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Lived experiences of relapse

LEX relapse Gabi

Dr Gabriele Byrne

By Leith Hillard

Lapse and relapse into harmful behaviours are normal elements of recovery. Understanding this can help to reduce the stigma that surrounds gambling harm and build positive attitudes about help seeking.

‘It may be limiting but also potentially freeing to understand that relapse will almost certainly happen to everyone who experiences addiction,’ says Tony Clarkson, Principal Clinical Advisor at the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

‘I’ve had clients who found that painful to hear but who also said they needed to hear it to have any realistic chance of managing and understanding their addictions.

Prevalence of relapse

While a lapse into harmful behaviours can be understood as a one-off or a temporary setback, a relapse tends to refer to a return to a previous pattern of behaviour.

A lapse or relapse do not signify a failure or characterise someone as unable to recover. They do demonstrate, however, that old ways of coping no longer work and need to be replaced with new approaches.

‘The most important thing to remember is that both lapses and relapses can be overcome,’ says Tony.

‘ … both lapses and relapses can be overcome.’

Many people who share their personal stories on the Gambler’s Help website provide invaluable insights into the experiences of lapse and relapse.

Steve says, ‘I had a relapse last year, but I didn’t let it get me down or take me off track. You have to pick yourself up and try again. The day you stop trying is the day you lose. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

‘Relapses make you more self-aware for next time, so you can focus on heading off any “next times”.

‘I have a growth mindset where I’m determined to learn from my mistakes. Keep telling yourself to keep doing the right thing.’

Path of growth and change

Steve’s ‘growth mindset’ is akin to Stuart’s ‘strength training for the mind’.

‘Then and there I decided I needed to stop. So I did. I walked out of the session and didn’t play the pokies again.

‘Except I did.

‘Recovery is like strength training for the mind. The more you resist temptation, the more you add meaning and richness to your life, the easier it is to resist.’

Jacob says, ‘It wasn't just the money I was losing, ‘it was my friends and family who had bailed me out numerous times as well as my own dignity and time. After a heavy relapse I finally realised that my gambling must stop for good.

‘Recovery is like strength training for the mind.’

‘I have a good job, a loving partner, better relationships with friends and family and a savings account. I attend regular therapy sessions to deal with issues I abandoned whilst gambling, and I have gone from hating the person that I am to now being content, happy and extremely genuine.’

Steve, Stuart and Jacob demonstrate that people lapsing and relapsing can still be on a broader path of growth and change.

Sarah is a shining example of resilience after relapse.

‘I was … probably not really aware of the stresses of single parenthood, or the loneliness. Sometimes, I’d take my son to my parents; they’d babysit, and I’d go and play. It was my night out.

But for 15 years I’ve been a [ReSPIN] public speaker about these issues. And during that time, I’ve relapsed twice and had to start all over again. It’s an important message to know you might relapse. It’s a fact of addiction.’

No more shame and stigma

Jan shared her story of relapse into enabling behaviour as an affected other. Harmed by her ex-husband’s gambling, she ultimately staged her own recovery through powerful insight.

‘The shame and stigma turned me into the person who rescued him. I paid debts, covered for him, contacted banks or pawnbrokers, always with the hope that this would be the last time.

‘Reality was a hard life lesson. I had relapses that included wrestling with my past instinct that cried out, “Help him.” I had to accept that I couldn’t change the gambling behaviour; the only person I could change was myself. I had to stop minimising the harm. I had to not assume responsibility for issues that weren’t mine to fix.’

Before joining the Foundation as a senior advisor, Dr Gabriele Byrne ran social programs as alternative leisure and social activities to gambling. She identified, and through these programs sought to address, two critical gambling relapse risk factors: social isolation and leisure substitution.

‘I encourage people to not give themselves such a hard time …’

‘Today we have multiple pathways into treatment with the aim of initiating behavioural changes, but not very much on offer that, once changes have been achieved, how to maintain them,’ she says.

‘Family, financial or other life stressors can lead to relapse, as can continuing exposure to the gambling product producing the harm.

‘The main things that enable recovery include meaningful and manageable responsibilities, and lapse and relapse being destigmatised. The cumulative effect of multiple engagements with services may include the development of recovery skills; insights into patterns of behaviour; and an ability to better explain themselves to themselves. That can then open the door to positive shifts in what they want out of life.

‘I encourage people to not give themselves such a hard time but instead focus on moving forward.’

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