Why Some Recovering Drug Addicts and Alcoholics Fail to Avoid Relapse

Why Some Recovering Drug Addicts and Alcoholics Fail to Avoid Relapse


Recovering drug addicts and alcoholics know that relapse is a real possibility, because we see so many people in the program who fail to stay sober on a regular basis. Given the low success rates in overcoming addiction, it is not unreasonable to have a certain amount of fear regarding the idea of relapse.

Noticing a Shift to a Behavioral Approach in Recovery

One thing I’ve noticed in recovery is that there has been a real shift to a behavioral strategy in the twelve step fellowships. This is the main reason that so many addicts and alcoholics tend to relapse. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is designed to bring about a spiritual experience–“a shift in personality sufficient enough to relieve the problem of drink.”

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But in attending AA meetings, I have noticed that the emphasis is rarely on this spiritual experience, but instead has shifted to this shopping list of actions that the newcomer must take in order to stay clean. For example, you’ll hear that we need to stay away from “people, places, and things” that caused us to drink or drug. This is a behavioral strategy, not a spiritual solution.

The Spiritual Experience

This complication comes from describing the effects of the spiritual experience, instead of communicating the causes. Look at it like this: say you have a spiritual awakening, and as a result, you have this wonderful new connection with a higher power. You go to meetings and share about this connection with newcomers and try to help them. Instead of selfishly focusing on how you can stay drug or high, you are now actively trying to help others recover from addiction. You read the big book in order that you might carry a more helpful message to the newcomer. This is a recovery that is driven by a spiritual experience. Notice that the things you are doing are a result of having a spiritual experience. In contrast, the behavioral approach is telling the newcomer to take these actions without any regard for the spiritual experience. We tell them to read the book, to work with others, and so on. But those are the effects of the spiritual experience, not the causes. The tragedy of this is that the newcomer can then take these actions and act “as if,” without ever undergoing any spiritual transformation whatsoever.

Recovering from the Inside Out

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The power of having a spiritual experience is that it will change your outward behaviors–from the inside. For example, instead of consciously avoiding those “slippery places” and hoping to stay sober, having a spiritual experience will allow you to naturally avoid those slippery places, simply as a function of your new inner state. In other words, you won’t “have to go there,” nor will you want to. Having a spiritual experience will change the newcomer–from the inside out. This is the path to lasting recovery.

Practical Application: Focus on the Spiritual Experience

The solution should be obvious: addicts and alcoholics who repeatedly relapse are those who lack a spiritual experience. They might try to change their outward behaviors and act “as if,” but inside, they lack that critical spiritual transformation. A behavioral approach can only take you so far–it’s like staying sober by hanging onto the side of a cliff with your fingernails. The way to a lasting recovery is to pursue the spiritual experience. One way to do this is by actively working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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