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Joe Herzanek

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Relapse. It happens . . . but it doesn't have to be the end of the road.
by Joe Herzanek   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, May 03, 2012
Posted: Saturday, November 29, 2008

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The above bit of lyrics, from a song by Aerosmith is a good analogy for an addict that chooses to try some more "controlled using" (better known as relapse).

Unfortunately, Steven recently checked himself into a rehab center after twenty years of recovery from drugs and alcohol. Why? How does something like this happen?

Perhaps more importantly, the question can be: When this happens close to home, what can I do to help--as a concerned friend or loved one?

Relapse. It happens.


. . . but it doesn't have to be the end of the road.

What do you do if your loved one relapses?

Every strike brings me closer
to the next home run.
-Babe Ruth

Understanding Relapse
Even after reading this, you may still have trouble trying to understand why a relapse may happen. I'm a recovering addict, it happened to me, and it's hard for me to completely understand as well. The truth is that a recovering addict may relapse several times. The best thing to do is to try to remain hopeful, and encourage the person to keep on fighting the battle, though you may feel anger, frustration, and disappointment.

Getting some support from others in the family, and from groups such as Al-Anon, will be helpful. And try to remember that the recovering person will feel these feelings as intensely as you do. Relapse is similar to a cancer that comes out of remission. It doesn't do any good to get mad at the cancer or the person. The same is true for the disease of addiction. Instead, try to focus on the solution, which is to get your loved one sober and drug-free. Eventually, with the help of family and the right support, those in recovery will stop relapsing, regardless if they've had one relapse or a dozen.

Relapse Happens
Some who are reading this may have already observed several relapses. You may be asking, when will it ever stop? You can take comfort in knowing that a majority of people in recovery will have a few relapses. For a small minority, it could be much worse, and additional long-term treatment may be necessary.

A very good friend of mine works in the recovery field. Nick (not his real name) has abstained from drugs and alcohol for almost twenty years. His life is good, his marriage is solid, and he has a teenage son who is doing great. But years ago, I don't know of anyone who appeared to be more hopeless. I can only imagine what it must have been like for his family, going through relapse after relapse after relapse. Nick went through eight different treatment centers before he finally got it.

The day of his last relapse was very stressful for him. He was living in a halfway house at the time. Halfway houses usually have many rules and everyone is assigned different chores, such as cooking and cleaning. After lunch Nick skipped his cleanup assignment, walked two blocks, and bought a half-pint of vodka. Before the bottle was gone, he was on the phone buying crack. This crack binge lasted a few days and he soon had another warrant out for his arrest. He was offered the choice of going through another treatment program or returning to prison.

That was over twenty years ago. Since then, he has helped hundreds of other men, women, and their families battle this same addiction. Nick is now highly respected in his field, loves his work, and will continue to be an inspiration for countless others in the future. He is just one more example to me of how anyone can overcome addiction.

Stress and Triggers
. . . a bad combination

Joe clip #2
The combination of stress and "triggers" can be a real problem. We have all heard about Dr. Pavlov and his experiment with dogs. He fed his dogs and at the same time rang a bell. He did this over and over, and eventually the dogs would salivate every time he rang the bell-whether there was food around or not. Looking back on my own drug use, I remember experiencing similar feelings of anticipation. Knowing my drug dealer was coming over, seeing a mirror with a razor blade on it, smelling the drug-all these things excited my brain. With no real conscious effort, I would start to mentally drool, knowing what was coming next.

I learned, just like Dr. Pavlov, that once this subconscious change has taken place, a person can't just turn it off. There is no on/off switch. Over time it will fade, but I don't believe it ever goes away completely.

This is true for many things in life. A particular song, smell, or place can trigger memories that a person hasn't thought of for years. The brain is very powerful, and potentially life-threatening triggers should not be taken lightly.

Socializing with people who drink and use drugs can be a trigger. Going to a bar, with all its familiar sights, sounds, and smells, can be a trigger. Mirrors, razor blades, rolling papers, certain music-any or all of these things-can trigger a relapse. People often ask about the dangers of ingesting seemingly harmless food and drink, such as cough syrup, food cooked with wine or liqueurs or drinking a small amount of wine during communion. Should a recovering person stay away from such things? Yes. Even these items can be invitations for relapse.

When I quit using, I had to go through my apartment and get rid of all kinds of things that could be triggers to me. I looked for anything that had to do with my drug use: rolling papers, pipes, small vials for coke, pictures of drugs, baggies with any residue in them, scales-you name it. 

"We couldn't visit him during the first week. The second
week we went to see him, and he was really doing
good. He had a smile and that was so great to see. The
third week he came home for the weekend. He called one
evening during that weekend while I was at work and said,
'Mom there is a half bottle of Vodka here, and I wondered
if I could pour it down the sink.' I said of course!"
-Gladys Herzanek

I also knew that I couldn't hang around with any of my old friends who were mostly drug dealers or heavy drug users. That wasn't easy. Though they were not good for me, I still felt a camaraderie with some of them. A few didn't believe the change in me would last. Several times they tried to get together with me to party. I had to say "no" and explain why. This time of letting go was difficult and awkward, but I found it wasn't impossible to leave these relationships behind. After a while, I began to see that many of these friendships were pretty lame anyway.

In the case of a recovering teen, saying no to these things needs to come from deep within-not from a command from Mom or Dad. When parents try pulling their children away from other troubled peers, it is never as effective as when teenagers make the decision themselves.

In fact, the parental control can often have the reverse effect-with the teen adamantly resolving, You can't tell me who my friends can be! I had to learn new ways to handle both stress and triggers. For me, triggers (people, places, and things) were easier to cope with than stress. Triggers were avoidable, whereas stress wasn't. Today, I continue to work on and improve my response to daily stress. Time and experience are wonderful teachers, which over the years have helped to mellow my response to everyday stress.

Once a person has had several years in recovery, all these issues lessen in intensity. I'm thankful that today my relationships with people are much healthier. I don't have any friends who abuse alcohol or use drugs. I no longer have anything in common with users. They are as uncomfortable around me as I am around them.

Looking back to when alcohol and drugs controlled me, I can see that my old way of living bred a level of stress that stemmed mainly from heavy using. Although I have been sober now for over twenty-five years, stressful times are still part of my life, but now I am able to handle them in healthy ways. What has changed is my attitude.

* Have you “tried everything?” Learn about affordable phone counseling for family members dealing with addiction.

This article is excerpted from Chapter 29 of Joe's book
"Why Don't They JUST QUIT?"

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to learn more about
the award-wining book and companion DVD
"Why Don't They JUST QUIT?"

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> Is a relapse—failure?

> If someone can stop using drugs or alcohol for weeks at a time, they “aren’t an addict—correct?

>Chronic Pain Management & Pain Pill Addiction: What to do?

>How can I know if my addicted friend or loved one is telling the truth?

>”I need help because I’m not able to deal with my live-in Fiance’s need to get drunk every night.”

>Should my husband “back off?”

>Gambling vs. Drug Addiction? What is your opinion?

>How can I tell if someone is an addict/alcoholic or just a heavy user?

>What is Methadone? What is Harm Reduction?

> Self-Tests: Codependence

> Self-Tests: Alcohol and Drug Addiction

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