Letters: Relapse is Part of the Addiction, NOT Part of the Recovery 

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Recently, Patricia Reed, Granite Pathways’ state director published an open letter on Manchester Ink Link, “What Is Critical for our Community to Understand is that Relapse is part of the Recovery Process.”

I don’t believe I know Ms. Reed personally, and bear her no ill will. I have a great professional relationship with the director and many of the staff of Granite Pathways’ Doorway programs in Manchester and Nashua. Still, as Director of Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, I feel the need to respond to the letter, or at least to part of it.

I could be critical of the letter’s condemnation of “the media” for doing nothing other than accurately reporting facts about events at Granite Pathways Youth Treatment Program, events in which the lives of eight different adolescents were in danger.

I could question the understanding of the word “news.” That is, a nonprofit living up to the terms of a paid contract is not news. That same agency inadequately responding to three teenage girls leaving its facility IS news, particularly when the girls are allegedly sexually assaulted during their time away. 

I could complain about the confusing use of numbers (e.g., “every single day” Granite Pathways serves more than 2,200 people, yet only serves 7,034 people annually or the Nashua and Manchester Doorways programs daily serve fewer than four people apiece (fewer than 2,400 annually). 

No, what really and truly galls and angers me is a single sentence, used as the headline for the piece: “What is critical for our community to understand is that relapse is part of the recovery process.” No, my friends, that is exactly what we in the recovery community know to be false, misleading, and potentially fatal for anyone who puts it into practice. 

Relapse is NOT part of the recovery process. Relapse is part of the ADDICTION process. Relapse is not a stage of healing. Relapse is a stage of disease, the disease of addiction.

Let me repeat:  Relapse is part of addiction, not part of recovery. 

A woman who is being treated for breast cancer is never told “reoccurrence of your mammary lumps is part of the healing process.” A child with a broken leg is never told “this new hairline fracture is a sign your leg is getting better.” A man with Hepatitis C is never told “your increased viral load is evidence that our treatment is working.” None of these events would necessarily be terrible for the person affected, but none of them is a part of healing.

I don’t much like definitions written by committee. Too often they’ve had the life drained out of them by wrangling over the placement of commas. Still, the federal government’s agency overseeing drug and alcohol services, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), offers the following definition: Recovery is “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Not a single word or nod of the head toward relapse or reoccurrence. Recovery is positive and moves away from the bondage of addiction and toward autonomy and freedom.

I am a man in long-term recovery from alcohol and opiate use. Not uniquely, I haven’t felt it necessary to take a drink or use any mind-altering substance since I first got into recovery, more than 12 years ago. If I were to start on a bender or an opioid run tonight, no sane person would say, “Relapse is part of the recovery process, so I guess Keith’s just transitioning into a new stage.” Instead, people who care about me would help me return to recovery from a period of active use. 

Do people in recovery have reoccurrences? Absolutely! I’ve known dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have been in recovery, and after a series of slippages, found long-term health. Likewise, people sometimes return to active use after a period in recovery. When folks are in recovery, they can stop doing what has worked for them and return to old behaviors, but we don’t call that part of the recovery process. One can’t return to old behaviors and call that recovery, because reoccurrence is part of the disease of addiction.

At Hope and, I believe, all the other recovery centers in the state, we view recovery from drug and alcohol use to be different for every single person we work with. For some folks the pathway is a 12-Step programs, with their emphasis on the Judeo-Christian heritage, for others its SMART Recovery, with its focus on changing one’s thinking in order to change one’s actions. For others its Recovery Dharma, rooted in the Buddhist tradition. People also utilize the Three Principles as outlined by Sydney Banks. There is also Celebrate Recovery in Evangelical churches. And there are countless other paths of recovery that help folks “improve their health and wellness, lead a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

In none of these paths do they declare that relapse is a part of recovery. Relapses are part of the addiction problem; not part of the recovery solution. I truly want every single human being experiencing addiction to find recovery on their own terms, to live lives of autonomy and freedom from addiction.  This can only happen if we are honest about the issues at hand. Addiction is a disease. Recovery is a pathway to health. The path to freedom does not have to include a return to bondage.

Keith Howard

Manchester, NH

Keith Howard lives in Manchester. He is Executive Director of HOPE for NH Recovery, a community recovery center located at 293 Wilson St. in Manchester.