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Why Do I Keep Relapsing? Why is it that I Can’t Stay Stopped?

one female hand holding another female hand offering support

So, you have decided that your drug or alcohol use is getting out of hand and that you have decided to stop – terrific!! There can be 101 reasons why you have come to this conclusion such as:

  • Financial – you are spending more and more on your drug of choice and basically you can’t afford it anymore. You may have also found yourself getting into debt and not meeting your financial obligations i.e. rent, bills, mortgage etc.
  • Work – you keep having “sick days” or your performance is being affected. Because of this you may have been spoken to by your boss about this, missed out on promotion opportunities, not met targets, or closed deals.
  • Family – they have had enough and given you an ultimatum. This maybe your partner, husband, wife, parents but basically, they have come to the end of the road with their patience and putting up with your behaviour
  • Health – this can be physical and psychological. Nose bleeds, bouts of depression, paranoia, anxiety, consistent stomach problems, liver problems, disturbed sleep patterns, seizures…the list is almost endless

So on the basis of all, or some of, the above today is going to be your last day for a drink, or a line of cocaine, hit of crystal meth or G… then low and behold 3 days, one week, a month you are back on it. Why is this?

Well problematic substance use is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness. So it is not just as easy as just relying on stubbornness and will power to stop. So, if this is what you have just relied on in the past and are not doing anything differently then unfortunately you are going to get the same outcome – relapse after relapse. As we have said in earlier blogs “If nothing changes, nothings changes”.

Alternatively, you may be going to peer support meetings, be they AA, NA, SMART etc. but still end up relapsing. Or you may have successfully completed a drug and alcohol treatment programme, went on to experience a longer period of abstinence, and then still ended up relapsing.

As mentioned earlier relapsing is not uncommon, in fact up to 60% of those leaving residential drug and alcohol treatment relapse in the first 3 months after leaving. Many people, and their families seem to think that going away somewhere for 28 days and then coming out will “fix you”. Well it doesn’t. The desire to use or the pre-disposition to use alcohol or drugs as a coping strategy just doesn’t suddenly stop once you have successfully completed a treatment programme. Behaviour change takes time, persistence and commitment. Luckily the longer you are able to remain abstinent, the easier it will become for you to avoid relapsing and returning to your past substance using ways.

If you have relapsed, then the most important thing is to OWN UP TO IT AND NOT PUNISH YOURSELF OR SEE YOURSELF AS A FAILURE. While you will be really cross at yourself (and maybe others as well) for the relapse, it is crucial that you learn to pause and use the situation as a learning opportunity. This type of attitude is far more productive in the long run, and it is the type of attitude that will help you minimize the risk of further relapses.

What Can I Do?


If you have decided to go it alone in your bid to stop drinking or using drugs, and it hasn’t worked then now is the time to put your hands up and get some help. Peer support groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery are good at helping individuals at maintaining their abstinence and providing you with personal assistance when you feel the urge to use. This maybe enough, but if it isn’t then you need to look for professional help. Our non-residential face to face and online psychotherapy based programmes at Help Me Stop are very effective and the online programme is extremely useful as it can be done in the evenings and in the comfort of your own home.

Alternatively, you may need a spell in a residential treatment service. At Help Me Stop we offer a free assessment so we can help you in this decision making and, in some instances, a residential stay is the right course of action.


Triggers are thoughts, feelings, situations and relationships that can cause you to drink or use drugs after a period of abstinence.  Triggers can arise when you feel sad, anxious or attend a social function where alcohol and drugs are being used and you feel you are missing out. Other triggers include stress, disappointments, lack of sleep, isolation, and incidents.

As indicated for those of you that have been in the protective bubble of residential treatment it can be a real shock when you leave and come back to the real world. If you have only done an inpatient detox or had a brief 14 day stay in a residential treatment service the likelihood is that you just won’t have had enough time to understand your triggers, let alone some of the bigger stuff. All residential programmes, as well as Help Me Stop’s non-residential programme, will help you in the process of identifying your triggers so that you can formulate a strategic plan to avoid them after leaving. However, the advantage of doing treatment in non-residential setting is that you are consistently testing out your coping strategies daily.

Irrespective of how you approach looking at your triggers it is important to work out what led up to your relapse, what were the warning signs (as there will be some), what coping strategies did you use (or not use) and why did they not work? If you can’t understand what happened and why things went array and make changes to how you will deal with similar situations in the future, then relapses are just going to continue. Speaking to a professional or using peer support groups can be helpful in you working this out if you can’t do it on your own.

All the staff at Help Me Stop have had prior issues with drugs or alcohol, so we have personal experience as well as the professional skills as therapists to draw on.


Many people who complete residential rehab just do not invest heavily in their continuing care. Behaviour change takes time, persistence and commitment. Anyone that is in residential rehab needs to invest as much time and effort in their recovery when they come out as they have while an inpatient. Continuing care services can include individual psychotherapy, peer-support groups, a secondary care facility and other prevention opportunities that can help you avoid relapse.

In the US secondary care or step-down treatment is seen as a vital step to long term abstinence. For some just peer support groups are just not enough so services like Help Me Stop or secondary facilities where you still undertake ongoing therapy, alongside a structured life-skills programme are an ideal stepping stone in transitioning back into normal day to day living.


Behaviour change takes time, persistence, and commitment. For those of you that have reached a degree of abstinence behind you beware of the risk of developing an attitude of complacency. No doubt when you first started your journey you were motivated and willing to put the work in to get abstinent, no matter how hard it was and maybe this stayed with you for a number of weeks and months. At some point you then start to take your abstinence for granted, you convince yourself you’ve learnt it all!! You become overly confident and believe that your success at remaining abstinent is now assured, and you can stop putting as much effort in. This type of complacency is always a mistake as you then start stopping doing the things that were making a difference and low and behold your relapse.

If you have found yourself in this position then now is the time to start again, putting the same amount as effort in as before and doing all the same things you were doing that made the difference. If you start noticing that you are having complacent thoughts again or you are dropping off doing things again then that is the time to voice these out, be that with someone that you are close to, at a peer support group or a professional. It is much easier to stop a rolling bolder at the top of the hill than three quarters of the way down.


New methods of drug and alcohol treatment are changing. If you or someone you care about keeps relapsing there are options for you. Help Me Stop’s intensive non-residential Dayhab programme costs £2,500 for 5 weeks and offers accessible aftercare and family support options to minimise the risk of relapse and to maximise the support of friends and loved ones that is so important to long-term success.

Our evening online drug and alcohol treatment programme is even more affordable, being £1,750 for a 6-week programme. It’s an excellent choice for adults who may have a smaller budget and are working and can’t access services in the day or get to our centre in Central London. Families can also access support online.

If you would like to learn more about why you, or someone you care about, keeps relapsing and want to do something about it then call us now on 0208 191 9174 or jump onto Live Chat/email us directly at

Chris Cordell is Help Me Stop’s General Manager and is a senior associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Certified International Recovery Specialist, member of the International Society of Addiction Medicine and a member of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals.

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