One of the biggest fears that keeps people from taking the steps to achieve sobriety is the fear of relapse.
What will happen if I relapse after leaving treatment?
What will people think of me? Won’t they think less of me if I fail to stay clean and sober?
And so on. The threat of relapse is always going to be out there, hanging over your recovery. But this does not mean that you should not try to get clean and sober or seek to change your life for the better. Relapse does happen, and it can happen to the what appears to be the strongest of people in recovery, but this is no excuse for continued use in addiction.
You still have a responsibility to embrace recovery and seek to make positive changes in your life. The existence of relapse does not change this responsibility. It is still up to you to seek out a positive new life in recovery, and try to maintain abstinence.
Relapse can be part of the learning process
What do we really learn by relapse?
We learn exactly what it takes in order to stay clean and sober. Or rather, we learn how tough the goal actually is and that we were not trying hard enough.
If someone relapses in their recovery, it is because they had not dedicated their life enough to the goal of recovery. They had not committed fully enough to the sole purpose of maintaining abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
This happens all the time, especially when someone is brand new to the recovery process and has never attempted to get clean and sober in the past. This is not uncommon. What happens is that the person approaches recovery with a certain mindset, a certain attitude, and they fully expect that they will be successful in staying clean and sober.
People do this because they have life experience, and so they know how most things work in life: you make a modest effort at something, and then you get modest results. They assume that–based on their other life experiences–that they can do the same thing in addiction recovery. They believe that they can make a modest effort with recovery and probably manage to stay clean and sober without too much difficulty.
Now the trick here is that staying clean and sober is an all or nothing proposition. You either maintain sobriety, or you experience a full relapse. There is no in-between.
People who are basing their efforts on previous life experience are used to having an in-between result. They are used to being able to try a little and get a little, try a lot and get a lot. Recovery does NOT work that way. With addiction, if you try a little, you fail. If you try a little harder, you will still relapse. Recovery is all or nothing. Therefore, the only way to succeed is to try harder than you have ever tried anything in your life before. You have to actually give recovery a 100 percent effort. You have to actually dedicate your entire life to the mission of staying clean and sober.
Most people do NOT get that the first time that they try to sober up. Most people have to try and fail a few times before they realize that recovery is all or nothing, and that they really have to make a supreme effort at it.
So this is the learning process that involves relapse. This is what people learn when they fail to stay clean and sober. What they are really learning on a deep level is that they did not try hard enough, they did not commit strongly enough to recovery, they did not dedicate their entire life to recovery. That is the lesson that relapse teaches, though not everyone is ready to learn that lesson. That is why some people have to try and fail multiple times before they finally “get it” and learn how to stay clean and sober for good.
Better to try and fail than not to try at all
Given this learning process that can result from relapse, it is definitely better to try and fail than to not try at all.
My own experience confirms this, as I tried twice to get clean and sober and failed both times before I was finally successful on my third attempt.
I had to do what I had to do, though, and those two failures were part of my journey to success. If I had not experienced those first two relapses, I do not believe that I could have taken the action that I did on my third time around.
For example, when I finally got clean and sober “for good” over eleven years ago, I did so by attending a long term treatment center and living there for several months. This was an important step that I had never been willing to take in the past.
The second time I went to treatment, the counselors and therapists got to know me a bit and they realized that I was in a dire situation, that I was just going to leave rehab and end up relapsing very quickly. They could see this coming just as sure as anything, and so they made recommendations to try to prevent it. They tried to get me to go live in long term treatment.
Now this was my second rehab attempt, and I was not willing to commit to this. I was not ready to take that much action. I was not ready to truly dedicate my life to recovery. I was still hanging on to something personal, I was still hanging on to some sort of pride within me, and I could not bear the idea of actually living in rehab in order to try to stay clean and sober. In my mind, this was too great a sacrifice. So at the time, I rejected the idea of long term rehab, even though it would have been the best thing for me. The therapists and counselors at treatment centers are not stupid, and they watch recovering addicts all the time, seeing some who make it and some who do not. They knew that I was headed for relapse if I did not seek additional treatment.
So I stubbornly left rehab that time and promptly relapsed. I relapsed right away, in fact. But this was still an important failure, it was still an important lesson, and it taught me something that I would later apply directly to my life and to my recovery:
That I needed long term treatment.
This was a tough lesson to learn, and it was relapse that taught it to me.
I had to experience this first hand, not be told. Professionals were trying to tell me, they were screaming at me that I needed long term rehab. But I would not hear of it, and so I ended up relapsing. Surprise surprise, addicts tend to learn the hard way! I was certainly no exception to this. So I relapsed after my second treatment because I refused to attend long term treatment.
It took me about a full year of pain and misery and trying to self medicate before I finally came to grips with the idea that those professional counselors and therapists may have been right. Maybe I really did need the level of help and care that they were suggesting.
So the idea of relapse is not something that you should be comfortable with or expect to happen to you, but realize that it can be one of the best teachers. This is not an excuse to plan on relapse, or to justify relapse, or to count on it happening in your recovery. Some people die from relapse, learning the ultimate lesson just a little too late. The idea is to maintain abstinence, forever, one day at a time. That is still your ultimate goal. My journey involved relapse because I tend to learn things the hard way. Hopefully you can learn from my experience and not have to bang your head into the wall as much as I did.
If you are terrified of relapse then there are a few things that you can do to help prevent it. I would outline this approach as follows:
1) Find massive support in your recovery.
2) Use a holistic approach to personal growth.
3) Dedicate your life to recovery.
Finding massive support in your recovery
In early recovery, social support is especially critical in my opinion. There are a number of reasons for this, the first of which is that we cannot recovery alone.
No man is an island in recovery, and the thing that you need most is information. You need new information in order to recover because the old information that you have about how to live a successful and happy life is all wrong.
This means that your way was not working. Drinking and drugging yourself to death turned out to be a dead end, and resulted in misery. These were your best ideas about how to live a successful life. So you need some new ideas. You need a better way to live your new life in recovery.
There are books and there are websites that you can read and you can sit and read for days about recovery. But there is something to be said for real life social interaction when it comes to learning how to stay clean and sober. The problem is that the books and the literature cannot help you with the idea of “relating” to others.
We need this social element in early recovery so that we can relate to other people. Why is this important?
It’s important because early recovery is a roller coaster of emotions. We are bound to have moments, hours, and days when we feel like we are going absolutely crazy in our recovery. Are we the only ones who have felt this way, ever? Are we the only one in the world who truly loves drugs and alcohol and really needs them in order to function? Are we the only person in recovery who has intense feelings and is just dying to medicate them and make them go away? Are we the only person in recovery who has ever felt pain or anger or fear or frustration? Does anyone else feel these feelings? Does anyone else care?
At some point every newcomer in recovery is going to be screaming these sorts of questions to the world, they are going to be in a bad place, and they are going to need some form of social reassurance. They will be emotionally upset and their mind will be racing and they will be on the verge of relapse. A book will not help them. Literature will not save them. What they need at this moment is for another human being to tell them that it is OK, that they have been there too, that they have felt those emotions and that they got through it sober, and that you can get through it sober too if you just hold on, if you talk it out, if you pray, if you exercise, if you take action, if you share your problem, if you reach out and ask for help, or whatever.
We need PEOPLE to get us through these rough moments in our recovery process. We cannot do it alone. Every person is going to have ups and downs in their recovery journey, and if they do not have some strong social support surrounding them then they are going to be in danger of relapsing.
We need help in order to recover. We could not do it ourselves, or we certainly would have. Instead, we had to ask for help, and reach out to other people in order to recover.
Where can you find social support in your recovery? I have 3 strong suggestions. Use them all if you are truly terrified of relapse:
1) Treatment centers. Get phone numbers while there. Stay connected, help each other. Stay strong. Encourage each other.
2) 12 step meetings. Go to AA or NA or both, and get heavily involved. Attend lots of meetings. Get “plugged in” to the groups. Find a sponsor.
3) Religious communities. Do you attend church? Did you do so in the past? Go back, get involved in that community, seek to help others.
Grow strong in your recovery with a holistic approach to relapse prevention
If you are truly scared of possible relapse then you will want to get active about pursuing personal growth.
What does this have to do with recovery?
Preventing relapse is all about personal growth. They have a saying in recovery programs: “You are either working on recovery, or you are working on a relapse.”
The opposite of relapse is personal growth.
When you are making great strides in your personal growth, there is virtually no chance of relapse. When you are truly pushing yourself to make positive changes and to grow in your recovery, there is no real chance of relapse at that time.
It is only when you STOP pushing yourself to make positive changes that you end up getting into trouble.
Why is this?
Because life is awesome when you are making progress, reaching goals, and creating positive change. When you have all of that stuff going on, the idea of relapse is foreign and remote. You would not think to even take your drug of choice when things are going well because it would too great a sacrifice, too big of a step backwards.
Now if you happen to be slacking off for months on end and you have not made any real growth or progress or positive changes for months at a time, then you are in a much more likely position to relapse. What have you got to lose? Not much! You aren’t going anywhere, you are not doing anything positive, you are not making positive changes in your life, so why not relapse?
This idea is even more pronounced when it comes to helping others in recovery. This is what makes 12 step work so powerful (the idea of helping others in recovery). If you are actively working to really help others to recover, your chances of relapse will plummet. You are not likely to relapse if you are genuinely helping other people to recover on a regular basis.
So how does one pursue personal growth in recovery?
How does one seek to make these positive changes? What do the do exactly, and how do they decide on what changes to make?
You simply prioritize based on the goals that you want to achieve.
I believe that everyone in recovery should at least explore the following areas:
1) Have an exercise or fitness goal. Push themselves to be healthier physically.
2) Eliminate bad habits – if they smoke cigarettes, push hard to quit.
3) Working with others in recovery – find a way to “give back” and help or teach others about recovery. Do this on a regular basis, make it automatic, make it a part of their lives.
4) Education/career – seek to move forward in one or both of these areas.
It is not unreasonable in my opinion for a person to be working on two of those goal at the same time, so long as their main focus in life remains their sobriety.
Dedicate your life to recovery if you are serious about avoiding relapse
So there are two ideas so far in preventing relapse:
1) Find a huge amount of social support in your recovery.
2) Push yourself hard to make personal growth in your recovery.
The third idea is really only about intensity. The third idea is that you must dedicate your entire life to recovery.
In my opinion this means that your highest truth has to be your need for physical abstinence.
The most important thing in your life, by far, is that you never put a drink or a drug into your body.
It is amazing to me how many people screw that up or lose sight of it.
Your most important truth in life is complete abstinence.
How easy it can be for us to complicate it beyond that!
So keep it simple with these 3 ideas for relapse prevention:
1) Never put a drink or a drug into your body. Period.
2) Find a social support system, such as the 12 step program or a religious community. “Plug in” to that support system and get involved with it.
3) Push yourself hard to keep making personal growth and positive changes in your life. Do not expect the other two ideas to keep you clean and sober without ALSO including this push for personal growth.
This is relapse prevention in a nutshell. One absolute mandate not to use drugs or booze and two concepts that can help you to better deal with life.
My opinion is that if you are a struggling drug or alcoholic, you cannot simply take these three ideas and implement them directly into your life one day, without any sort of learning process to build up to this.
It takes time and effort to make these changes, to transition to this new life in recovery.
For me, that meant attending treatment. I had to get serious enough to become willing to attend treatment before I could even think about making any of these changes. I could not consider the idea of “making personal growth” until I found some sort of stability from being at inpatient treatment for a while.
Attending rehab allowed me to transition to this new life of positive changes. But it did not happen overnight. I had to surrender, I had to be willing to attend treatment, I had to be willing to listen to others for a while and take some advice and direction in my life.
Are you ready to take the next step towards your new life, and decide if addiction treatment is right for you?