Addicts and Alcoholics Relapse When they Fail to Disrupt Behavior Patterns

Addicts and Alcoholics Relapse When they Fail to Disrupt Behavior Patterns


This is the second article in a 5 part series about “The 5 Reasons Addicts and Alcoholics Fail to Remain Sober.”

So the second major reason that addicts and alcoholics relapse is because they do not create a large enough disruption in their lives.

In other words, they are stuck in their addiction, and they need to break free from this somehow. The way to do this is going to involve some amount of disruption.

They have daily behaviors in which they use their drug of choice on a regular basis. They have become entrenched in a pattern of self medicating.

In order to avoid relapse, they have to disrupt this behavior pattern ENOUGH so that they can remain sober.

Avoiding “people, places, and things” from our old life

- Approved Treatment Center -


Part of the need for disruption in our lives is because of our environment. But it is more than just our environment that triggers us to relapse, it is our behavior and our pattern of behavior and the way that our environment influences that.

This is why simply changing location is not a solution in itself. Many recovering alcoholics and addicts make this mistake, and believe that if they simply pack up and move on to another location that they will be able to start a new life and escape from their addiction by doing so.

People who try to use this “location cure” find that it does not work. The problem is not just their environment, although that is definitely part of the problem. The problem is that they are taking themselves along with them when they go to a new location, and thus they bring all of their problems along with them.

It is sort of like the person is bringing their behaviors along for the ride when they attempt to beat their addiction by simply moving. They are still the same person and they have the same tendencies and therefore when they change location it does nothing to really solve their addiction problems.

What, then, is there to disrupt in life, if changing your location is not enough?

What we need to do is to find a way to disrupt our behavior patterns. This will involve more than just moving physically to a new location, or even just changing who we hang around with. Those things may be important to our recovery but if we focus on disrupting our behavior and our thought processes then the rest will hopefully take care of itself.

So this need for “disruption” is about our behaviors but also about our thought processes. We need to find a new way to live, and that means finding a new way to deal with our emotions, to process the negative things that happen in our lives, and to find a way to cope with stress without resorting to chemicals.

We can think of disruption on a continuum. Let’s take, for example, a struggling alcoholic who is looking to possibly do something about his drinking. He wishes that things were different and he wishes that he were happily clean and sober. However, he may (or may not) be at a point where he is ready to “go to any lengths” in order to achieve this wish of his.

So one level of disruption is that might go to an AA meeting. Maybe he goes to a single AA meeting for the first time, or maybe he decides to start going to meetings on a regular basis or even every single day. This is one level of disruption. Note that he might still be drinking while he is doing this at first, he might not yet have taken the plunge and actually become sober yet.

A more intense level of disruption in his life might be to start going to therapy once a week. He might combine this with the meetings as well and could be spending several hours each week involved in his recovery. For some alcoholics, this may be enough disruption to really make a difference in overcoming their addiction. For others, it might not be enough.

An even greater level of disruption might be to go check into an inpatient rehab. This would be the typical 28 day stay that you hear about on television programs. Note that with this level of disruption, the alcoholic or addict is pretty much assured of at least getting a month of sobriety and abstinence in. It is still possible that they might leave treatment and get drunk or high the day that they walk out, but at least with an inpatient treatment they are definitely going to bank some sober time. It is therefore a pretty intense level of disruption to their life.

Note too that with inpatient treatment they are disrupting their entire life, including their environment and the people that they associate with. Instead of hanging out with drinking buddies, they are going to be only hanging around with people who are clean and sober and who are trying to change their lives for the better. They are guaranteed to be associating with these “sober people” and getting this break from their environment for at least as long as they stay in rehab.

As we will see, there are even greater levels of disruption that you can explore in recovery.

Extreme disruption example – survival recovery

One extreme level of disruption is with survival rehab places. These are wilderness recovery setups that take recovering addicts and alcoholics and put them out in the middle of nowhere with a survival guide. So they have to learn some new skills and they are totally isolated out in the wilderness and there is no chance for relapse while they are in treatment because they are out in the middle of the woods.

These are not very common but wilderness and survival recovery centers are popular options for youths who are troubled with addiction. You can see how it is an extreme form of disruption to your life and if you really wanted to “get away from it all” and find peace in your recovery then going out to the middle of the wilderness would be one way to do it.

Another extreme disruption example – long term rehab

Long term rehab is generally any treatment where the addict or alcoholic stays for longer than 90 days. I personally lived in a long term treatment center for 20 months and the length of stay where I was at was 6 months to 2 years. Most people probably stayed less than a year though.

This is obviously another form of extreme disruption, and I can remember thinking about long term treatment when I was still drinking and drugging and comparing it to prison. In my mind, there was no difference between being in long term rehab and being in prison, because I was still stuck in my addiction and I was in denial and I believed that I would be miserable if I could not self medicate with drugs and alcohol. So in my mind I equated long term rehab with prison.

There are several advantages to long term treatment that, in my opinion, make it one of the most effective forms of disruption that an addict or alcoholic could seek out.

First of all you have the same benefits that come along with short term residential rehab, for the most part. Most people who go into a long term facility have to first go through detox and short term rehab. So they are getting off to a good start be being medically detoxed before entering long term treatment.

Next they are put in a situation where they have the best of both worlds: they have the freedom to actually go out into the world, get a job, go back to school, and so on, but they also have the accountability that comes with living in rehab. So there are random drug tests and breathalyzer tests that each addict knows they are going to be subjected to. When I was living in rehab these happened randomly about every week, sometimes every two weeks or sometimes they happened two days in a row.

People who were caught using drugs or alcohol by these random checks were immediately discharged. This accountability helped me to stay clean and sober during my first two years of recovery. I am not sure that I would have been able to stay clean on my own if I had been out in the real world trying to stay sober without this accountability factor built in. If you relapse you are out on your tail, suddenly homeless. That is a powerful incentive to keep you on the straight and narrow (it worked for me anyway!).

Long term treatment had other benefits as well, not the least of which was the 24/7 support that you received while living in rehab. We had regular groups where we could talk about our problem and help each other to come up with solutions. We also had a counselor who worked with each of us individually and who helped push us towards our life goals. So it was more than just the disruption that comes from being in a safe environment.

And in fact, living in long term rehab is not really a “safe” environment at all. Many people still relapsed while living in long term because they had access to the outside and they ventured out into the real world while living there and they sabotaged their own recovery. It was not necessarily a powerful disruption just because it was a “controlled” environment.

Instead, long term treatment is a powerful disruption because you become fully immersed in a recovery environment. You are living, eating, and breathing recovery all day, every day. You are surrounded by people who are trying to learn a new way to live, just like you are. And there is no “leaving the meeting and going home” or “leaving your therapy session and going home.” Instead, you live in rehab, so you are home, and the focus is on recovery and this new way of life, 27/7.

With other disruptions (such as therapy, AA meetings, outpatient rehab) you always get to a point where you go back to your old life, you go home to where you used to use drugs and alcohol, and so the disruption is not 100 percent complete. But with long term rehab, you actually LIVE in rehab, and all of the people there are focused on recovery 24/7, so this is (in my opinion) the most thorough and powerful form of disruption that you can seek out in recovery.

If you fail and end up relapsing, consider more intense disruptions

What I learned in my own recovery journey is that I had to have a powerful enough disruption to really change my life. This may have also correlated with my level of surrender to my addiction and my willingness to really take massive action.

When I first tried to get sober I went to counseling. At the time I was not really excited about quitting drugs and alcohol forever, but the fact remained that this was nowhere near the level of disruption that I needed in my life. I was not ready to change at this point, but even if I was, I do not believe that seeing a therapist once a month or even once a week was going to help me much. I was too fully immersed in a lifestyle of using drugs and alcohol. I had too many friends who I used with. I was too comfortable using drugs and drinking at my job. My whole life revolved around getting wasted and so this level of disruption was just not enough for me.

Later on I attended a short term inpatient rehab. This kept me clean and sober for the two weeks that I was in rehab, but I immediately relapsed after I left treatment, and I also tried to substitute (marijuana) for my drug of choice at the time (alcohol). I was not fully ready to get clean and sober at this time either and I was not fully surrendered to the idea that I had to abstain from ALL mood and mind altering substances. But nevertheless, I do not think that 14 days of inpatient rehab was a big enough disruption to really change my own life.

Later on in my journey I reached a point of surrender that I had never achieved before, and I realized that what I really needed was to live in long term treatment. I finally accepted this level of disruption as the solution that I needed. I had resisted the idea for a long time (several years in fact) as many counselors and therapists had told me that long term rehab is what it was going to take for me to become clean and sober.

So it is difficult to say what was more important: the intense level of disruption that I experienced, or the fact that I had become willing to accept this as my solution.

Looking back now, I tend to believe that the truly important thing is the willingness and the total surrender to addiction, rather than the extreme disruption.

In other words, it is more important for the addict or the alcoholic to fully surrender than it is for them to seek out a massive disruption in their life.

If you think you want to be sober and you decide to live in long term treatment, that may or may not be the answer to all of your problems. I watched many, many people relapse while living in long term rehab. It is not a cure. Intense disruptions are not necessarily the answer.

Instead, they sort of point to the answer, because those who are willing to embrace an intense solution like long term treatment are probably ALSO at the point of full surrender. This is the real key to their success, not the disruption technique itself. So it is the surrender that is important and the resulting level of willingness, not the specific technique that is used.

When I finally surrendered fully and checked into long term rehab, I may have done just as well had I instead went to an AA meeting hall, found a sponsor, and committed to daily meetings from that point forward. Even though the solution was less disruptive and less intense than long term treatment, the fact that I had fully surrendered to my disease at that point may have been enough to insure my continuous sobriety.

On the other hand, I may have fell flat on my face had I tried that, and found that I actually did need more help, more support, and basically more disruption in my life than just daily AA meetings and sponsorship. At that point I may have done well to seek more help, more professional help, or more rehab services of some kind.

The key thing I believe is to realize when you are not getting the help that you need, and to then take action and ask for help. If you have been going to therapy or meetings and your life is still in shambles, you probably need MORE help. This likely means a more disruptive technique, which generally means MORE treatment. So, you go to inpatient rehab and maybe you even end up living in long term treatment as well.

Treatment is the solution and if you have tried to get clean and sober in the past and it has not worked for you, then you simply need one of two things:

1) More surrender (or willingness), OR
2) More treatment (more disruption).

Your life in addiction is a set of behaviors and all of your thought processes and patterns, and this is what needs to be disrupted. Treatment is the way that you disrupt this and the only question is:

“What level of disruption do you need to make recovery work for you?”

And of course the only other question is:

“Are you ready to get sober, change your life, and learn a new way to live without self medicating all the time?”

I had to become willing to change and by this I mean that I had to fully surrender to my disease. I had to stop fighting it for control. At that point I also became willing to quit my job, find new friends, and live in rehab for almost two full years. This was the level of surrender and the level of disruption that finally worked for me, given my situation. Your situation may be different and you may need far less disruption than what I needed in order to overcome your addiction.

As usual, your mileage may vary. If you fail in staying sober I would recommend that you seek more intensive treatment options in the future.

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