Relapse in alcoholism and addiction recovery can be a very tricky thing. Obviously most people never see it coming. It sneaks up on them and surprises them from out of nowhere. Looking back, many struggling alcoholics cannot even figure out exactly what went wrong.
Because recovery is a lifelong battle, it may pay for us to consider what causes people to relapse, and therefore what we have to do in order to avoid it. After all, is this not the entire point of recovery to begin with? To avoid drugs and alcohol so that we can reclaim a life of peace and serenity?
Why people relapse in short term recovery
Nearly everyone who relapses in short term recovery is doing so because they have failed to surrender to their disease.
They have reached a no-man’s-land in terms of surrender: They know that they have a problem, and they wish that the problem would go away, but are they really willing to go to any length in order to fix the problem?
In many cases, the answer is clearly “no.” I know this to be true from my own initial recovery efforts when I was not willing to do certain things. The first time I went to treatment I was terrified of AA meetings and even though I attended them in rehab I was not willing to go find them out in the real world post-treatment. This was essentially true the second time that I attended treatment as well.
Now you might be thinking to yourself “but wait a minute….if he was not willing to attend meetings at that time, then why did he go to rehab at all?”
This is the no-man’s-land that I was talking about….I was in it. I knew that I had a problem and I could admit to having that problem. But this is not enough. You have to go much further than just admitting to your problem. You have to accept your disease on a very deep level, and be willing to do nearly anything in order to find a new life in recovery. The first two times that I attended treatment I was not at that level of willingness. The reason I lacked this willingness is because I had not fully surrendered to my disease yet. And the reason that I had not fully surrendered yet was because I was still battling through denial, wrestling with the idea that I might be happy again some day without drugs and alcohol. I was convinced that I would be miserable forever if I was to be clean and sober. I was afraid to face life sober. Fear held me back from recovery.
Because I had not yet surrendered it did not really matter what I did in order to try to recover. It did not matter what treatment center I attended or even if I was forced to attend meetings. Nothing was going to work because I was not yet done using drugs and alcohol. I still believed that I might find happiness with my drug of choice and I was far too scared to face life sober.
I remained in denial because I had not yet had enough misery. My addiction had caused a certain amount of misery for me, but it was not enough. And I was refusing to see it. I only focused on the good times that I had with my drug of choice, and I was ignoring the misery as best I could. This is how denial works. It was only after I was truly alone for a while that I had to face my misery head-on, and accept that I could not make myself happy by using my drug of choice. I had to become isolated and miserable enough before I could admit that the drugs were no longer working for me, no longer making me happy. That was the point at which I surrendered.
After I reached that point I was able to recover without relapse. But before I reached that point of surrender nothing that I did seemed to make a difference. I did try some counseling and two trips to inpatient rehab prior to surrender. None of it helped or made any difference, because I was still stuck in denial, still hanging on to the idea that I might successfully use my drug of choice again and be happy.
People relapse in short term recovery because they lack surrender. If you try to get clean and sober and you relapse fairly quickly, then your problem is one of denial. You need to work through your denial and come to terms with surrender. You need to stop fighting with your addiction and ask for help instead.
Why people relapse in long term recovery
Unbelievably, people who have accumulated several months, years, or even decades of sobriety still end up relapsing. How can this happen?
Obviously it is not an issue of surrender or denial. The alcoholic in question has clearly demonstrated that they broke through denial, surrendered fully, and learned how to live life sober for many years. But then something goes wrong and they end up drinking again. Why does this happen?
It happens when someone in recovery gets lazy and stops growing. They refer to this as complacency. This is the number one threat in long term sobriety. Anyone might potentially become complacent over time and obviously there is no way to fix this in hindsight. In other words, you can’t wait until you are complacent in recovery and then recognize it and fix it–it will be too late by then. You have to prevent complacency going forward. We call this being proactive.
Complacency kills. The founders of AA did not know about complacency when they wrote the Big Book of AA, because they had not yet experienced it. But in modern recovery we know that it does exist, and it can be a formidable foe. Therefore we need to take action in order to overcome this threat in long term sobriety. (More on what those actions are below).
How passionate are you about recovery?
Most of us were passionate about our drug of choice. People will frequently talk about their drinking days with fondness, saying how much they “loved to drink” or use drugs. We loved our drug of choice because at the time, it was the answer to all of our problems.
The question in recovery is: Do you have that same level of passion and excitement in your life now that you are sober? Because if you do not, then relapse is much more likely to occur. In other words, people get bored in recovery if they do not have a way to find that same level of passion and excitement that they felt when using drugs and alcohol. And obviously they know exactly where to find that excitement if they happen to get too bored and restless.
The problem in this lies in the fact that early recovery is generally a drag for a while. You are not going to bounce out of detox with a big happy smile on your face. Recovery can give you happiness back, but it takes time to heal. You can’t just go from detox to insanely happy and content overnight. There has to be some growth in there, and it takes time.
Thinking about passion and excitement is really about long term sobriety. If you lose all of your passion and excitement for recovery then you are in risk of relapse. Even though drinking will eventually result in misery, we all know that it would be exciting in the short run. And this is what lures people back into relapse when they get bored with their recovery. Drinking again would be exciting for them, at least at first.
There is a long term solution to this in sobriety and it is definitely a proactive one. You cannot fix this problem (of boredom) after it is too late and it has caused relapse. You have to fix it in advance, knowing that it could become a threat.
Therefore you need a way to stay passionate in your recovery, to get excited about things, and to care about things in your recovery. More on this below. But first, we need to look at the “hidden law” of relapse that is actually pretty obvious, though many of us never give it the credit that it deserves.
The hidden law that is painfully obvious: The zero tolerance policy
What is alcohol relapse? How does it start?
We all know what the end result is…..the alcoholic takes a drink of alcohol, and they are then “off to the races” again. But how does this happen? How does it start? Does the alcoholic just suddenly walk into a dangerous situation and start slamming drinks for no apparent reason?
No, that is not how relapse occurs. What happens is that the alcoholic relapses in their mind long before they pick up the actual drink. The decision is made well in advance, they just do not admit it to themselves. Nor do they have the ability to go ask for help at this point. Why would they? Deep down, they have decided that they want to drink again, and they are going to do it. It is a mental relapse long before it is a physical relapse.
Having a zero tolerance policy is what can prevent this mental relapse from occurring. This is the hidden law of relapse that so many people fail to understand. But first of all….what exactly is the zero tolerance policy?
There are two parts to it. The first part is the agreement that the alcoholic makes with themselves when they get clean and sober. They make a mental agreement not to drink. Pretty obvious, right?
The zero tolerance policy part one: the agreement not to drink.
The second part of the policy is the mental agreement not fantasize about drinking or getting drunk. You may not have heard of this concept or thought that it was very important. But think about it….how could someone relapse if they had not first fantasized about what drinking again would be like? How could someone relapse if they had not first simulated it in their mind and found it to be enticing?
This is how to “cut it off at the pass.” Shut down relapse mentally before it even has a chance to start. Every relapse starts with a mental fantasy of what it would feel like to drink again, to get drunk, to take that first drink. Every single relapse starts out with this mental process.
The solution is simple, and obvious. You must make a mental agreement with yourself:
* When you notice yourself thinking of drinking or being drunk, you will immediately distract yourself and think of other thoughts. You will not tolerate fantasies about what it would be like to be drunk. You may not be able to prevent the thought or the trigger from happening, but once you become aware, you have the choice to shut it down and think about other things.
This is critical. It is all about awareness. You may argue that you cannot prevent thoughts or trigger of alcohol from popping in your head. I am not arguing against that–I know that those thoughts will still occur for you. But I realized early in my recovery that when I allowed my mind to “play that tape out” and indulge in the fantasy of what it was like to be drunk, it only made me miserable. Why? Because I was sober, and trying hard not to drink! So fantasies of drinking just made me miserable. Why bother to let them occur?
Therefore I had to start noticing when my mind was starting to fantasize about being drunk or high. As soon as I made a conscious effort to shut these thoughts down, I was able to notice them much quicker. Eventually I eliminated such fantasies altogether, because now it was completely automatic for me to divert my mind onto other topics. I had forbidden myself from thinking about what it was like to drink or get drunk. Over time, this response became automatic.
And this is the “hidden law” of relapse. If you fantasize about drinking, then you open the door to relapse. But if you make an agreement with yourself that you will not tolerate such fantasies, then you protect yourself from relapse.
Relapse starts in the mind. Therefore you must fight the battle in your mind. You win this battle when you eliminate and shut down your cravings and triggers. The best way to do that is to increase your awareness of them, and make an agreement with yourself that you will not tolerate such fantasies. This is your own internal mental policy. I call it the zero tolerance policy, because you refuse to tolerate any thoughts of using drugs or alcohol.
How to overcome complacency in long term recovery
So if the hidden law of relapse involves this mental trick known as the zero tolerance policy, what then is the solution for complacency in the long run?
The solution is proactive personal growth. In order to protect yourself from relapse after years or decades of sobriety, you have to have a proactive plan in place to keep pushing yourself to learn and to grow.
After all, complacency is when you stop growing. You stop learning. And suddenly you slide back into relapse.
The solution is growth. Personal growth. How can you improve yourself as a person? How can you improve your life? How can you better help other people? How can your unique gifts and talents serve the world and make it better? These are the questions that can prevent complacency from killing you.
This is the second “hidden law” that even the old timer can miss: Just going through the motions of AA may not be enough to prevent relapse in the long run. In fact, familiar recovery programs may eventually be the downfall that prevents people from achieving long term sobriety. If you get too comfortable in your recovery routine, this can lead to complacency.
The secret is to approach recovery from a holistic standpoint. When you do this there is no shortage of possible growth opportunities. For example, you may find ways to pursue personal growth in your life in terms of:
* Physical health.
* Social aspect and connecting with peers.
* Emotional growth.
And so on. When you consider all of the different areas of growth that you might pursue, there is no shortage of ways to overcome complacency.
It is fine to pause and reflect on your recovery. It is OK for you to pause and look back at the growth you have achieved. But the secret of overcoming complacency is to have this little voice in the back of your mind saying “OK, but what is our next phase of growth going to be about? How can we move forward and improve our life from here? What is our next positive change that we need to make?”
If you have that little voice then you will do well in long term sobriety. If you do not have that little voice then you may need to find some accountability. For example, you could have a sponsor in your life that serves the same purpose as that little voice does–they would constantly be nudging you and pushing you towards more growth experiences.
This the key to overcoming complacency. Personal growth is recovery. This is the proactive approach that everyone needs to have in their recovery.
The bonus here is that when you follow such a proactive plan of personal growth, life just keeps getting better and better…..