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Dax Shepard Is Right: Addiction Recovery is a Lifelong Process. I Know Because I Lived It.

Dax Shepard’s recent public admission about his addiction relapse has shed critical light on addiction recovery and what it means to live with sobriety.

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Dax Shepard’s recent public admission about his addiction relapse has shed critical light on addiction recovery and what it means to live with sobriety. By opening up, Shepard has shown that even under the best conditions and with ample resources to manage his addiction, relapse is a constant risk and recovery is a lifelong process.

I know, because I’ve also lived it. A hardcore IV drug user in my late teens, I entered a rehab program at age 19. Through diligent treatment, I got clean and spent the next 20 years sober. I built a successful landscaping company, had a wife, a family and a new home under construction. I was in good shape.

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Until I let down my guard. When the economy tanked in 2008, my business suffered, my marriage fell apart, my wife left me, and I was hurting, severely. Of course, I didn’t want to feel that way, and my brain knew exactly how to fix that: start using again. It was my default.

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It began as a slow, gradual fade (it often does), but within a month, I was out of control. I was using every day, injecting anything I could into my veins to dull the pain. For the next year, I spiraled into a chaotic life, completely disconnected from my family, even my children.

Hearing Shepard talk about feeling this same disconnect resonated so powerfully with me. The withdrawing, the lying, the shady behavior—I vividly remembered experiencing it myself, and I so badly wanted to wrap my arms around him and say, “It’s okay. Let’s give this another shot.”

Then the shame and guilt take over.

Unfortunately, I also know why it took Shepard so long to come forward. The embarrassment, shame and guilt of admitting to a relapse after decades of sobriety is extremely overpowering for anyone in recovery, but especially when sobriety has become such a cornerstone of your public persona. I’d been clean for 20 years! And he for 16! How could we let this happen? 

Like Shepard, a moment of clarity brought me out of the fog. As I looked in the mirror one morning, some small voice said, “stop what you’re doing.” I was able to reach out and get back into treatment, an experience that completely changed the course of my life. Based on my journey, my counselor suggested that I’d make an excellent therapist. It turns out, having that relatable experience is extremely helpful in connecting with those who need it most, and I’ve since spent the last 10 years working with law enforcement and treatment programs to help combat addiction, along with the associated guilt and shame.

Addiction Requires Lifelong Management

A key to overcoming the stigma is helping people to realize that living in recovery is a lifelong commitment. Addiction treatment is never a one-and-done situation. Like any chronic disease, it requires constant management, consistent behavior and diligent attention—just like managing diabetes, heart disease or any other chronic illness. 

When those positive behavioral habits get disrupted, it’s extremely hard to stay on course. Right now, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the lives of millions of people in recovery, and we’re seeing the unfortunate results. At Greenhouse alone, we’ve seen that the isolation, disruption of habits and lack of access to meetings and therapy are driving a dramatic 30-40% increase in patients seeking treatment, most of whom have been in active recovery. This hidden impact of the pandemic is devastating to our society.

Being proactive is critical to avoiding the “default”

For those living in recovery, avoiding the default—using again—requires a proactive, lifelong commitment. The risk of relapse is a constant, but there are several things we can do to help those we love stay on a healthy, sober path.

First, let’s call a relapse what it really is: a recurrence of symptoms. We wouldn’t say that a cancer patient has had a relapse or that a diabetic has fallen off the wagon. Despite popular misconception, a person with substance use disorder is never really “cured.” A relapse isn’t a moral failure—it’s a part of managing the disease. Talking about it in the right way can substantially reduce the shame and guilt that keeps people from coming forward to seek treatment.

It also means active recovery must be a constant priority. Like Shepard, I let external forces creep in and distract me from sobriety. I simply quit paying attention to it. Staying sober means constantly managing your diet, exercise, healthy habits and overall well-being to avoid a recurrence of symptoms.

Of course, when triggers happen (there’s no way to avoid them), you must also be able to draw on coping mechanisms learned through treatment to navigate the adversity, hurt, painful memories and trauma in a healthy way. Otherwise, your brain will default to what it knows: using. 

Speak up, Save a life

Simply acknowledging the behavior in a non-judgmental way can create a tremendous sense of relief, giving the individual the permission they need to open up. Confront them with love, and ask “Are you ok? Is there anything I can do to help?” Starting the conversation from a place of compassion can immediately counter the shame, guilt and embarrassment they may be feeling, and it could be exactly the catalyst they need to get back on track.  

By sharing his experience—including the inevitable ups and downs that come with it—Dax Shepard has shown publicly that addiction recovery is never a linear path. It’s a process, a journey toward healthier living that often takes some unexpected and unplanned turns. It’s incredibly refreshing to see that, instead of being shunned and judged as he feared, he has actually inspired millions of Americans to overcome the shame and guilt of relapse and get the help they need to get back on the road to recovery. 

Todd Garlington is the lead therapist at Greenhouse Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility