I think it is one of the central truths of addiction that you are going to relapse a few times before you finally “get it.”
Now before you get upset, realize that I am not suggesting that everyone will relapse. What I am saying is that there is struggle. Addiction is struggle. And so before you even really commit to recovery “for real” you are probably going to be on a bit of a roller coaster. Some people do not even consider that to be a technical relapse because they argue that you are not yet working a real recovery program yet.
There is definitely hope for any struggling alcoholic or drug addict, that they can get clean and sober and even stay that way permanently (just one day at a time though!). Getting to this point is bound to involve some struggle, however.
At the very least the struggling alcoholic is going to go up and down quite a bit as they attempt to diagnose their own problem. In other words, the alcoholic must try to quit on their own before they try to ask for help, just to know and realize that they might have a serious problem. It takes months, years, or even decades to go from “I tend to drink a lot lately” to “I am a raging alcoholic and I need inpatient rehab to stop.” While you going from point A to point B you are bound to try to quit on your own, probably several times. And when that fails you will likely label it as a “relapse.” Though this is not a technical relapse because you were probably not actually working a program of recovery and you had not surrendered fully to your disease yet.
My experience in working at a treatment center and living with recovering alcoholics
I went to rehab three times and of course after the first two attempts I relapsed. Later on I got a job at the treatment center where I finally got sober and I worked there for over 5 years. While I was there I got to see a lot of struggling alcoholics and I also got to see their outcomes. Many people who relapsed would come back to treatment later on. Because I stayed working there for five years I got a good idea of just how often this happened (someone coming back to rehab for another try).
Needless to say I was shocked. I could not believe how much of a revolving door it felt like. Of course some people stayed sober and made it work, but quite a few people would keep showing up over and over again to give it another try. It really was shocking to me. It could not help but surprise you over and over again when different people would come back. And of course every one of them had a similar story: They had left treatment in the past, tried to stay sober, but they had relapsed for various reasons. Now they are back to try to take another stab at it.
Before I worked in a rehab I lived in a long term treatment center. This was a long term program that ran from 6 months to two years and housed twelve alcoholics total. While I was living there I was also fairly shocked and astounded at the rate of relapse. I could not believe that so many of my peers would relapse while they were living in treatment. Why were they not taking advantage of the full support that they got while living in treatment? It was truly baffling to me how so many people could relapse in such a short time. I lived with maybe 30 different individuals while I stayed there for a total of 20 months. I think maybe 3 of those people are still sober today and the rest have relapsed. Five of them have passed away due to the disease.
I am not intentionally painting a grim picture here when it comes to relapse. My point is not to shock or scare you necessarily. I am really just telling you my story, in the sense that I was shocked in my early recovery when I realized just how prevalent relapse was. And it certainly does happen, and if you happen to surround yourself with “new recruits,” such as by working at a detox center, you are going to see plenty of relapse. Just be prepared that it certainly does exist in the world of recovery.
But just because relapse happens does not mean that it has to happen to you.
Nor does this give you “permission.”
This does not give you permission to relapse
Just because a lot of alcoholics relapse does not give you permission to do the same.
You have to consider for a moment what you are risking in terms of relapse itself. Most people who have never really done it view it as a minor setback. This is a dangerous mentality to have because you do not get to choose the extent of the damage when you relapse. Your relapse gets to choose. The alcohol has power over you in this regard.
Sure, you might relapse for a weekend and come out of unscathed. That is perfectly possible. But you have to remember that alcoholism is progressive. So even if you have been sober for several years or decades, the next time that you take a drink it will always be worse than the last time you drank. This is important to remember. There is also evidence that even while you are clean and sober your disease is actually getting worse in the background if you happen to drink again.
Every relapse is like a full reset. You do not necessarily get to keep any progress that you may have made up until that point because the relapse sort of resets everything. It is like you are back to square one all over again. And anything that you think you might have learned up until that point is now suspect, because obviously whatever you had learned did not keep you sober. So you must learn new things. You must listen to new advice and take different actions this time. It is like you are starting over from scratch because whatever you had tried in the past did not work.
It is silly to argue that “everybody relapses” in order to justify your own relapse. This is not worth it. Do you want to be happy or do you want to be miserable? The problem with a relapse is that you get a tiny bit of happiness followed by a lifetime of misery. Remember that you do not get to decide how deep you go down the rabbit hole when you take a drink. You may drink for several decades before you try to sober up again. You may drink for one night and get killed in doing so and it will all be over. Or you may wind up in jail after a single relapse after having killed an innocent person. We don’t get to choose our consequences when we relapse. The drink takes over and our life falls apart in ways we cannot predict.
At some point every alcoholic has to reach a turning point. They have to get to the point where they can no longer justify a relapse because they know that it will lead them back to misery. They have to reach that turning point where they decide that they are willing to face their fears, they are willing to face the unknown of sobriety just to escape from all the misery that their drinking is causing them. They have to get to the point where they admit to themselves that drinking does, in fact, make them miserable. They stop blaming their unhappiness on other things and they put the blame squarely on alcoholism. This is how you finally break through denial.
Why most people do not “get” recovery on the first try
Nearly every alcoholic has declared that they are quitting for good this time, only to later end up relapsing. What went wrong and why did they fail?
The reason that they failed is because they had not surrendered fully to the disease yet.
Keep in mind that true surrender has at least two different levels to it. Most of us just think of it in one level, but there are really two aspects to it:
1) Admitting and accepting that you are a “real” alcoholic.
2) Admitting and accepting a new solution in your life. Being willing to take orders from other people. Being willing to listen and obey.
I know that the words “listen and obey” leave a bad taste in your mouth. I understand that. But there is a reason that I say it like that, “listen and obey.”
The reason is because it clearly illustrates the problem as to why most people who try to sober up don’t make it. They relapse because they are:
1) Still hanging on to their pride.
2) Trying to figure out recovery on their own.
3) Trying to handle all their problems by themselves.
4) Thinking that they have to quit drinking on their own.
5) Not willing to ask for help.
6) Not willing to take advice and act on it.
7) Not willing to let go completely and follow a new and scary path in recovery.
8) Not willing to kill their ego so that they can get out of their own way and learn something new.
9) Not willing to listen to others.
10) Not surrendered yet to both their disease and to a new solution in life.
If you are willing to listen to other people and obey then you have the power to recover within you. It takes guts to listen to others and ignore your own advice. It takes a real leap of faith to ignore your own ideas and take advice from other people in early recovery. Yet this is what will lead you to a better life in the long run.
Treating the challenge of sobriety with the right amount of respect
I went to rehab twice and relapsed both times. Then I went to rehab a third time and I managed to remain clean and sober.
What changed? Part of it was that I finally surrendered. But in doing so I also became willing to give recovery the proper amount of respect.
You have to realize that getting sober is hard work. It is, in fact, the hardest thing that I ever had to do in my life. Ever! I actually lived in rehab for 20 months straight. That is quite an effort. That is a very concentrated and focused recovery effort. And I am not sure that I would be sober today if I had not done that.
Now, does this mean that every person has to go live in long term rehab for 20 months?
Yes and no.
“No” because obviously not every person who remains clean and sober did not necessarily go live in long term treatment like I did.
“Yes” because every person who has found sobriety has been through a massive struggle and put forth the same level of effort that I made in my own journey.
The reason that I know this to be true is because of my own experience combined with my observations while working and living in rehab for so many years.
The bottom line is this: Recovery takes serious effort. You don’t necessarily have to live in rehab, you don’t necessarily have to go to AA meetings, you don’t necessarily have to have a therapist or a counselor in your life. But you do have to do something, and you have to take massive action, and you have to make a massive commitment to yourself. The tactics vary but the level of intensity is the same. You have to try harder at recovery than anything you have ever done in your entire life before this challenge.
Think back in your life to your greatest challenge so far, the most effort you have ever made at anything. Now realize that you are going to have to match that and exceed it in order to make the sort of recovery effort that will keep you sober.
I am not saying this to scare or intimidate you. I am just letting you know what is actually required of you. This is how difficult the challenge of sobriety is.
And this is actually a good thing! This is not bad news or anything, that this is the greatest challenge of your life. With great challenge comes great rewards.
And so what? Yes, it is incredibly challenging to get and stay sober. It is the adventure of a lifetime. It takes huge commitment and dedication. But so what? What else are you going to do with yourself? Just look at the payoff to know that it is all worth it. Sobriety is like a massive return on your effort, the greatest you can ever achieve. In your addiction you are completely miserable. In recovery you experience real peace and joy and contentment. How is this not the greatest reward you could possibly achieve? It is more than worth the effort. The effort is nothing compared to the tremendous gains you will experience.
That said, I think it is important to realize what is required. Don’t ever think that you can make a lazy effort at recovery and get decent results. Unfortunately, recovery itself is pass/fail. You can’t get a “C” grade in recovery and be happy. You will relapse if you are pulling a “C” in your recovery effort. You will probably relapse if you are pulling even a “B+.” That is not good enough because it leaves too much room for relapse to creep back into your life.
Remember that your disease only needs a tiny foothold in order to sink its claws back into you. This is why you need to use a holistic approach in long term sobriety. Because if you are neglecting any one part of your life too much then that is where your disease will attack you from.
How to insure success in staying sober
So how do you insure that you remain clean and sober in the long run?
The big book of AA declares that resentment is the “number one offender” when it comes to relapse.
This was likely true back in the early days of AA, but the game has changed because now you have thousands of people living in long term sobriety. They have cleaned up the wreckage of their past and they have moved beyond their resentments. They have learned forgiveness and they have found stability in their recovery.
And yet still there is a threat.
That threat is the new number one offender. That threat is complacency.
People who are living in long term sobriety can still relapse. It does happen (though not as frequently as it does for people in very early recovery).
But it does not happen randomly or suddenly. It happens slowly, as they fall away from their model of personal growth. Complacency sets it hooks in very slowly, over years or even decades.
What is complacency?
It is a lack of personal growth. Complacency sets in when you have stopped learning new things. Complacency attacks you when you are no longer making positive changes in your life. You may be sober and you may have a positive life going for you, but if you are not pushing yourself to learn and to make new changes then you are in danger of becoming complacent.
So how do you overcome this? How do you defeat complacency?
You cannot react to this threat. You must use strategy to defeat it.
So what then is the proper strategy for overcoming complacency?
Your strategy should be based on the idea that you are always seeking to improve:
1) Your life situation. Changing the external things in your life and improving them.
2) Your life (internal). Working to eliminate resentment, guilt, shame, fear, anger, and self pity.
If you are always conscious and doing both of those things then you will help to protect yourself from the threat of complacency. But you have to be willing to listen to others, to look carefully and see the lesson in every experience, and to be willing to keep learning about yourself.
And most of all you have to be willing to take action in your life and make changes. If you stay stuck for too long in recovery, even if you were in a good space, this can lead to complacency. You want to make sure that you are making progress, moving forward, seeking growth.
Relapse is not a requirement, but it certainly does happen. You need to know that it does not have to be a part of your future, so long as you are willing to put these principles into action. Personal growth and holistic health are your biggest weapons for fighting off the threat of relapse.
You also need to be aware of the true risks involved with a relapse. It is not something that anyone should take lightly, or to try to justify because “it happens to everyone.” Every alcoholic is in the situation where their next drink could kill them. Or land them in jail. You just don’t know what the consequences of your drinking will be so it is not worth the risk. The threat to your happiness and contentment is too intense to ignore. This is why you must adopt a strategy of personal growth so that you can protect yourself from this ongoing threat.
What has your experience been with relapse? Have you reached a point of “true surrender” and left relapse behind for good? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!