A recovering alcoholic who is headed for relapse does not just suddenly snap one day and decide to get drunk again.
There is a process and a series of events that leads up to the moment when the person pours alcohol down their throat. Something happens inside on an emotional level before the decision is made to put drugs or alcohol into the body.
When we talk about this phenomenon we often refer to it as “emotional relapse.” Before you actually pick up the drink or the drug, something happens on an emotional level whereby the alcoholic thinks “Screw it, I am just going to get drunk.”
How does this happen, and why does it happen?
And perhaps most importantly, how can we prevent it?
Emotional relapse always precedes physical relapse
I lived in long term treatment for almost two years at the beginning of my sobriety journey. During that time I lived with eleven other struggling alcoholics who were trying to learn how to live a sober life.
Many of these peers ended up relapsing. In fact, looking back, nearly all of them relapsed. Only a handful of us remained sober in the long run.
And I started to watch this process of relapse more carefully, because I wanted to avoid that particular fate. I did not want to get to the point where I was so frustrated that I decided to flush all of my efforts down the drain and drink or use drugs again.
One of the things that I noticed very early in my recovery journey was that the people who relapsed almost always did so based on relationship issues of some sort. And this makes sense when you think about it….what is really going to stress people out more than their relationships with other humans? In particular, I watched a lot of guys relapse who had been chasing a new romantic relationship and then it suddenly turned sour.
These men who relapsed believed that they were stronger than what they really were from an emotional standpoint. They thought that they could somehow emotionally shut themselves off and not be affected by a bad breakup. They overestimated themselves in terms of how strong they could be emotionally if a relationship suddenly went south. And in nearly every case this caused them to eventually relapse as a result.
Sometimes in AA you will hear the advice that you should “not pursue any romantic relationships for the first year of sobriety” or something to that effect. This is advice that no one wants to hear, but it turns out to be pretty rock solid advice when you look at people who have relapsed. It is nearly always relationship issues that disturb our emotional sobriety.
People believe that the alcoholic must drink because they are bored, or because they are selfish, or because they are hedonistic and just want to feel good all the time. None of these are accurate in my experience. Instead, the alcoholic drinks because they want to escape from themselves, and in particular, they want to escape from the feelings they have inside.
It is important to define “feelings.” What are feelings?
They are not your opinions. Instead, feelings are your simple emotions that you do NOT get to choose: Things like sad, mad, glad, or fear. You don’t get to decide that you don’t want to be sad after your dog passes away. You can’t just flip a switch in your mind and make that sad feeling go away. You don’t get to choose your feelings.
This is not the same thing as having an opinion about something. You can choose your opinions and you can change them. But you can’t just suddenly decide that you don’t want to feel fear any more. There are things you can do and there are actions you can take that may affect your fear in the long term, but you can’t just flip a switch and instantly change your emotions.
Alcohol and drugs can do that. They are the magic cure for emotions that you don’t want to feel.
If you drink enough alcohol you can kill any emotion that you have in life. If you are afraid, then drinking enough alcohol will (temporarily) eliminate that fear.
This really works! Of course it works, that is why I became an alcoholic. Because I learned that I could control my emotions. I could eliminate the bad ones, the feelings that I did not want to feel any more.
Alcohol worked great for this, and other drugs added into the mix also helped me to eliminate those negative feelings. And it really did work.
Until it didn’t.
At some point, tolerance developed, and the alcohol and drugs stopped doing their job. They no longer medicated those emotions as well. And so now I could get drunk and still be living in fear. I could no longer escape from myself because I became alcoholic, and my tolerance betrayed me. The drugs stopped doing their job.
So when you get into recovery, you have to realize exactly why you were drinking or using drugs.
We have lots of excuses and stories that we tell ourselves about why we drank so much.
But in reality we all drank for the same reason. We were running away from ourselves, and we got addicted to being able to regulate our emotions. We could kill negative feelings with chemicals. This is the endgame of addiction.
In other words, if you drink or use drugs for long enough, you will become addicted to this “deadening of emotions.” You will come to rely on your drug of choice to regulate your mood. And when you get sober, the thing that you won’t like is that you now have to learn how to deal with your feelings again.
It is not boredom that drives people back to relapse. They aren’t picking the alcohol back up just because they are bored. That’s a misunderstanding. Instead, they pick the alcohol back up because they don’t want to feel their emotions. They want to medicate their feelings. They want to be comfortable in their own skin again.
So the challenge of recovery (one of them anyway) is to learn how to feel your feelings, and to feel your emotions, and to be OK with it.
That is what it means to face reality.
Not that you have to go to a job you don’t like and do it without getting drunk…..but that you have to live in your own skin and feel your real feelings without resorting to alcohol.
How to tell when you are getting close to relapsing emotionally
There comes a point when the recovering alcoholic is very close to the point of relapse.
They are emotionally upset and they are very close to saying “screw it!” and just grabbing their drug of choice.
First of all, you need to be able to tell when you are reaching this point. So you need an increase in awareness just to know when this might be becoming a problem.
If you don’t know that it is happening then you can’t take any action to prevent it. So the first step here is awareness.
There are few ways to do this. One is through daily meditation. Another way is through writing in a journal. Both are a way to tune in to how you are really feeling inside. If you can’t even sit still and meditate for five minutes (and you normally can) then you know that something is wrong. Or if you write in a journal every day it will force you to verbalize and process how you are really feeling lately.
Another way to keep tabs on this is to watch each other. They have a saying in NA: “We are each other’s eyes and ears in recovery.” In other words, if you have peers in recovery who know and care about you, then they may be able to tell when you are getting out of sorts. And in the same way you can help them perhaps. So having a strong support network in recovery can be helpful in knowing if you are about to go off the deep end. Of course, getting that sort of feedback is going to depend on how honest you are with your peers and how often you interact with them. If you are not really “involved” with the recovery process then it simply won’t help much.
At the moment of emotional relapse you have absolutely no gratitude whatsoever. Instead, you have the opposite of gratitude. You are saying to the universe “screw it.” It is a selfish moment when you become careless again. You literally stop caring about yourself and others so much. That is the boiling point that you want to avoid.
What you should do immediately when you realize that you are in danger of emotional relapse
First of all, acknowledge that you are close to relapse and that you need to take action. This is the most important part of the process by far. Most people who relapse never realize what is happening until it is too late and they have already made the decision that they are going to drink.
I worked in an inpatient treatment center for alcoholism for several years. During that time I watched many people just “snap” in terms of relapse. They made a decision that they were going to leave rehab (early), and there was nothing that you could say to them. And I mean nothing. I learned this over time as I watched it happen again and again. Once someone had snapped and made that decision to drink, you were not going to talk them into staying at rehab any longer. It was completely useless. They had mentally checked out.
So the key is to not let yourself get to that point in the first place.
And the way to do that is to respond quickly when you notice yourself “slipping.” Obviously this requires an active role in managing your sobriety. You have to pay attention, be active, be working on your recovery. The awareness tips listed above are the first step in fighting this battle…you have to know when there is a problem. But after you acknowledge that your attitude is shifting and you are in emotional danger, it is time to take action.
Those actions are going to vary depending on who you are, how you work your recovery, and what sort of things work best for you. I can tell you what works well for me, but you may have to explore some options in order to know what helps you the most.
First of all, I like to write. That is how I process my feelings and emotions. I get it down on the page. Then my brain can digest it all later, after I put it down on paper.
Second of all, I like to exercise. That helps me immensely. Even if I get upset emotionally and I have started to go “over the edge,” I have found that intense exercise can help me to get grounded again. Moving my body is a way to heal.
Third, I like to talk with friends or peers in recovery about whatever is troubling me at the time. I think this is pretty much universal, if you can talk it out with someone then that is going to help you a great deal.
But obviously those things are not going to work for everyone. I know several people in recovery who are very successful and they don’t do any writing, nor do they do any exercise. They have other outlets and other ways to process their emotions.
For example, some people go to AA meetings and they have no problem sharing their emotions in front of a group of people. Me, I am not comfortable doing that and so I have found other outlets instead. It all depends on what works for you.
If you are truly clueless when it comes to dealing with your emotions then I would recommend that you seek help specifically for this. You can find a therapist, a counselor, and possibly even a sponsor in recovery who might be able to help you when it comes to dealing with your emotions.
Communicating your emotions is a huge key. If you leave them bottled inside then there is not much that you can do with them, other than to process them yourself and perhaps write about them. But if they continue to bother you or threaten to cause a relapse then you have to take more action, you have to connect with other human beings and communicate those emotions and feelings. That is the only way you are going to get any relief is if you can share your emotions with other people.
Long term strategy for preventing emotional relapse in sobriety
This is about building up a strong support network, among other things.
We need people in order to recover. I wish that were not the case but I have to admit that it is true. You can’t do it alone.
One of the main reasons that we cannot recover alone is because we have to deal with emotions in recovery. When you suddenly take away the alcohol or the drugs, which is how you dealt with emotions in the past, you are going to need some serious help in learning how to cope again.
This is a process. Early recovery is a roller coaster of emotions. You are not used to dealing with raw emotions without medicating them instead.
Generally the way to do this in early recovery is through the use of support. Peers. Friends. A support network. A shoulder to cry on. A sponsor to call. Sharing at AA meetings. And so on.
But in long term sobriety you can find other ways to deal with your emotions. And you can build a strategy into your life that helps to protect you emotionally.
First of all I think it is important to take care of yourself in a holistic sense. So if you unhealthy physically, mentally, or spiritually then it is not going to be doing you any favors when it comes to your emotional health. So it is important to realize that your health is a total system and that you need to take care of yourself in all of those ways (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually).
Second of all I think it is important to create a daily routine that helps to stabilize you emotionally. This might be referred to as your “daily practice.” What you do every day can have an impact on how stable you are emotionally.
Finally I think that gratitude is of the utmost importance. If you are not grateful for your very existence then you are in danger of becoming emotionally upset. Gratitude is like the cure, the antidote, for selfishness. And the moment of relapse is a moment of extreme selfishness. The way to avoid this is to focus on your attitude, and make sure that you are grateful and not selfish.
How your daily practice helps you to become emotionally stable in recovery
Your daily habits define what you become in the future. Your current state today is a result of all of your past decisions in life.
Therefore the power of habit cannot be ignored. You become what you practice every day.
This has a lot to do with your emotional sobriety and your level of stability.
What are you cultivating every day? What are you building with your life and your efforts?
Are you taking good care of your body? What about your spirit? Are you being grateful every day? If not, could you find a way to practice gratitude more often (such as by writing out gratitude lists?).
Are you taking care of your relationships? Are you learning to love yourself again in recovery, even though that is a process that may take some time and work? Are you learning to love and care for others now that you are sober? And perhaps most importantly, are you learning to say “NO” to toxic relationships? Are you putting healthy distance between yourself and those who would steal your energy and your serenity?
Are you taking care of yourself mentally? Are you generating good ideas for how to take better care of yourself every day? Are you practicing gratitude regularly, and looking for the silver lining in every “bad” thing that happens? Are you searching for the life lessons?
There are many ways to take care of yourself in recovery, and your responsibility is to find what these are and to start living a healthier life. This is all part of the sobriety journey. And it is all connected to your emotional health as well. If you are not taking care of your “holistic self” in recovery then eventually this could lead to instability and relapse.
What about you, have you noticed when you are emotionally upset in your recovery journey? Do you notice that you think about drinking or drugs when you get into that state of mind? And do you have a plan for how to deal with this when it happens again? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!