disease much like diabetes and that treatment, not shame, is in order.
We can start you on the road to recovery.
NIAAA Publications. (n.d.). Retrieved January, 2017.
THE BASICS – National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (n.d.). Retrieved January, 2017.
The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics … (n.d.). Retrieved January, 2017.