re·lapse: someone suffering from a disease suffers deterioration after a period of improvement. synonyms: gets ill/worse again, deteriorates, degenerates, takes a turn for the worse.

Lots of people are mixed about how to define relapse - what does it mean for recovery? I contend relapse is related to any behavior and something normal with any change. Think about relapse in terms of cancer - someone could re-experience symptoms and the remission status ends. Are we judgmental of this? Generally not. It’s difficult for a person with mental health or addiction to return to use and it’s viewed based only in choice. Granted, there’s choice involved whether or not to discontinue medications, take the first drink, crumble in the face of grief. and return to former eating habits. It’s understandable - dare I say even common. Some people experience significant shame after re-experiencing symptoms and this doesn’t help the cause of the problem. Addiction and mental health are both rooted in shame and I wonder what life would be like if this could be viewed from a compassionate, medical perspective?

If a person re-experiences symptoms, there needs to be a degree of acceptance and desire to change course. With cancer, it might mean consultation with physicians to change plans. Most often, the cancer is not a disease of the brain and the person can get back on track with treatment immediately. With addiction and mental health, the brain is what is hi-jacked and makes it more difficult.

Let me explain - If a person has a broken arm, their brain says - this hurts, I need to go to a doctor and a cast is put on and medications to relieve pain are taken. What happens when a person starts using drugs or alcohol again and the brain is what is the cause of the problem? They can’t always make a rational choice to immediately begin exploring a treatment plan review and change course. It often takes more patience and compassionate friends, family, and providers to help the person get back on track.

I was lucky to have learned about relapse from Mark Dodd (Life Change Solutions) from a motivational interviewing framework. He was monumental in me understanding the difference - paying attention to language and being sensitive to judgments. Let’s re-think this together. Take the shame out, look at the plan. There are lots of medications, outside support groups, treatment facilities, and interventions that can be use to help the person suffering.

Jill Lehmann-Bauer, MSW