One of the biggest stumbling blocks for struggling addicts and alcoholics is the fear of relapse. This even prevents some people from attempting to get clean and sober to begin with.
Once sober, many people allow the fear of relapse to paralyze them into inaction, such that they are not really doing anything in order to combat the fear. They are over run with negative thoughts that they are not going to be able to maintain sobriety.
The second problem with fearing relapse is that it can happen at virtually any stage of your recovery. Even in long term sobriety there is a constant threat of relapse for the entire rest of your life, and this threat will never go away completely.
Therefore we need a way to deal with fear, and in particular we need a way to deal with the fear of relapse. Even though we can never completely mitigate the threat of potential relapse, we have to get to a point where we do not allow the fear to have negative consequences for us. Fear is only a problem when it holds us back in some way. This is what we want to avoid.
Are you worried that you may relapse? Are you afraid of what other people would think or say about you if you did relapse? Are you worried about how it might affect your life, your job, your family, if you were to relapse? Are these fears holding you back from being the person that you should truly become in recovery? Are your fears keeping you from living the ideal life that you should be living in recovery? If so then you need to find a way to work through them.
How to deal with the fear of relapse in early recovery
In very early recovery the fear of relapse will probably be almost overwhelming. In order to move past this fear and take positive action you will likely need to take drastic action and get a lot of support very quickly.
There are various ways to go about doing that but the easiest way in my opinion is to check into rehab. Detox and short term treatment are sufficient to get anyone started on the right path in recovery, but what you do when you finally walk out of those doors back into the real world is up to you (that is the next fear that you must deal with, more on that below).
Unfortunately, many people have an intense and even an irrational fear of rehab itself, and are terrified to attend. I know this was the case for me because I fought against the idea for a long time even though many people were trying to convince me to go. When I finally agreed to go to treatment I was at a breaking point and had cast my fears aside due to sheer frustration and unhappiness. I became willing to face my fear only because I was so beat down by my addiction to the point of almost being suicidal.
There are not many ways to deal with a fear of rehab (or of getting help) other than to just do it. If you cannot bring yourself to check into rehab then perhaps you can take a lessor step such as going to an AA meeting. Or perhaps you could find a therapist and talk with them about your problem with addiction. There are many intermediate steps that lead up to inpatient rehab and if you cannot bring yourself to check into treatment then you should start exploring those steps.
In retrospect this is what actually happened with me. Before I went to rehab I had attended counseling to talk about my drug and alcohol problem. Before I went to long term rehab I attended short term rehab. I had to build my way up to the solution because I was too terrified to make the leap all at once. Highly inefficient but apparently it was necessary for me. And the reason that it was necessary was because of my fear. I was too scared to just plunge into the solution. I had to ease into it. Unfortunately, recovery is an all-or-nothing proposition, so this did not really work so well at first. You can’t do recovery halfway–this just results in relapse. But I took the steps that I had to take and that may have meant going to counseling for a while even though it did not really seem to help much.
Everyone who has made the journey to sobriety can look back after they are sober and see how their journey led them to where they are today. This is not magical or anything, of course past events led up to your present reality–how could it be any other way? But the connections that we make and the things that we realize from looking at our past journey can still be interesting. In that way we can see how our failed attempts at doing something were actually teaching us what we needed to know in order to be successful one day. In other words, I can look back and see how the counseling was probably necessary for me, even though it did not lead me directly to sobriety. I had to do that in order to know that I needed more help. I had to try and fail a few times in order to realize that I needed way more treatment than what I was (currently) willing to embrace. I had a fear of treatment and especially of long term rehab and in order to overcome this I had to try and fail with lessor treatment options. I had to become desperate. It was only in desperation that I was able to move beyond my fear.
So the secret to overcoming your fear in early recovery is to ask for help and follow through on the suggestions. Simple as that. You are afraid of recovery, of treatment, of relapse–the solution is to ask others for guidance and to follow their direction. Shift the responsibility onto others by asking them to tell you what to do. Of course this does not absolve you of all responsibility but at least it puts the initial decision and direction into someone else’s hands. For too long you have been running your own show, and the fear of failure is part of your anxiety and hesitation. Instead of trying to figure everything out all the time, simply ask for help. Ask someone you trust to tell you how to beat your addiction. Ask them what you should do. They will likely suggest professional treatment services. Your willingness to go to treatment is a measure of your willingness to overcome your fears.
When we are on the brink of sobriety we will feel helpless and afraid, because nothing seems to work in our life anymore. We are caught in our addiction and we can no longer find happiness no matter what we do. We are miserable while self medicating and we are miserable if we try to avoid our drug of choice (in the short run anyway). It is only in the long run that sobriety can give us our true happiness back. But it is so difficult to see that when you are struggling with an addiction. Others can see this though, and therefore we should take their advice and guidance.
We overcome our fears by taking action. If we do not take any action in the real world then we have done nothing to mitigate our fears. It is only through action that we can overcome. This is why thinking about recovery and thinking about your addiction is completely useless. The solution is in taking action. If you actually go check into rehab and start taking steps towards recovery then your fears will start to diminish quickly. But if you stay frozen without taking any action then your fears will be allowed to keep growing, and to fester. The only way to combat them is to take action.
How to transition to long term sobriety with confidence
After you have taken that initial leap of faith and gone to treatment, you will eventually find yourself in a relatively stable place in your sobriety. You may have been living in early recovery for a few months now and you have “found your footing” in early recovery. The threat of relapse is still there but it is slightly diminished now because you have a few months of sobriety under your belt.
As you become more and more established in your sobriety following early recovery, you start to move more and more towards “long term sobriety.” You are in a transition phase. Sobriety actually happens for “the rest of your life,” which is a very long time for most people. Yet the intensity of early recovery cannot last forever. Some people attend 3 AA meetings every day in early recovery, or they might even live in rehab for several months (as I once did). But these are not permanent solutions. You are not going to be attending 3 meetings per day after 20 years sober, nor can you live in rehab forever. Something has to change from the intense amount of support that you get in early recovery. That change is part of your transition into long term sobriety.
I was often confused during this transitional time period because the solution that was often offered was always “more support.” If you are worried about your recovery then seek more support. Go to more meetings. Call your sponsor. Get more involved in local recovery. And so on. If you were worried about relapse, then obviously you needed more support.
This made sense to me and I acted on it for a while by seeking out more support. But I also felt like there was a problem in doing so, because in seeking out further support it almost felt like I was just encouraging a dependency. How was I supposed to transition to long term recovery if I kept repeating the tactics that were so important in early recovery (daily meeting attendance, sponsorship, etc.)? Where was the evolution of my recovery? How was I supposed to build confidence while moving into long term recovery?
The answer came to me when I started to question the usefulness of daily meetings. At the time I was still sitting in an AA meeting each day, and was supposedly relying on such meetings to help keep me clean and sober (this felt like a dependency to some extent). The problem was that I was not getting a lot of value out of the meetings.
At first I feared that this was my own fault–the result of a bad attitude. People told me that if you had the right perspective that you could get something positive out of any meeting, or at least to learn something. I had to agree that this was true–I could learn something even from a horrible AA meeting, if I was willing to look at every possible angle.
My issue was that I could also learn something by sitting and staring at a wall for an hour–but did that mean that I should sit and stare at a wall every day? In other words, the AA meeting might be helpful to some people, some of the time, but was it really the best use of my time to spend an hour every single day in a meeting? My answer was leaning towards “no” but I could not pin down why exactly. I was afraid that I just had a bad attitude and was perhaps secretly trying to orchestrate my own relapse. (Quit going to meetings, then relapse, just like everyone in AA predicts will happen).
The truth was that my personality type was a terrible match for the grind of daily AA meetings. People tend to babble in meetings, and I was actually listening to every single word. This is not helpful to someone micro-analyzes everything that is being said. My time was better spent elsewhere, and I had to finally face up to that fact (for example, online recovery forums, exercise, interacting with peers in recovery outside of meetings, etc.).
My problem at this point was that there was this overwhelming message of fear in the AA meetings. The message was this: If you stop going to meetings you will relapse and die. That is the message (though sometimes it is softened a bit). I had been attending meetings for over a year at this point and I was terrified to leave them out of fear of relapse.
Was I just setting myself up for relapse? Was I sabotaging my own recovery effort just so I could go back to drinking and using drugs? Was I fooling myself?
I found that no matter how much soul searching I did, there was no way to know for absolute sure. I had to take the plunge and find my own path in recovery, then observe the results. That was the only way to know if I was on a successful path or not.
There was one specific technique that I used in order to help deal with this fear of relapse during my transition. The technique is known as “overwhelming force.”
I had a goal, and that goal was to remain clean and sober after I stopped attending AA meetings every day. That was my goal: to stay sober.
In order to reach that goal I did not just want to make a weak or average effort. Instead, I wanted to completely dominate the goal by going all out and totally crushing it. If it actually took ten units of effort in order to reach my goal, I wanted to put in twenty units of effort.
Because the goal of sobriety was so important to me, I did not just want to approach the challenge casually. Instead I wanted to get really serious and do everything in my power to meet and achieve my goal.
So I figured out what activities seemed to help me in my recovery, such as exercise and interacting with others via online recovery forums. Then I made sure to engage in these practices every single day. This was not a weak commitment where I might stop taking action after a few days of exercising. Instead, I focused all of my life energy on meeting and exceeding these goals for myself. I was figuring out what truly helped me in recovery, then I was making it a point to keep engaging in those things on a regular basis. I was removing AA but I was replacing it with a deliberate path of growth for myself.
I looked back to my early days in AA and considered my level of effort. In leaving the meetings I decided that my level of effort has to at least match that or exceed it if I was going to be successful. In other words, I was making sure that I worked my own program of recovery with the same intensity (or greater) than what I had put into AA.
While I was making this transition so many people from AA cautioned me that I was headed for relapse. But I stayed strong on my path because I could not bear to keep sitting through meetings that were not doing me any good. I had to find a better path in recovery, and I was willing to take on some risk in order to do this. There is no way to completely mitigate the fear, but I was able to keep moving forward by using the strategy of overwhelming force. I had my plan for recovery and I was pushing myself very hard to stick to it. Again, the way to overcome fear in recovery is through action. This is true regardless of whether or not you are following a specific program.
Discussing your fears with others
If you have an intense fear of relapse then you might use another technique other than overwhelming force:
Talk to other people about your fears.
Now this can only take you so far, especially if you are rejecting mainstream or traditional recovery practices. In other words, if you ask others for help regarding your fear, you have to be prepared for them to push you towards AA, counseling, and treatment. That is just going to be natural because those are the default solutions in our society right now.
But even if this is the case for you it is still worthwhile to talk to others about your fears. This is doubly true if the person has been through your situation or even something similar. The nice thing about addiction and recovery is that there are always people to talk with thanks to organized recovery programs. You can still benefit from these people even if you do not necessarily follow their programs exactly.
In other words, if you have fears about relapse then go find people who have significant clean time or sobriety and ask them how they dealt with those particular fears in their own journey. The answers might surprise you. Don’t just do this with one person either. Do this with several people and get lots of feedback. Some of them will undoubtedly just follow the party line and say “go to meetings, call your sponsor, etc.” And perhaps that will be what you need to hear at the time. But if you seek a variety of feedback then you might also hear some interesting suggestions that resonate with you. So it is worth talking to other people about your fear because you might hear something that turns out to be part of your solution.
Overcoming the fear without relying on other people or programs
Is it possible to overcome this fear without relying on other people or recovery programs? I believe that it is, and the secret is in taking massive action. You will need to find the things that are helpful to your recovery and that help to strengthen it, and then make a deliberate effort to do those things each day.
Ultimately, time is the great healer of all things, and it will eventually eliminate your fear of relapse (provided that you stay sober). But time will take care of itself, and you have no say in how fast it moves! Therefore you should explore the other strategies here (overwhelming force, talking with others in recovery, etc.).