We have already learned that personal growth in recovery is not linear, and that it does not always seem “fair” when it comes to the amount of effort that we put into our recovery.
What most people do not realize is that all of the relapse prevention tactics that are typically taught in early recovery are almost completely useless as well.
Why is this?
Part of it has to do with the massive struggle that must take place in order to change your entire life in early recovery. People who focus on recovery tactics are usually missing the forest for the trees. They think that a number of small changes can redirect their life and their addiction. They are mistaken. Relapse prevention is like trying to smash an elephant with a fly swatter. It’s too small of an idea for too large of a job.
They say that in recovery you have to change everything. Of course they are right in that if you try to pick and choose and just change certain things about your life when you attempt to get clean and sober then you are bound to fail at some point and relapse.
Just ask any recovering addict or alcoholic if everything really changed in their life when they got clean and sober, and they will emphatically tell you that “yes, it did! Everything changed!” If it did not then the person ended up relapsing and is no longer clean and sober.
So you have to stop and think for a moment about the idea of relapse prevention and coping skills and how those fit into a recovery plan. If you honestly believe that you can just take a few prevention tactics and then go back into your old life and be able to fend off a relapse with the use of these prevention tactics then you are mistaken.
For example, one relapse prevention tactic might be to call your sponsor if you have an urge to use drugs or alcohol. So this is a coping mechanism and an escape plan that is supposed to help prevent a relapse. The problem is that this sort of thing will only work in a perfect situation. Real life does not necessarily work this way and you will not necessarily be in a position where you will even want to call your sponsor, or even think of it when you are really being tested. When faced with an emotional upheaval and the threat of relapse your mind may lock out such possibilities and they will be thrown completely out of the window. In other words, when an addict or an alcoholic snaps and they start to see the solution for their immediate problems as being to drink or to use drugs, the idea of relapse prevention becomes fairly useless. They no longer care enough about recovery or sobriety to give such tactics any attention.
Therefore, relapse prevention tactics need to be focused on building up the sort of stability and life that will not allow someone to snap in the first place. Once you have emotionally snapped then it is all over anyway, the decision to self medicate has already been made and none of these little tricks like calling your sponsor or calling peers in recovery is going to help much. People who have snapped completely and made the internal decision to self medicate are not going to resort to any of these relapse prevention techniques at all.
The whole idea of relapse prevention is a bit misleading, because now we are teaching people that they can use a handful of tactics that will help them to prevent a relapse in various situations that they might encounter. We are teaching addicts and alcoholics that they can go back to their old life and simply keep these “tools” in mind so that when they are facing a difficult situation they will have a way to deal with it and get through it without relapsing.
In my opinion this is extremely misleading because we are teaching people that they can overcome a lifetime of drug or alcohol addiction through the use of tricks and gimmicks. We are teaching them that there are these little shortcuts, these individual tactics that they can draw from and use as tools, or resources, and when they are tested in their recovery then they can use one of these tools that we teach them and thus they can stay clean and sober and avoid relapse.
In my experience, recovery does not work that way. In my experience you need to do a lot more than just draw from a pool of relapse prevention tools if you are going to stay clean and sober in the long run.
It is not enough to simply learn a bunch of tactics for recovery. Relapse prevention and coping skills are nothing more than tactics for staying clean and sober. They are specific actions you can take in recovery. They are instructions for how to deal with something so that you do not use your drug of choice instead.
In my experience you can learn a whole bunch of different tactics for staying clean and sober and it is never going to be enough. Your recovery will never be strong because you are missing the forest for the trees. Instead of focusing on the tactics for preventing relapse you should instead be focusing on the overall strategy, on changing your whole life, on finding real purpose, and so on.
Tactics and coping skills are a gimmick. Real recovery is about your life strategy and your journey of personal growth.
Fix something entirely or just patch it up?
When you use a coping skill in recovery in order to deal with a situation and prevent yourself from relapsing, are you really dealing with the problem, or are you just patching it up?
The idea of preventing relapse can sometimes cause you to miss an opportunity to fix real problems in your life.
For example, maybe you notice that when you go into your old neighborhood where you used to spend time and use drugs, you get triggered and feel like you want to use drugs again. So with the idea of coping skills and relapse prevention you do things like call your sponsor, or take a trusted friend in recovery with you when you go into the neighborhood, and so on.
But these coping skills may be missing the point entirely, and you should instead be asking yourself “Why do you need to go back into the old neighborhood at all? Shouldn’t you be moving on with your life, finding new challenges in recovery, leaving the past behind, and finding new growth experiences?”
In many cases when you are scrambling to use some sort of coping skill in recovery what you should have done instead is to take three steps back, examine your overall life, and realize that you should not have even needed to use that coping skill in the first place.
Perhaps you need to examine your life and ask yourself: “What could I have done differently a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, such that I would not have even been threatened with the possibility of relapse at all in this situation? How could I have arranged my life to avoid this situation entirely, rather than in needing to deal with it?”
The usual tactics and approach in recovery is to learn how to deal with tricky situations and come out of them clean and sober. But perhaps a better strategy is to lower our tolerance for chaos in our recovery and avoid such situations altogether. The best form of relapse prevention is to reduce our need for coping skills entirely. There is a way to go about doing this and it involves building a life and a recovery that are centered around a personal growth strategy instead of coping skills and tactics. More on that below.
Relapse prevention tactics are not dependable in emotional situations
As mentioned above there is a major problem with relying on coping skills and relapse prevention tactics to keep you clean and sober in recovery, and that is their inability to function well when under emotional duress.
I am in the unique position that I worked in a rehab for over half a decade and I also lived in a rehab for almost two years continuous. During those times I had the ability to watch and observe hundreds or even thousands of people in recovery. I also was able to see how they were acting right up until the point of relapse.
It was amazing to watch so many hundreds of addicts and alcoholics struggle through early recovery and see so many of them relapse. I got to a point where I could tell the instant that someone had mentally relapsed. There was a “point of no return” after which you were not going to be able to convince them to stay in rehab for another day. They were gone. Even though they were still standing there in front of you inside of the rehab center they were still gone. Mentally gone. They had checked out and left the building and they were fully planning their first drug or alcohol use.
The amazing thing was that such people would cloud this truth from themselves in order to be able to get themselves out the door. They snapped and went into survival mode and the only thing that mattered was getting their stuff packed up and getting out of the door to sweet freedom. Their brain had a plan for them and that plan was that they were going to go use their drug of choice but the person would deny this the entire time. This denial was part of their survival mechanism. They had snapped, meaning that they were now seeing with absolute tunnel vision, and the only thing that mattered was that they leave the drug rehab center and get back out into the real world. No amount of logic or reason could possibly convince this person to stay in the rehab any longer after this snap decision had been made.
While I worked and lived in rehab I saw this phenomenon happen over and over again. And so I learned very clearly what relapse looked like and how people would shut down completely when they had made that snap decision in their minds. And I also saw how people would fool themselves and be in complete denial after their brain had snapped and made this decision that they were to leave rehab immediately. Because so many people ended up coming back to treatment at a later time, and because I lived within the recovery community and talked with other people, I learned that each and every person who “snapped” like this did in fact end up relapsing. Every single one of them.
What I learned from observing these cases of relapse is this:
Relapse is emotional.
It is a state of raw emotional anger, frustration, and fear. And the people who are in this state of mind are not able to use things like coping skills. They are way beyond that stuff. They will not even listen to reason and logic, even if it makes perfect sense and they are walking blindly into a massive storm and you are genuinely trying to save them.
This is because they have relapsed mentally. Eventually they will pick up their drug of choice, it is a matter of time, and it does not really matter when they do it at this point. They have snapped entirely and there is no turning back. It’s over. Even though they have not yet picked up their drug of choice physically, they have relapsed fully from an emotional and a mental perspective.
The problem with traditional relapse prevention tactics and the usual coping skills that are taught is that they do not address this state of being. They have no answer for when someone snaps like this and in fact the only hope is that the person had used some sort of recovery tactic long before they snapped.
The problem with that is that people are going to ignore the idea of coping skills while they are escalating emotionally. Once they are on the slope it is generally too late to use tricks and gimmicks to pull a situation back into stability.
Realize too that everyone in recovery is going to be tested at some point. It is not a question of “if,” it is only a question of “when.”
Strategy, not tactics
So what is the alternative if relapse prevention tactics and coping skills are the not the answer?
The solution is a life strategy and a recovery strategy that helps to prevent emotional upheaval right from the start. Preferably this would be a holistic strategy that involves a purposeful effort towards meaningful personal growth.
How does this prevent relapse?
The holistic approach to personal growth prevents relapse because:
* Pursuing personal growth in recovery will build up real self esteem. This is not the type of self esteem that you build from repeating daily affirmations, but instead it is “real” self esteem that does not rely on self talk. Rather what happens is that you set goals for yourself in recovery and take positive action to work towards those goals. Some of them you will likely achieve and some of them you will not. If you push hard in life and focus on the wins then this will build your self esteem a great deal.
Self esteem is important for relapse prevention because it protects you all around from any sort of emotional problems or “snapping” suddenly. You will not be likely to throw away your life on a relapse if you genuinely value your own life. If you still have low self esteem that is left over from your days of addiction (and most addicts and alcoholics do, at least in some form or another) then you will be more likely to say “screw it” at some point and give in to the temptation of relapse.
Think carefully about the moment of relapse and what it is like from a mental self-talk perspective. I can tell you from experience that the mental self talk will basically amount to the words “screw it!” You are giving up the fight for control. You are giving up the struggle to maintain sobriety. The effort of resisting relapse has worn you down and become too great and so you finally say “screw it” and give in to the struggle and just allow yourself permission to get drunk or high again.
If you have low self esteem then you are very vulnerable to this line of self talk (where you throw in the towel and say “screw it!”).
If you have healthy self esteem then you are protected from this life of self talk because you will not be willing to say “screw it” and just sacrifice everything in order to get high.
The holistic approach to recovery focuses on personal growth, and this growth that you make will add value to your life and to your self esteem. This is a strategic approach to relapse prevention rather than a tactical one.
* The holistic approach that focuses on personal growth is more flexible and powerful in terms of preventing relapse. Think about how complicated life can become emotionally during crisis situations (and these are the situations in which you need to prevent relapse!).
No amount of tactical preparation or coping skills training will necessarily be enough to cover you in any and all given situations that life may throw at you. There are times when you cannot call your sponsor. There are times when your peers in recovery cannot help you. There are times when you are truly alone, and it is just you (and God, if you have him) stand between you and your drug of choice. And also keep in mind that there will be times in your recovery when you are spiritually “dialed in,” and times when you may have drifted away from your higher power.
Therefore it does not make sense to shift all of your relapse prevention efforts on to your spiritual condition, or on to your peers in recovery, or on to your daily 12 step meetings. None of these make any sense as a single tactic in isolation, because at various times throughout your life and your recovery you may drift in and out of them.
Rather, it is the holistic approach that makes the most sense, because it is the most flexible and powerful method for maintaining sobriety. If you make growth and progress in all areas of your life then you have more ways in which you can be protected from the threat of relapse.
This holistic approach is not a collection of tactics, rather, it is a strategy for living a successful life in recovery. Your strategy is based on positive changes and personal growth. You do not focus on individual tactics because you have an overall strategy in life that can help dictate what positive actions you are taking.
* A successful holistic strategy for personal growth in recovery is based on your health. Ask yourself: “How can I become more healthy physically? Spiritually? Emotionally?” What can you do to grow in your recovery and improve your health in these various areas of your life? Making growth and positive changes in this way will not only make you healthier in life, but it will raise your self esteem and you will feel better about yourself in recovery. You will value your life more because you are working to make positive changes to your self. This is how to build a strong recovery that does not rely on tactics or tricks or gimmicks to stay clean and sober. Holistic personal growth is relapse prevention done right.