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Welcome Back: Returning to a 12-Step Program after Relapse

When clients leave treatment to return to their lives in the world, many find comfort and guidance through participating in 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These programs offer structured support systems to continue the journey of recovery. The camaraderie of like-minded individuals sharing their experience, strength, and hope informs those embarking on a new path of the trials ahead and offers a way through them and into a new way of life that promises a spiritual solution to all their problems. After a period of time, you may find these promises coming true for you as your life improves, your family relationships begin to heal, and you begin to regain some semblance of control over your addiction. Through working the steps and attending meetings, you have made what feels like true progress in your recovery and that your new way of life has replaced the old. When you are confident the program is working in your life, you take on more responsibilities. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, those responsibilities overwhelm you and the unbelievable happens and you experience a relapse. Now what?  

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Relapse is Part of Recovery – But it Doesn’t Have to Be Part of Yours

It is commonly heard in the rooms of 12-Step meetings that relapse is part of recovery. This statement is true, there are countless of people with years of recovery who have experienced a relapse in their journey. It is also true, however, that it is not necessary to experience relapse for yourself. Part of the benefit of the shared experience offered by 12-Step groups is that it is possible to avoid the negative impact of mistakes others have made in their own recoveries. Listening to the stories of those who have gone through a relapse can be valuable in recognizing that it is possible to come back, but it is also possible to avoid going through the painful experiences associated with losing the life recovery has brought. Being attentive to those who share stories of relapse, whether after a long period of recovery or shortly into the healing process, can be valuable in recognizing the importance of maintaining the suggestions that work and avoiding triggers that lead to a return to addiction.

If relapse does become a part of your story, you may find your own experience beneficial to others in the program. It requires a level of self-awareness and self-forgiveness to make the admission that you faltered in your program but the willingness to return to the program and re-engage in the recovery process. The success you experience in recovery is proof that the benefits of a life in recovery have made a positive impact on you. Relapse is not a failure of the 12-Step program, but rather, an opportunity for self-discovery and a stark reminder of the importance of continually practicing the program.

Overcoming the Guilt

When people return to meetings after a relapse, it is common to introduce themselves as newcomers with less than 30 days. For those new to 12-Step programs, this introduction can feel awkward and induce shame. For those who have participated in the program before and had time in recovery, this introduction can leave them feeling guilty for having failed in their attempt. In truth, this introduction has a benefit to both the newcomer and the group. First, it allows those returning to the group to recognize those who need help in beginning or restarting the program. Second, it shows the group the reality of recovery: that relapse is possible for anyone, but so is coming back.

You may question whether your recovery was strong enough or where you failed in your step work. You might have doubts about your ability to follow the program and begin comparing yourself to others. You aren’t alone in these thoughts. Those who regularly attend meetings and practice a 12-Step program will relate to your experience and many will share their own stories of navigating the process of returning to recovery after a relapse. These members will be pivotal in your journey towards re-establishing a program that works for you with like-minded individuals who share your experiences and can help you in overcoming the feelings associated with guilt. Knowing you are not alone is essential. There are others like you who have returned to the program and went on to be successful in recovery and in life.

Looking Forward

Rather than being overwhelmed by the negative emotions surrounding the loss of time spent in relapse, those who have returned to their 12-Step programs can find solace in knowing the choice to come back gives them a second chance to regain the promise of recovery. By sharing with others, the feelings of loneliness and self-pity begin to transform into opportunities to be useful to others. Confiding the difficulties that led to relapse in the first place can illuminate solutions that can prevent relapse in the future.

Learning from the mistakes, whether your own or those of others, will make you wiser. These lessons become a part of your spiritual toolkit that you carry with you throughout your recovery. Those who have come back to the program and shared their stories of relapse share not only the hardships of overcoming such a setback, they also share the hope that the path to recovery is just as possible after relapse as it was the first time you entered the program. If a relapse is a part of your story, there is room for you in a 12-Step program.

Burning Tree Lodge serves people who struggle with addiction, co-occurring disorders, and find themselves ready to accept help. Our specialists focus on meditation and holistic practices to help build a better recovery for you. We include your family and meet you where you are emotionally and spiritually to support your journey of healing. We hope you will find the strength to get you on your way.

Dear Renewal Lodge Visitors,

My name is John Bruna, co-founder of the Mindfulness in Recovery® Institute, and more importantly, a grateful member of the recovery community. I am incredibly fortunate to have found my recovery in 1984. Of course, I did not achieve continuous recovery through willpower or my own efforts, but through the guidance and caring support of countless others that selflessly taught me how to live through the 12 Steps.

My journey of recovery brought this once homeless, shame-based, traumatized, insecure young man to a life far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered self-worth, the joy of helping others, the gifts of parenting and grandparenting, and most importantly the ability to live a meaningful and purposeful life with integrity.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery is that I have the opportunity to give back and help others discover their self-worth, dignity, and the skills to fully live lives that they find truly meaningful. This is the inspiration for developing the skills of Mindfulness in Recovery® (MIR) to meet the needs of new generations struggling with alcohol and other substance use disorders. MIR is a set of evidence-based skills designed to help people fully integrate their tools of recovery in ways that are personalized, practical, and in alignment with their deepest values.

While we train counselors and therapists throughout the United States and abroad, I personally have chosen to work directly with the amazing team and clients at Renewal Lodge to develop the model MIR 12-step program for the nation. I choose Renewal Lodge because of the vision of its mission and the dedication of its team. Renewal Lodge is an extremely rare environment in which the staff embodies the very mindfulness and 12-step practices and skills they offer their clients. The results have been beyond my expectations. It is an honor to be here and I treasure my personal time with every client I meet.

With Gratitude,

John Bruna
John Bruna
Director of Mindfulness