When overcoming addiction and alcoholism, there is a balance that must be obtained regarding the fear of relapse.
On the one hand, people in AA and NA meetings tend to use the fear of relapse as a verbal weapon. They tend to talk about the possibility of relapse like it is the boogieman, and there is an aura of respect that they demand for the idea that many newcomers will inevitably relapse. This is usually accompanied by reminders of how truly awful the relapse percentages are in general.
I don’t fault the people in AA and NA for doing this. There is some value to the idea of having a “healthy fear of relapse.” Also, I think that most people in the fellowship are projecting their own fears of relapse onto the group. They are trying to convince themselves that they are well aware of the danger of relapse and that they are working the best program that they possibly can in order to stave off the relapse boogieman. So when people throw around the scary statistics (such as 98 percent of newcomers will relapse within the first year, or 95 percent, or whatever they are quoting these days), I think they are really just trying to assuage their own fear of relapse, while convincing themselves (and others) that they are on top of their game.
So I don’t fault those who use this fear-based approach to intimidating the newcomer. I think it’s a very natural response, and I don’t think you could convince some people to change their approach. That’s fine. What’s important is that you stay aware of that approach and not let it intimidate you or turn you off in any way. In addition, if you are maintaining sobriety by the skin of your teeth out of constant fear of relapse, then it might be time to take a look at your own approach, and possibly try to grow and move past this limiting fear.
How does the fear of relapse limit us in recovery?
For one thing, an unhealthy fear of relapse can keep us stuck. In other words, people might cling to the depressing relapse statistics as a source of strength for themselves, instead of aspiring to positive action and spiritual growth as a source of strength.
Another way that the fear of relapse can limit us is because it keeps us focused on the negative. Instead of framing our recovery discussions and efforts in a positive manner, we are merely jumping through hoops in order to avoid a negative. If we live in fear, then we might work the steps “because we have to,” and not because we want to keep growing spiritually.
When I was in my first year of sobriety, I was terrified of relapsing, because I saw it happening to so many other recovering addicts. I wanted to focus exclusively on recovery and learning as much about spirituality as I possibly could, without any distractions. My sponsor, on the other hand, pushed me to get a job and to go back to school, which I thought was a distraction and a mistake at the time (I did it anyway though). Thank goodness I followed my sponsors direction and started to live again, instead of merely operating in a fear-based mode, shuffling from meeting to meeting, with the constant fear that I might screw everything up and take a drink. So the fear of relapse was holding me back from living the life I was supposed to live.
Sooner or later, you’ve got to have faith in your sobriety
It’s true that many people get overconfident in early recovery and end up relapsing. But sooner or later, you’ve got to get past the fear of relapse and start living a proactive life.
Yes, if you’ve only got a short time in recovery, then your focus should be very narrow and you should concentrate very hard on staying clean and making it to that next meeting. But sooner or later you have to start living again, and growing and developing in some new directions (school, employment, volunteering, relationships, etc.)
Action Items – What you can do:
1) Shift your perspective. Stop viewing recovery as “something you must do to stay sober” and start looking at it as a creative process to build the life you always wanted.
2) Raise your awareness in terms of your fears and how you respond to them. Are you letting unhealthy fears dictate your actions? Is there a healthier way to live so that your fears naturally fall away (through spiritual growth and a connection with a higher power perhaps?).
3) Broaden your horizons as you maintain sobriety and allow your perception of recovery to shift to a more holistic perspective. In other words, start recognizing that recovery is not just about “recovery related stuff,” it’s about living life!