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Relapse and Filling the Void

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Addiction treatment is a complicated and sometimes endless cycle. You commit to change by entering into recovery, detoxifying and withdrawing, and completing all the steps in your treatment program; then, one day, something goes awry. It may be a specific stressful event, a past underlying trigger, or the build-up of day-to-day demands that lead to the urge and compulsion to use again. You may think that turning back to drugs or alcohol just one time will not hurt anyone; then, you are in a painful cycle of relapse before you know it. You may find yourself wondering, “Why do I keep relapsing”? Many people in recovery say that relapse is part of the treatment plan; however, this is untrue, meaning that a treatment plan is set up so you do not relapse. However, relapse is quite common, and just because an individual relapses does not mean they have failed. Instead, it means their treatment plan needs to be reassessed. The individual needs a more robust support system; maybe they need more hours of therapy each week, better coping skills, a change in their daily environment, or perhaps they are using relapse to fill a void. So why do we relapse, and what can we do when it happens?

Filling the void

When you stop misusing drugs and alcohol, you may soon realize you have a big, empty void in your life; feelings of boredom, loneliness, emptiness, and unwanted thoughts may resurface. This void most likely existed long before you started misusing drugs and alcohol often; we turned to substances as an unhealthy coping mechanism to fill a void. This void we try to fill may be due to a past traumatic experience, unhappiness, low self-esteem, a failed relationship/marriage, job loss, or losing a loved one. Drugs and alcohol may temporarily fill this void in unhealthy ways, and when we stop misusing drugs and alcohol, this void may become even more apparent than before.

Entering into recovery allows you to face this void and see it for what it is. The combination of therapy, support groups, self-work, and community can help you to re-learn how to regulate your emotions in hopes of working through underlying triggers that lead to this void in your life. Entering into recovery and becoming sober means replacing your primary coping mechanisms (drugs and alcohol) with new, unfamiliar coping mechanisms that you learn in therapy. You may feel triggered, stressed, and overwhelmed as you learn how to regulate your emotions and establish healthy connections. You may still feel your empty void and develop feelings and urges to use drugs and alcohol to cope with these unwanted and uncomfortable feelings. This empty void may lead you to relapse.

Why Do I Keep Relapsing?

It can be extremely hard to ask for help, especially during a relapse and even more so during our 3rd or 4th relapse. You may feel embarrassed and ashamed as if you failed, and as a result, you may even try to hide your relapse from others. It is essential to remember that addiction is a brain disease, and although you are in control of your actions, staying sober is often one of the most challenging tasks at hand, regardless of where you are in your recovery. Your addiction does not define you. It is just one aspect of your life. Therefore, it is essential to be kind to yourself, seek immediate help from a professional treatment center, and surround yourself with a healthy support system if you relapse, regardless of how many times it happens.

Relapse occurs in addiction recovery for many different reasons: 

  • Addiction rewires your brain. Addiction activates your brain’s reward system. This reward system is designed to incentivize us to do what we need to do to live and thrive. Eating good food, spending time with loved ones, being intimate, and exercising are all behaviors that are linked to the brain’s reward system, and when we engage in these behaviors, a rush of “feel good” dopamine surges through our body, making us happy and wanting more of these behaviors. This dopamine is a quick-fire way to feel our void. Substances such as drugs and alcohol activate this same reward system, releasing dopamine throughout our body, thus having us respond to more of this feeling. Over time, our addiction to drugs or alcohol changes our brain’s reward system. Even in recovery, we will have urges and cravings to experience the pleasurable effects of drug use. Likewise, we will have urges and cravings to feel the empty void. As a result, it takes a very deliberate and sustained effort to overcome the signals our brain is giving us. Sometimes sitting with feelings of emptiness and allowing our void to stay open may lead to urges and cravings, resulting in relapse.
  • Research has found that genetics play a pivotal role in addiction, and as a result, some of us, simply based on our genetic makeup, are more vulnerable to addiction than others. This means that those of us who have a history of addiction in our family may have to work harder to stay in recovery than others who do not have a family history of addiction.
  • Our life experiences shape our vulnerability to addiction, especially for those of us who have experienced trauma. Our addiction to drugs or alcohol may be an unhealthy way to cope with our past trauma and fill our void, and when these traumatic triggers re-appear or when our void feels wide open, we may relapse. As a result, we need to learn new healthy coping mechanisms to cope with our past trauma and to fill our voids in a healthy way. This is why seeking treatment after relapse is important because relapse does not mean you have failed; rather, you may need to modify your treatment plan to fit your needs better. Relapses are frustrating, but they are also a reality of addiction treatment. We would not become frustrated with a loved one for being sick because we know it’s not their fault. Addiction is also an illness, and recovery takes time as it is not a linear process. We may take one step forward and two steps back or feel like we are going in circles, as this is part of the process. It is

important to reflect on our relapses to learn more about ourselves, our addiction, and our underlying triggers. Then we start again with one foot in front of the other.

What to Do if You Relapse

After a relapse, the most important thing to do is seek professional help from an addiction treatment center. You may be tempted to isolate yourself or give up on the recovery process, but it is essential to re-engage with a treatment specialist. Go to recovery support meetings,

enter a detox program, seek outpatient therapy, or enroll in a residential treatment program. It is important to discuss what happened and uncover the underlying triggers that may have led to your relapse.

An addiction treatment program can offer you support and structure as you navigate the repercussions of your relapse, whether in your current withdrawal phase or struggling with your recovery journey.

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