How can you overcome the urge to relapse on drugs and alcohol when you are struggling in recovery? What is the best way to prevent relapse and overcome this struggle?
When I was first introduced to recovery this question plagued my mind. I wanted to know the real secret of sobriety because I was surrounded by so many people who were constantly relapsing. At the time I was living in a long term treatment center that was also connected to a short term rehab facility. There were daily AA meetings in which everyone, including people who had left the rehab, could all attend together. Given this, I had the chance to see a whole lot of people in early recovery.
What I discovered is that traditional recovery teaches the idea that relapse prevention is all about using a list of tactics: Call your sponsor, go to a meeting, write in the steps, etc. But I did not see this as being the best method of relapse prevention, at least for myself. Let me explain why this is.
The traditional method of overcoming triggers and urges
The traditional method of overcoming triggers and urges in recovery is to react to them. Wait for them to happen and then do something in order to deal with them. React and take action.
This approach has some limitations and drawbacks. First of all it does not really seek to eliminate the cause of the triggers. It simply attempts to deal with them as they happen. So in some cases you will not actually be correcting the problem, you will just be temporarily patching it over until it occurs again some day. This is hardly progress.
In other cases you will find yourself unable to react to a trigger or urge for whatever reason. They even talk about this possibility in the AA literature and how we will all face a time when we have no defense against the first drink. In the literature they are suggesting that this defense must come from a higher power. I would like to think that this can also be paralleled with my suggestions below about using a strategy instead of tactics.
That’s right–instead of using tactics to deal with triggers and urges as they pop up in your life, you should instead develop a strategy that can:
1) Deal with triggers and cravings as they happen, and
2) Help to prevent the triggers from every occurring in the first place.
Using a strategy for relapse prevention is more powerful than simply memorizing a list of tactics. The tactics are all limited and can fail you depending on the situation at hand. The strategy is resilient and can be adapted to any given situation you may encounter.
A unique strategy: Relapse prevention based on personal growth and holistic health
So what is this strategy that I am talking about that can prevent relapse?
It involves shifting your priorities in life once you get into recovery. It will take time for you to fully implement this sort of life strategy because it actually changes who you are as a person. Everything will shift.
One of the fundamental shifts that has to occur has to do with your holistic health. I believe that this is a matter of having healthy self esteem. If you don’t care about yourself or your life then this cannot work for you. So you have to build this up after you get clean and sober. It may take some time to start caring about yourself and your life again. That is OK, in the meantime you can feel free to take suggestions from other people in recovery and start going through the motions of early recovery. Many of these suggestions will be tactics of course–going to meetings, getting a sponsor in AA, writing in a journal or in the steps, and so on. That’s OK. You have to try various things in order to see what works for you and what helps.
As you remain sober and start taking these suggestions you should begin to recover and feel human again. If you stick with it then you will start to actually enjoy yourself and become happier in life. It takes a bit of time but simply going through these basic recovery motions will bring about change. It takes time though.
As you remain sober and take these suggestions your life will start to get better and better. This is when the idea of the strategy begins to come into play. For one reason or another you decided to stop drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Ultimately this was a decision to improve your health. You wanted better health for yourself so you sought to overcome your addiction.
The point of quitting drinking is not to quit drinking. The point of quitting drinking is just one piece of a bigger puzzle in life, and that puzzle has to do with your overall health and self esteem. This is why I believe that the strategy you follow in recovery is one of personal growth and holistic health.
Quitting drinking is just the first step towards this overall goal. The strategy is to improve your health, but not just physically. You also want to improve your health mentally, emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually.
The tactics in traditional recovery programs tend to focus on spiritual health. Their philosophy is that if you are in good spiritual health that this can prevent relapse all by itself.
My belief (and what I discovered in my early recovery journey) is that spiritual health alone is not optimal. In fact, there are at least 5 dimensions of health (mentioned above) that can all have a serious impact on your sobriety. It is a mistake to neglect 4 of those areas of health in favor of spirituality alone. Hence, the holistic model of recovery.
And this is what I believe your strategy in recovery should be based on. Holistic health. Taking care of yourself not just spiritually, but also physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.
So the question is, how do you do this? How do you use a holistic approach to recovery on a day to day basis?
How to use the holistic approach to build a daily routine of positive habits
The real truth about successful recovering alcoholics is that they are using a holistic approach, whether they realize it or not. This is the only way to be resilient enough against the multiple threats of relapse, which can be incredibly sneaky. You cannot anticipate and prevent every single relapse threat by using a spiritual approach alone. Sometimes the disease of addiction can find ways into your life that you are not anticipating. Therefore we need a strategy that can adapt and pro-actively prevent relapse holistically.
I would suggest that every single day you need to check off these imaginary check boxes regarding your overall health. One of the AA steps suggests this as well but in that step they limit it more to your emotional and social world. I would urge you to expand this to include all 5 dimensions of health in your life. For example, in traditional recovery they are not suggesting that you ask yourself each day if you are taking care of yourself physically. However I am suggesting that this is important, and I can tell you that it has made a tremendous difference in my own recovery.
Likewise it is important to take care of yourself in the other ways as well. If you neglect one area of your health for too long then you become vulnerable to relapse.
There is also a concept known as “synergy” by which you can experience tremendous personal growth as a result of checking off all of these 5 areas in your life. This is an important part of the strategy. If you have all 5 of these areas working well in your life and you are pursuing positive changes in all 5 areas then this will have a multiplicative effect. Life will get really good at that point and you will be amazed at the rewards you are experiencing in recovery. But if you fail to address all of these areas of your health then there will always be something that is holding you back from experiencing true peace and contentment in your life.
Creating layers of relapse prevention through positive change
I noticed at one point that my recovery was strong enough that I could certainly resist relapse for a day, and I felt confident that I would stay sober the next day too. My confidence was slowly growing about my ability to overcome relapse.
It was at this point that I was also taking suggestions from other people in recovery about what to do in my life. So I was trying new things, for example at one point I tried seated meditation for about a month or two, doing it every single day. Then later on I took a suggestion to start exercising every day. Another time I took a suggestion from my sponsor in recovery to quit smoking cigarettes.
Some of these changes helped me, and others did not. For example when I tried seated meditation for over 30 days straight I was getting some benefit, but I did not feel like it was really worth the effort. So I moved on and tried other things. Distance running seemed to give me more meditative benefits than seated meditation did.
And the distance running became a daily habit, part of my routine. And I realized years later that this was like an added layer of protection in terms of relapse prevention. The fact that I ran every day was not necessarily keeping me sober, but it was helping. It was part of my sobriety. I was less likely to drink because of my habit.
The same thing was true of quitting cigarettes. When I was smoking, I feel like I was one step closer to drinking somehow, if that makes any sense. After I gave up cigarettes I felt like there was an extra later of protection there, that I would not relapse on booze if things got really bad in my life, at worst I would relapse on nicotine first. That might be slightly twisted logic but it seems to make sense to me in retrospect. Quitting the cigarettes has helped to make my sobriety more secure.
If you keep making positive changes in your recovery then some of them will stick and some of them will not. The key is that you must have the right attitude so that you will be willing to keep experimenting. Keep taking suggestions from other people. Keep asking them to give you suggestions and advice. And keep following up with their advice and testing it for yourself. It does no good to do a thought experiment and decide that something will or will not help you in advance. You are just fooling yourself. You have to actually dive in and take action, then test the results for yourself. This is how you build a new life in recovery. This is how you teach yourself to resist the urge to relapse.
Why limit yourself to a one dimensional recovery?
Traditional recovery is one dimensional because they focus almost exclusively on spirituality. This is both good and bad. It can actually be a good thing in early sobriety when the alcoholic or addict is in the midst of a spiritual crisis. But in long term sobriety you can remain stuck if you believe that the only form of growth that can help you is spiritual growth. You are just limiting yourself at that point.
In long term recovery you should be careful not to limit yourself. One of the things you should know about long term sobriety is that staying sober gets easier but then on the other hand the disease gets a bit trickier. So it sort of balances out and in the end it is not really any easier because you must be more vigilant. The way to be vigilant is to keep pushing yourself to grow in recovery. When they talk about complacency in recovery they are really talking about a lack of personal growth.
You must develop a strategy that allows you to overcome this threat of complacency. You must develop a strategy that addresses this (possible) lack of personal growth.
In recovery we seek to improve our lives both internally and externally.
On the “inside” we seek to eliminate guilt, shame, anger, resentment, fear, and self pity.
On the “outside” we seek to improve our relationships, our career, our stress levels, our daily habits, and so on.
You cannot neglect one of these while focusing exclusively on the other. If you do this then you are giving the disease a huge opportunity to sneak back into your life.
So your strategy should be based on improving your health and improving your life.
The problem is that in early sobriety we have no idea how to go about doing this. Our best ideas in the past involved drinking way too much alcohol. We cannot allow ourselves to make our own decisions in early recovery. You must temporarily remove your ego from the equation.
The way to do this is to simply decide. Make a decision that you are not going to use your own ideas for the first year of your recovery, that you will only take advice and suggestions from other people. Radical idea? You bet it is. And it takes guts to actually put it into action. Tell yourself that you are no longer in control. That you only take advice from others.
What will happen at first is nothing, you will not be impressed the first week that you kill your ego. But after a few weeks of living this way you will start to slowly notice the changes. Your life will get better and better. If you do what other people tell you to do in early recovery then your life will just get better and better and you will be amazed at the results. Of course in the end you don’t have to permanently adopt any suggestions that don’t seem to work for you. This is how you get started with the testing phase of your recovery. Take suggestions and test them out for yourself. Keep the stuff that helps you.
This is also how you can develop a daily practice and positive habits that will keep you sober in the long run.
Every day you have to ask yourself: “Did I take care of myself today? Did I address all 5 areas of my holistic health today? Did I neglect anything?” Doing this review will force you to take corrective action. Following a holistic strategy will help to insure that you stay strong against the threat of relapse.
Because ultimately we do not know which direction the threat of relapse is going to attack us from. It may be from a spiritual crisis, but it also could be from an emotional breakdown, or from tension in our relationships, or from a physical injury or illness that leads to addictive medications, or whatever the case may be. You don’t know how your addiction will threaten you so you must adopt a holistic strategy that can counter any and all threats. You cannot possibly anticipate all of these threats individually, therefore you need a recovery strategy.
The key to preventing relapse is to live in such a way that improves your health, improves your life, and improves your self esteem.
No one who loves their life and loves themselves is going to relapse. But it takes a whole lot of effort and time to build up this sort of healthy self esteem. You cannot just do it overnight. Which is why you need to take suggestions from others for a while and “go through the motions.”
We need to find a way to practice gratitude every day in our recovery. This is the spiritual component that can go very far in preventing relapse. It is impossible to justify relapse if you are truly grateful. What would you need the alcohol or drugs for if you are grateful? If you are content and at peace with the current moment? What would be the point of drinking?
This is why gratitude is such an important part of the spiritual component. And this is something that we practice. Gratitude is not something that we get after the rest of our lives fall into alignment. That is more like “short term happiness.” No, gratitude is something that we can draw from even when “the chips are down.” But in order to be able to do that we have to turn it into a daily practice. That way when life hands you a difficult situation you will be able to step back and see the good in it, even if that is really difficult to do. And if you can do that then this helps to distance you from the possibility of saying “screw it, I am just going to drink.” Gratitude prevents that directly. So we must make it a daily practice.
And so this is how I believe relapse prevention is best accomplished. You need a strategy of personal growth, of holistic health. And you need to implement this strategy every day and turn it into positive habits. That way you are not only reacting to triggers and urges, but you are actually preventing them from ever occurring in the first place too.
What about you, what have you found to be helpful in dealing with urges and triggers to use alcohol? What has worked for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!