How to Overcome Failure and Relapse in Recovery

How to Overcome Failure and Relapse in Recovery

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Yesterday we looked at how to reboot your life in recovery. Today we want to look at how we might overcome failure and relapse in recovery.

Most people are beating themselves up very badly when they first get to recovery. The moment right before you finally surrender is typically pretty brutal. Most people have completely wiped out whatever self esteem they had remaining. They are caught up in the cycle of addiction and they beat themselves up for it. They blame their alcoholism or addiction on themselves, and they believe that they are a terrible person because they could not better control their intake.

Once people are in recovery, failure can still happen in the form of relapse. Some people are afraid to label relapse as a “failure” but I think it is important to call it like it really is. The goal in recovery is continuous sobriety. Anything less than that is a failure, in my opinion, and this label seems to be consistent with the results that I see in other people.

In other words, while working in a rehab center for over five years and living in long term treatment for two years, I can honestly say that everyone around me who relapsed “failed.” I suppose if you want to try to soften the blow a bit you can try to avoid that label and call it something else, but to me it is a failure when you go back to drinking and using drugs. We need to be honest with ourselves and this is one time when the brutal truth is better than trying to spare someone’s feelings. Relapse is the worst possible outcome during recovery (second only to death itself) and therefore we need to label it accurately. I refuse to soften the blow and say that relapse is merely “a stumbling block” or that it is “an opportunity to learn about yourself.” Forget all that. Relapse is failure and we want to avoid it at all costs. Let’s call it like we see it. Relapse is enemy number one for the recovering addict or alcoholic.

That said, when you first try to get clean and sober to begin with, you have to allow yourself the chance to get started in recovery. Some people prevent themselves from doing this because they are too busy beating themselves up or being down on themselves for being such a terrible person in addiction.

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Obviously this needs to be overcome if you are to be successful. The way to overcome this is to give yourself a break.

What does it mean to “give yourself a break” in recovery?

You may hear this cliche a lot if you attend 12 step meetings, and you should think carefully about what it really means. Do not just dismiss the phrase out of hand.

“Giving yourself a break” means that you are going to forgive yourself and agree to start taking positive action. We can easily sabotage ourselves and our own efforts by being negative about our situation, about our lives, and about the fact that we are a “bad person.” In order to truly give yourself a break in recovery you have to let go of all of that stuff, you have to release it and allow yourself a clean slate and a chance to heal.

Recovery is about change. It is about taking positive action. If you do not allow yourself to take positive action then you do not have a chance at being successful in sobriety. Therefore you need to stop beating yourself up long enough to allow yourself to take some positive action.

Think about it: if you are completely down on yourself all the time, how are you going to allow yourself to make positive changes? Won’t you just shoot those options down because they are being too good to yourself? Are you really going to feel like you deserve the positive benefits of recovery if you keep telling yourself that you are a terrible person?

In our addiction we were a complete failure. I think it is important to admit this and realize it and accept it on a very deep level. If you try to dress this up or tell yourself that positive things in order to skirt around this truth then you are only staying deeper in denial and preventing yourself from true surrender. So admit and accept that your addiction was a total failure. Admit and accept that you just totally screwed up your life and damaged all sorts of relationships and acted totally selfishly with your drug or alcohol consumption during your addiction. I think it is important to admit and accept this. The goal is not to suppress this or to try and justify or rationalize it away. You are not making excuses for why you self medicated so much in your addiction, that is not the point. You did what you did and you should own up to it. But at the same time you have to realize that there is only one sensible path forward right now, from this point in time, and that is to become a better person and try to reach out and help others.

Really, what’s in the past is done and you can only move forward at this point. Your best redemption to the world is to learn how to live clean and sober and then start being responsible. If you are proactive in your recovery then you will probably create some positive ripples of change in the world as well.

Just think about how the next ten years will unfold if you continue to self medicate every day compared to if you stay clean and sober for those ten years. Just think about all of the second and third order effects of your sobriety that will multiply over the next ten years. Just think about all of the people that you might help in this world, and how those people might help others after that. This is not just about being sober or drunk over the next week or the next year. And this is not just about your life. This is multiplied by the next decade or two and it is also multiplied by all of the people that your life will affect.

Realize all of this and then give yourself a break. Ever since you were born you have been doing the best that you could do in each situation, given the resources that you had. Maybe there were some moments when you were “bad” or when you acted selfishly, but in reality you were just trying to do the best that you could do with what you knew at the time. If you hurt others or lashed out at the world then it was not because you are evil, it was simply because you did not know how to get what you needed at the time. You are not an evil person. At worst, you are a sick person who is struggling to get well again.

Some people take issue with this and believe that it is a bunch of false rationalization but it is absolutely the truth. I have walked the lonely road of alcoholism and drug addiction and I know what it is like to believe that I am just a selfish and rotten person based on the chaos that I created due to my addiction. The truth is that I was screwed up, I was addicted, and I was struggling to find a better path in life. I need to accept responsibility for all of my actions, but I should not blame myself or label myself as evil simply because my body was addicted to chemicals. There is a fine line there and you need to find it. You are not evil just because you have a dependency that you did not ask for.

Therefore the way to “give yourself a break” is to acknowledge your failure, acknowledge the addiction and the dependency, and then realize that this is not part of what makes you a good or a bad person. The dependency itself was not your choosing. You did not choose to be addicted or dependent. That is the point upon which you must give yourself a break. That is the point where you need to cut yourself some slack, and realize that you were not to blame for all of it.

That said, you still need to take action. If you are still stuck in addiction, or if you have relapsed, then you need to take certain actions. Let’s see what those actions are.

The appropriate response to relapse

The appropriate response to relapse is exactly the same as if you are still struggling with addiction and have never attempted sobriety before. The actions that are needed are the same.

Here is what you need to do:

1) Ask for help from someone that you trust. If you do not trust anyone or have anyone to talk to then you should call up a treatment center or drug rehab directly.
2) The people that you trust and ask for help will tell you what to do. Stop trying to control everything in your life (surrender) and simply do what they tell you to do.
3) Follow through on what you are taught about how to live a life in recovery. “Following through” means taking suggestions and acting on them.

If you have suffered a relapse then the most important thing that you can do is that first suggestion of asking for help. Do NOT keep your relapse a secret. This is the worst possible thing that you can do and this is exactly what “your addiction” wants you to do. If you keep it a secret then your addiction can grow and fester and perpetuate itself without being stopped.

Likewise, if you experience any other failure in recovery that is not a direct relapse, the most important thing that you can do is to ask for help or feedback from others regarding it. In doing so you will learn that:

* Your failure is probably not as bad as you thought it was.
* There is a definite course of action forward that will result in positive change.
* You are not alone.

This is the same reassurance that you will need if you relapse, or if you have simply never tried to sober up to begin with. We do not want to minimize relapse in any way. All we want to do is to acknowledge that it happened, regroup our efforts, and then move forward and take positive action. Really that is all you can do that is rational at all. Anything else is some sort of manipulation or attempt to deny the truth.

If you relapse then it is important to act quickly. Tell someone about it immediately. Don’t wait and keep it a secret. Keeping it secret is absolutely the worst thing that you can do. Instead you want to bring it out to people you trust and ask them for help. This is the only appropriate response to relapse. Share about it with others and then try to move forward. Regroup and then take positive action.

How to take advice and direction and follow through on it

The way to take advice and follow through on it is to get out of your own way. This is easier said than done because our ego is constantly trying to jump into the mix and make sure that it has everything under control.

In early recovery it is not possible for your ego to be happy while you are learning a new way to live. There is just no way for this to happen smoothly. In order for you to learn a new way of life you are going to have to squash your ego like a bug and become open to new ideas.

Why is this necessary? Because what you were doing was not working. This is true if you relapsed and this is also true if you have never been in recovery to begin with. In both cases your life was a mess and it was leading you to bad places. If you want to go back to those results then the process is simple: just listen to your ego and go back to taking your own advice. In order to take positive action and move forward you are probably going to have to take someone else’s advice instead of your own. This is why recovery programs exist, so that they can think for you and prescribe action in early recovery. Our way was not working and our own efforts only tended to sabotage our results. This is how alcoholics would celebrate their new found sobriety with a drink! Left to our own devices we will generally screw things up in early recovery and revert back to our old behaviors. Obviously we do not want this outcome.

When to get radical and make major changes

Let’s say that you initially tried to get clean and sober. You surrendered and asked for help. Suggestions were made and you took a few of them and tried to follow through. Maybe you went to rehab or counseling or a few AA meetings. Maybe you did all three of those things. Whatever the case may be, eventually you ended up relapsing in spite of your actions.

What then?

At some point you have to consider your level of surrender and your corresponding level of willingness. For example, I went to rehab three times before things finally clicked and worked for me. The first two rehab trips I was not willing to surrender completely, though I did not realize this at the time. If you have not fully surrendered then it is probably impossible to know this. On the other hand, if you have fully surrendered, you will know it for sure. This is a bit confusing so read that again. If you have not yet fully surrendered then there is probably no way to realize this and accept it. You will hold out hope that you have “surrendered enough” even though you haven’t.

If this is the case then you will relapse. The only way to avoid relapse is to surrender fully and completely, 100 percent. Most people have to go “through the ringer” a few times before they reach this point. And unfortunately, if you are sitting in a meeting or in treatment and you are not yet fully surrendered, it is probably impossible to know that. Experience will teach you the truth. More chaos and misery is the path to full surrender. I wish there was a shortcut around this harsh truth but I have not found it.

Therefore the time to make radical chances is when you cannot seem to succeed in recovery. Try to get sober and fail over and over again, and you know it is time to make radical changes. Perhaps you should consider living in rehab as I did for 20 months. This worked for me when all other approaches failed. But of course I had to surrender fully before I would even agree to go to long term treatment. And therein lies the problem and the corresponding solution: you have to take massive action in order to recover, but you will only do so after you have fully surrendered. Therefore it all hinges on your total surrender.

How to try something different in recovery in order to get different results

Elevate your level of treatment.

I started with counseling sessions for an hour each week. Guess what? That didn’t work! I continued to use drugs and alcohol during this time.

What eventually worked for me was a much more intensive level of treatment. In fact what finally worked for me was living in treatment for 20 continuous months. This is quite a bit different from spending one hour in counseling each week! As they say in AA sometimes, “it takes what it takes.”

So therein lies a good suggestion for you: elevate your level of treatment. If you tried meetings in the past, then give rehab a chance. If you’ve tried rehab before, then try long term treatment. Or combine recovery methods and add counseling into the mix. Whatever. Try something new, use a new approach, mix it up and push yourself to try new things. You are not going to change your life if you just stay stuck in an old pattern. Change requires change!

There are also at least 2 major paths that you can take in recovery: religious based or 12 step based. Most people automatically find themselves funneled into 12 step based recovery but if that has failed for you then you might consider trying the religious based path. Of course this will only make sense for most people if such a path lines up well with your existing religious beliefs. But it is certainly worth experimenting with if nothing has worked for you in the past and you continue to relapse.

Perhaps most importantly is the idea that you should never just accept relapse and resign yourself to using or drinking. Never resign yourself to failure. Never do this and expect things to change. You will just sink deeper and deeper into the clutches of addiction. No, it takes a deliberate effort and a lot of momentum in order to climb out of the addiction pit. It will not happen all by itself without an enormous effort on your part, so do not expect this to happen automatically. It is a mistake to walk around while still drinking or abusing drugs and casually think “oh maybe something will happen that will cause me to stop using drugs and drinking so much.” This is fantasy. Nothing will happen unless you decide to make it happen. Always remember that and realize that the responsibility for recovery falls squarely on your own shoulders. No one is going to recover for you if you do not put for the effort to make it happen for yourself.

Therefore the only appropriate response to relapse is to climb back up on the horse as quickly as possible. Take action now and do NOT keep it a secret!

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