All You Need to Know About Relapse

All You Need to Know About Relapse


Yesterday we looked at how there really is no quick solution for drug addiction or alcoholism. Today we want to look at relapse and how it can potentially creep into your recovery if you are not careful.

Relapse is sort of the big boogeyman of addiction recovery. This is because:

1) It can happen to nearly anyone.
2) Statistically, out of all people who try to get clean and sober or who attend treatment of some sort, nearly everyone ends up relapsing and only a small percentage stay sober over the long haul.
3) Nearly anyone can go to detox and get spun dry, but to avoid relapse is the real challenge. Recovery is really nothing more than detox + relapse prevention, and detox is the easy part.

If you have a solid plan in place to avoid relapse then this means that you have a pretty solid plan in place for recovery, period. The only other thing that you might have to consider is how to break free from the cycle of addiction and arrest your disease to begin with. As mentioned, this part is actually super easy….just ask for help and go to rehab. Anyone can check into treatment and make it through detox. That’s the easy part.

Something like 90 percent of addicts and alcoholics end up relapsing within the first year (this statistic might vary a bit depending on who you ask but the numbers are stacked against you regardless). Put simply, avoiding relapse is the challenge of a lifetime, and is basically the number one goal of your recovery.

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Therefore, you need to know exactly what you are up against, and what would increase your odds of avoiding this fate. Nearly anyone can stay clean and sober for the long haul but very few actually do. Relapse is the easy path and avoiding it takes a lot of work, energy, and sustained effort.

Why most people relapse in early recovery

Most people end up relapsing within the first year of their recovery. If you break the statistics down even further, most people who leave treatment or rehab have relapsed within the first 30 days.

Why is this?

Because recovery is hard work! It takes a massive amount of effort to permanently change your lifestyle in recovery.

The first problem is that nearly everyone underestimates the gravity of this change at first. They do not understand how much effort will be required. They overestimate their own ability to change their lifestyle and the underestimate how powerful the lure of relapse will be. This happens to nearly everyone at first and is pretty much a universal response.

There is a reason for this being the typical response–because this is how the rest of our life typically works. You cannot blame the addict or the alcoholic for not realizing how intense their recovery effort actually needs to be. This is because their whole life has been based on a simple equation for the most part, which is this:

* Make a modest effort, get modest results.

In other words, when you were younger and in school, you could make a modest effort and in doing so you would get modest results. Try a little bit, get a B- or maybe even a B+. Try a bit harder and get an A-. Really slack off and you might even squeeze by with a C.

This applies in things other than just education and schooling. The same was true while playing sports, or working at your first job. If you made a modest effort then you ended up getting a pretty average result. If you tried a little harder then you got slightly better results.

All your life you have been trained to realize that if you just make a decent effort, a modest effort–then you can slide by and come out of most things pretty much OK.

This is NOT how addiction recovery works. Not at all.

If you apply this same philosophy in addiction recovery you will relapse and you will fail. Plain and simple.

Making a modest effort in recovery produces relapse. Every time.

Making an average effort in recovery also produces relapse. Think about the statistics again for a moment. The average person in recovery….relapses. More than half relapse within the first year. The average person doesn’t make it. So think about what the “average” recovery effort will produce. It will produce relapse.

If you make an average, typical effort in your recovery then you will fail. You will relapse.

Obviously, we don’t want this!

But just realize how the deck is stacked against you, and why it is like this. The deck is stacked against you because recovering from addiction and alcoholism are unique challenges that do not really mimic other challenges that you have faced in life before. This is a new animal. You have never dealt with this level of intensity in the past. There is no way to prepare you for the battle over addiction. So it is understandable that you might struggle at first, that some people might struggle for years, that it might take you several tries before you realize just how hard you have to push yourself.

Some people want to sell you on the idea that there is this secret lever in recovery. That if you just follow this program or work these steps or read this book then you will magically recover from addiction and life will suddenly be great again. I have a public service announcement: there is no magic lever, and there are no programs or books you can read that magically make recovery easier some how.

It is true that you might get some help, that you might learn something from such literature or programs, but they do not suddenly make recovery magically easier for you.

The truth is that it matters very little in which path you attempt to use in order to recover, and what really matters instead is your level of willingness and your dedication to sobriety. There is no secret lever, instead the real secret is that recovery is darn tough and therefore you need to try harder than you have ever tried before in your life, at anything, ever. That is the real truth that no one wants to grasp or accept, so they gladly listen to people who tell them that if they just follow this program or read that book that their life will magically get better without too much bother. This is fantasy to believe that you can take the hard work out of recovery just by finding the right leverage. There is no leverage, only a long hard struggle that you need to be mentally prepared for.

This does not mean that recovery is impossible, or that you are doomed to failure or relapse. Indeed, all you need to do is decide that you are going to see this thing through no matter what, and your success in recovery is all but assured. The key is that you are stubborn enough to stick to your guns when the going gets tough, and that you are willing to take positive action every day in pursuit of a new life.

Anyone can make a snap decision to sober up for a few days. Obviously we want to go beyond that and find long term sobriety instead. How does one do this? It has to do with:

1) Your level of surrender (how miserable were you in addiction? Are you really done using and drinking?)
2) Your level of commitment to abstinence (don’t take a drink or a drug no matter what. Is this your number one priority in life? It should be!)
3) Your attitude towards learning and personal growth (are you willing to embrace positive change in your life? How dedicated are you to this new lifestyle of greater health and wellness?)

As I mentioned before, going to detox or rehab is EASY. You check in and medical staff take over for you, insuring your sobriety and pretty much your comfort as well. It’s a piece of cake. The real challenge begins when you walk out of treatment, back into the real world.

There are really two challenges at this point. One is to stay clean and sober for the first year or two, and find your way through early recovery. We might call this the “transitional period.”

The second challenge is to live the rest of your life in long term recovery, without falling victim to complacency. We might say that this manner of living is the entire point and goal of your early recovery efforts. Long term sobriety is the goal that you set out to achieve right from the start. It is the lifestyle that accompanies sobriety, a healthy and positive manner of living which actually prevents relapse.

Getting through your first 12 to 24 months of recovery is not anything like getting through your first 5 to 10 years of recovery. The challenges are different….completely different.

In early recovery you are dealing with immediate threats of relapse. Someone might run into an old drinking buddy and suddenly relapse at the drop of a hat. In long term recovery, however, a relapse will not occur like that at all. Instead, it may happen over a period of several months or even years as a slow slide into complacency sets in, after someone stops pushing themselves to grow and to learn.

Therefore if you look carefully at these two examples you will see that relapse is a bit more complex than just picking up a drink or a drug. Ultimately of course it all boils down to the same thing: you must maintain abstinence at all costs. But the details of these two scenarios reveal that your approach in recovery has to change and evolve over time in order to protect yourself from relapse.

That is a key point so let me stress it for a moment: you must change over time in your recovery in order to prevent relapse. People who stay stuck in traditional recovery programs often wonder what bus they got hit by when they end up relapsing one day. They were “doing what they were supposed to do” in order to recover, or so they thought. But what ended up happening is that they got stuck in recovery, they stopped challenging themselves, and they failed to grow and evolve.

Therefore I like to break relapse prevention down into two major periods of recovery:

1) Early recovery (the “transitional period”) which is likely covers the first 12 to 24 months, but might even extend slightly longer than this for some people. It all depends on your rate of growth and how quickly you transition to long term recovery. Speed matters little and is not important at all–what matters instead is stability. We’ll get to that concept in a moment.

2) Long term recovery. This covers “the rest of your life” in long term sobriety, after you are well established in your recovery and are now fairly independent in your recovery effort. If you pay attention you will see that some people who have multiple years sober still end up relapsing at times. Why is this? Because they got lazy, they got complacent, and thus they failed to prevent relapse. Now here is the news flash: preventing relapse at 5 years sober or at 10 years sober is going to be different than doing so at 90 days sober. Change and evolve. Recovery is a process.

So let’s look closer at preventing relapse during these two time frames: the transitional period and long term recovery.

Why some people relapse during the transitional period

The reason people relapse in early recovery is two fold:

1) Lack of support.
2) Lack of follow through.

That’s it. There is no other reason for relapse in early recovery. If you find plenty of support and you follow through with positive suggestions then you will do well.

Now there is a shortcut to doing both of these things and all but insuring your success in early recovery, but it is a bitter pill to swallow for some, and that is:

* Get heavily involved in the 12 step program and do exactly what they tell you to do for the first two years.

That’s it. That formula all but insures your success during early recovery. You may not like the idea of heavy involvement in the 12 step program, but this would actually work for nearly anyone. There are two keys to making it all work:

1) Heavy involvement – so that you have tons of support in early recovery. You are surrounded by people who are all on a positive path in life.
2) Follow through – so that you actually take suggestions and then follow through on them, taking positive action. You create positive change based on advice you are given.

Now realize that nearly everyone who relapses attempts to follow this traditional path in recovery, but most of them fail. The key is in follow through. Those who fail are people who did not stick with it, and who ended up deviating from the advice they were given.

This all goes back to the “magic lever” theory of recovery. It doesn’t exist, remember? Just being in AA and going to meetings every day is not a magic lever for success. Most people who do that will still relapse. In order to find the magic lever you have to follow through, take advice from others, suck up your pride and put in a lot of effort and energy for a long time. This is what 90 percent of people in recovery miss–the intense and sustained effort that it requires. Most people think they are just using the wrong magic lever. The stupid lever doesn’t matter. It could be AA, NA, religious based recovery, therapy, counseling, group therapy, or whatever. The lever doesn’t matter and there is no magic to be found out there. There is only hard work and sustained effort and commitment. Either you have it or you do not. If you have it then you will do well, and your actions will reflect that. If you don’t “have it” then you are doomed to relapse no matter what program or magic lever you choose to apply.

Getting through early recovery is about SUPPORT. In order to get the support you need, you must take action. Lots of action. And you need to follow through. You need to get out of your own way for a while and take advice from others and do what they tell you to do. This is simple but very hard to do.

Why some people relapse in long term recovery

After the first 24 months or so most people are now living in long term recovery. They are stable, they have made it through the challenges of early recovery, and they are now much more in control of their own recovery effort. How does such a person relapse at this point?

They end up relapsing because they get lazy. They call this “complacency.”

Now notice something here…..if you keep doing what I suggested that you do in early recovery (take advice from others and seek massive support) then you might end up falling victim to complacency later on down the road. Some people who relapse do so because they are “stuck” in their recovery program. They might go to meetings every single day but they are not really learning, changing, or growing as a person any more. So they could still relapse due to laziness or complacency, even though they may still take lots of action and attend meetings and so on.

So what is the solution for this? How can someone fight against this form of complacency?

The solution is best summarized as “the cycle of personal growth.”

The ultimate form of relapse prevention

I call it a cycle because you are not going to be engaged in super intense personal growth every single day of your life.

However, you need to keep engaging in personal growth, on and off, for the rest of your days. This is the key to preventing relapse.

If you stop learning and stop growing then you are, by definition, complacent. We want to avoid this.

Long term recovery demands that you keep learning and changing and growing. You can do this both IN or OUTSIDE of traditional recovery programs. In other words, you can definitely achieve this sort of growth in AA. However, you can also achieve this sort of growth outside of AA. (Remember: there are no magic levers!)

The cycle is simple, and can easily work with goal oriented living or simple “purpose based” living.

What happens is that you make a conscious effort to push yourself towards positive changes. After you achieve these conscious changes, you allow yourself time to reflect on the changes, and also time to plan your next possible growth experience.

This is why it is a cycle–you allow yourself time to reflect and learn from what your actions were.

You only fall victim to relapse after you say “OK, I’m done with all of this learning and growth stuff, I think I will just coast from now on and consider myself cured of addiction!”

That is the attitude that produces complacency and relapse.

The solution is a pro-active plan to engage in the cycle of personal growth. Decide right now that you want to improve your life, that you want to become a better person, that you want to learn more things and be able to help other people in new ways. Decide right now that you want to be healthier, that you want to live longer and experience a higher quality of life, such that you might enjoy the experience more and even be better positioned to help others on their own journey.

Embracing this cycle of personal growth, change, and learning is the key to long term relapse prevention. Even people who are in traditional recovery programs are using this concept, and pushing themselves to keep learning and making positive changes.

Early recovery = seek massive support, and follow through.
Long term recovery = engage the cycle of personal growth. Always be learning.

That’s relapse prevention in a nutshell.


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