Relapse Prevention in Addiction Recovery is All About Training

Relapse Prevention in Addiction Recovery is All About Training


In our active addiction, we use our drug of choice for nearly any excuse, and for any reason.

Actually what happens is that we come to use our drug of choice nearly all the time, so that we are constantly self medicating. But do not forget that in order to do this (and to continue to do this) the addict or alcoholic has to keep mentally justifying it. We have to keep living in our own head and being OK with ourselves and our behavior. So the justification part is important. It is what “gives us permission” to use drugs or alcohol.

In recovery, our goal is to eliminate those excuses and that justification and not even get to that point. We want to shut it all down before it even gets started, so that our brain does not even have a chance to talk us into using drugs or alcohol. This requires some practice, it requires some training, and it requires some discipline.

Conditioning starts with the decision for abstinence

The most important conditioning that you are going to do is in terms of your mental decision for complete abstinence.

For me this started with a trip to detox and a visit to a residential treatment center. Mentally, I treated mood and mind altering substances (including alcohol) as if it were poison or a hot flame. My mind instantly recoiled in horror at the thought of relapse. This was a decision that I made after I had finally surrendered to my disease. The reason that I conditioned my mind this way was because I was finally putting a serious and total effort into sobriety.

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Thus, my cost of failure was very high in this case. If I failed now, it would mean that I probably could not stay clean and sober, ever. Why not? Because I was giving this a supreme effort. I was actually giving this a 100 percent effort, doing anything and everything that I could to stay clean and sober. I was willing to live in long term rehab, something I had never been able to muster in the past. Mentally I was gearing myself up to make this venture successful at any cost.

Right away, even in my early recovery, I started to see other people fail and relapse. This intimidated me because so many of these people who relapsed had expressed such strong conviction in AA and NA meetings. I realized then that it did not matter one bit how much conviction you displayed outwardly to the world. The people who did this the best were always the ones who seemed to relapse.

It was obvious to me that some of the people who were not quite as vocal or obnoxious in the meetings were also the ones who were being successful. Somehow they had an inner conviction that was more powerful and stronger than that of the people who were relapsing. Somehow they were stronger than the relapse crew from a mental perspective. They had trained their minds better in their recovery somehow. Or rather, they had their priorities straight, whereas the people who had relapsed obviously did not.

When we talk about “training for addiction recovery” we are not really talking about physical training. Mostly we are referring to mental conditioning, your spiritual fitness, and how level you remain emotionally. All three of these areas can come into play when it comes time for live to smack you in the face and cause you to want to relapse.

Mental conditioning

I have talked many times about the idea of a “zero tolerance policy.” It does very little good for you to convince everyone else that you are serious about recovery. Talking about it means nothing. Explaining in a 12 step meeting how deep your convictions are about staying sober is absolutely useless. I have seen people do this over and over again only to relapse shortly thereafter.

What you need to do instead is to get it straight in your own mind that you are not going to use drugs or alcohol, no matter what. This is the mental conditioning that is so important.

In fact, my belief is that this mental conditioning is the THE most important thing in your life, period. You should put this little task above all others.

If you relapse, you lose everything. Your life reverts to misery and chaos. If you stay clean and sober, at least you have a chance.

Therefore, you have to condition your mind to be deathly afraid of picking up a drink or a drug.

How to do this? How to condition your mind?

Here is what worked for me:

* Never again allow yourself the luxury of fantasizing about getting drunk or high. Never. If you notice yourself daydreaming about using or drinking, shut it down immediately. If you continue to romanticize your drug of choice then you will either relapse or remain miserable in recovery.

* Keep reminding yourself that total abstinence is your number one priority in life.

* Do some research and determine what is mood and mind altering and what is not. Certain drugs will cause you to go into full relapse. Tylenol is not one of them. Be reasonable and also be smart about this. I still take asthma inhalers, drink coffee, and take OTC headache meds when needed. But if my doctor tries to give me Xanax or Vicodin I will tend to ask for alternatives. When it comes to putting chemicals into your body, you are ultimately your own doctor in the end (even if you still rely on a real doctor for advice). I saw many people justify a “relapse” because it was deemed medically “necessary” based on their symptoms. Don’t fall into the “medical trap” and take addictive pills that you don’t really need. (Maybe you DO need them, but the point is to be extremely careful and do NOT rely just on one doctor’s opinion, especially if they are saying that there are no alternatives to an addictive drug!).

* Make sobriety your most important priority in life. Put it before everything else. Remind yourself that you lose everything if you relapse.

Being spiritually fit

Becoming spiritually fit is going to mean different things to different people.

If you are an extremely religious person based on your past, then getting into spiritual shape may involve revisiting these roots.

This does NOT mean that everyone in recovery needs to go to church. For others, being in spiritual shape may mean something else entirely.

I mentioned that relapse prevention was not really about physical training earlier. But in a way it can be, because physical exercise can be a bigger part of your spiritual journey than most people realize or give credit for.

Exercise is moving meditation. If you get into the habit of exercising on a regular basis, then you are also getting into the habit of meditating on a regular basis. Most people do not really realize this or they believe that in order to do more effective meditation they would have to be sitting cross legged in a dark room somewhere or at the top of a mountain. In reality, anyone who gets into that “zone” while they are exercising on a regular basis is enjoying the benefits of a spiritual experience as well. This becomes your refuge and your quiet time away from the world.

There are other ways to connect with a higher power and seek spirituality, and your ability to resist relapse may be dependent on this. Over the long run in your recovery, you are going to need to have inner strength to draw from at certain times when reality comes crashing down on you. There may also be times in your life when the people who you normally depend on let you down. Having a higher power or an inner strength of some kind is the only thing left that can help to pull you through such situations without resorting to your drug of choice.

Remaining emotionally stable

It took me at least a year or two into my recovery before I could really see and admit that our sobriety depended almost entirely on emotional stability. People who relapsed did so when they were extremely upset, angry, scared, sad, or outraged. It was almost never a mental process by which someone relapsed, but an emotional one.

One of my therapists in long term treatment realized this fully and tried to teach us how to overcome emotional instability. She attempted to train us to recognize our emotions and not to just blindly react to them.

Our training consisted of something along these lines:

1) Recognize when you are experiencing a negative emotion (such as anger, outrage, frustration, etc.)

2) Identify what emotion is underneath the anger (hurt, fear, etc.).

3) Communicate that fear or hurt to the other person involved.

It’s a tough process to follow through on and it takes real guts to tell someone that they have hurt or scared you in some way. But this is how to achieve emotional freedom through honest communication.

Some people are so detached from their emotions that they need to practice just to be able to identify when they are upset or angry. They may be so used to emotional turmoil that they do not even realize when they are upset. Such people would benefit from this “emotional training” much more than others.

Remaining emotionally stable in recovery is a study in relationships. The big book of AA addresses this as well if you work through all of the 12 steps and actually do what it outlines in the book.

What it boils down to though is simply this: You cannot stay angry in recovery and expect to avoid relapse. If you keep getting upset and frustrated and you do not have a good way to deal with it emotionally then you are going to have problems. Part of your “training” in recovery may be to learn how to deal with your emotions better, and how to communicate those emotions effectively with other people.

Experiencing the highs and lows of recovery

Given enough time in recovery, every addict and alcoholic is going to experience a full range of stuff. They will go through extremely happy times and extremely sad times. They will go through peak victories and also crushing defeats. They will be tested in many different ways. It is all just a matter of time. Life keeps happening, both good and bad things keep happening, and eventually we are all going to go through some rough times.

This is not just speculation that you might face some rough patches in your recovery if you get unlucky. No, this is a promise that every human is going to have some good times and some bad times. It is certain. If you keep living then you are eventually going to face some really tough situations, some serious emotional upheaval, and some very strong temptations. Eventually every addict will come face to face with their drug of choice and be in a situation where they would be almost totally anonymous, where the only person who would know that they relapsed would be themselves. This may not happen tomorrow or next week but given enough time in your life it will happen eventually. Everyone gets tested eventually. This is just a function of time going by and the random nature of things in the world.

When these things happen your “training” that you have done will be put to the test. How good is your relapse prevention effort? If you remain clean and sober through the worst of your trials then it was “good enough.” If you fail to remain clean and sober when you get tested throughout life then you are not putting in enough effort into your “training.”

If and when a person relapses, they can look back at what happened and try to decipher if:

* They had not really surrendered and fully committed to the idea of total and complete abstinence.
* They were not spiritually fit or did not have any inner strength to draw from in case of a crisis situation.
* They allowed themselves to react blindly with anger or frustration instead of learning to step back from the situation and communicate about it.

It is almost always going to be one of these three ideas that tripped them up and led to their relapse.

In other words, they either relapsed emotionally, spiritually, or mentally before they actually picked up the drink or the drug.

And in all reality they probably experienced all three levels of relapse before they finally picked up the physical drug. But it is one of these things in particular that usually stands out as having led to their downfall.

Remember that life is going to keep having ups and downs, that much is a given. It is certain. And of course it is all in how we deal with those ups and downs that determines our success or failure in recovery. The only way to improve your chances at dealing with these challenges is to “train” yourself to do so–mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is then that you will have the best chance at avoiding a physical relapse.

How to deal with life when you get tested

If and when you get tested, your strength in recovery will be called into question. Whether you realize it or not your disease is going to try to get you to relapse, and it is up to you to overcome this urge.

If you have “trained properly” in your recovery then you should not have any problems with the trials and chaos that life may throw at you. If you find yourself on the brink of relapse then this is a strong warning sign that you need to do more work on your recovery program. Depending on what is triggering you to want to relapse, you may have to do some work on your emotional, spiritual, or mental sides of your recovery program.

Many people depend on social support in their recovery. I have mixed feelings about this because on the one hand, relying on 12 step meetings or social support can be very helpful to some people in recovery. On the other hand, if you are actually depending on the meetings to keep you sober then this is a clear sign that you are avoiding the training that you need to be engaged in. If you stop going to meetings and this causes you to relapse, then you did not do enough “training” in your life in order to have a strong program of recovery. Meetings can be helpful but they should not become a dependency.

Many people who frequent 12 step meetings and depend on them to remain sober are doing so out of laziness. What they are really doing is avoiding the work that would help them to stay sober on their own. Instead of learning to deal with their emotions, become spiritually fit, and make the mental commitment to not use drugs and alcohol, they are just going to meetings every day and whining and moaning about their problems. It is enough for most people to remain sober but not enough for them to start leading a strong life of personal growth in recovery. Meeting dependence is like limping through recovery on crutches.

So one way to deal with life when you get tested is to draw on social support. But this is also an indication that you can do more “training,” such that you depend less on social support in the future.

Taking action and doing some recovery “training”

It all depends on where you are at in your recovery journey.

One way to get started is to go to inpatient rehab. This worked for me and represented the start of my official “training” for relapse prevention.

Another way to do some intense training for your recovery is to live in long term rehab. Again, this worked well for me, but I would also argue that my training extended long after I left long term rehab.

Conscious awareness is a huge key to all of this and you should listen carefully to what your life situation is telling you about what training you most need. If you are constantly blowing up in anger at others and have a lot of emotional chaos in your life, then obviously you need to get that under control if you are going to have a shot at long term sobriety. If you are constantly flip flopping on your mental decision to remain abstinent then you should probably concentrate on getting your thought process straight as far as your sobriety is concerned.

If you are in a twelve step program then what you would want to do is to get busy in actively working the steps. If you are not following that particular path then you would still want to take action and continue to make positive changes.

Mentally, every person in recovery has to commit to 100 percent total abstinence. Not only that but they have to mentally put this at the top of their list, it has to become the most important objective in their life. It must become their absolute highest truth.

Spiritually, every person in recovery has to have an inner strength that they can draw on when their social support fails them. They need to have that connection that allows them to be strong when no other support is available.

Emotionally, every person in recovery has to be stable enough so that their anger, fear, and frustration does not cause them to relapse. If their relationships or outside circumstances are causing them to relapse then they need to find a way to manage this and get it under control.

Each of these objectives can be purposefully addressed. You can actively work on any of these three aspects of your life and take action and practice certain things in order to get stronger in that area. Thus relapse prevention can be described as “training” in recovery.


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