Definition of relapse: To fall back or revert to a former state, to regress after a period of recovery, to return to unproductive ways of thinking and behaving.
I am a recovered alcoholic.
In late summer of 2014 I spent 78 days in my first and only treatment center. Checking myself in to receive professional help was the best decision I ever made. I have my life back…Well, not really. I actually have a brand new life. One that I never imagined was possible. I am, for the first time ever, able to come to terms with who I am without feeling shame or regret. I guess you could say I sort of look at myself from “outside of myself” if that makes any sense. I don’t feel like addiction defines me. I look at it as an enemy, a thief who comes to trick me and rob me of every part of my life. In reality, everyone battles some sort of addiction. I entered treatment mainly because of alcohol, but without a real desire to get to the root of my problem I could simply switch to another, more acceptable, addiction and live my life in relapse mode for years, or decades…or forever.
But I decided I didn’t want to live that way.
I saw my own weird patterns of behavior so clearly while I was in treatment. When the alcohol was removed I would turn to other things to fill the gaping holes in my life.
I think if we were all brutally honest, we’d have to admit that there is ‘something’ each one of us turns to every single time we feel emotions that we don’t want to deal with. Whether it’s anxiety, loneliness, over-excitement, pain, or anger…without the right coping skills, we all turn to ‘something’ to fill the void.
Your ‘something’ might look like:
Sex or pornography…
Obsession with Work…
Cutting or self harm…
Dieting or food restricting…
Looking for or obsessing about a boyfriend or girlfriend (or potential)
Unhealthy relationships (emotional cheating)…
As I started to piece this all together in rehab, I began researching relapse in every way I could think of.
I read psychological studies.
I interviewed people who had a substantial amount of clean time.
I observed actual relapses and individuals who returned to treatment after a bad run and I performed a mental autopsy on every part of their recovery that led up to relapse.
I was terrified of the thought of returning to active addiction.
Disclaimer: Am I an expert on the topic of relapse or relapse prevention? No. I’m certainly not. But I have learned a few startling things that might be helpful to anyone in recovery.
The Relapse Process
In the 1980’s relapse started to be viewed as a process, not the actual event of drinking or using drugs. In fact, it is a process with definite and identifiable components. I’ll go over these in another post. Right now I want to discuss my own realizations in the order they came to me:
My best efforts never ended well
Step one, at least for me, was to make the conscious decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God. Addiction of any kind is the symptom (or fruit) of a spiritual malady. We are holistic beings. We have physical needs, emotional needs, and spiritual needs. Too often, I believe, we try to change a behavior within ourselves without looking at the whole person or the root of the problem. With God as my guide, I am able to feel secure that He has a plan for me and will guide me through the total healing process. He doesn’t just pick off the bad fruit and leave me with the problem or the pain. He takes care of the whole package.
So, once I turned my will over to God (and this is an ongoing moment-by-moment process) I was able to see things differently. That’s where relapse prevention comes in. Instead of looking at relapse as “that spur of the moment decision” to take a drink or use a drug, God started to show me that it is a “build-up”. It is a process.
I can’t write out anyone else’s relapse prevention plan but here are three things I’ve identified about relapse in my own life that may spark some insights for your own:
1. Have a Protected Plan
I believe relapse is 100% preventable. If I relapse tomorrow, I will absolutely believe I could have avoided it. We don’t slip and fall down into a bottle. We do little things every day that either bring us closer to relapse or further away. We get ourselves into what therapists call “high risk situations” because we make the plan for our strongest moment, not our weakest. That’s where the mistake is.
For example: Let’s say I’m in a car with 3 sober friends and my pastor and we’re driving past a city that I used to use drugs in. I’m not the one behind the wheel and I have plenty of people to talk to if I start to feel sketchy. I’m probably pretty safe.
On the other side of the coin, let’s say I am driving by myself past this same city. I have money in my pocket and I’m in very early recovery. I felt strong when I made this plan because nothing was bothering me at the moment. During my actual trip, my ex calls me and starts to reminisce about old times. I didn’t expect to encounter this “high risk situation” but now here I am. I’m alone. I have money. My ex is calling. I’ll just stop by for a few minutes.
This second scenario just keeps getting sketchier by the minute.
We know it. We’ve seen it. This is nothing new. Yet we continue to make plans full of loopholes whenever we’re feeling strong.
How do we change this?
For me, if I look at addiction as “an attack against me” instead of “part of me” I can make my plans as if I’m in a war and there is an enemy plotting to wipe me out. I know he’ll watch and hit me in my weakest moment, so I try not to help him along by leaving myself in any vulnerable positions.
I actually do the same thing when I start to entertain thoughts that tell me I’m no good, or a failure, or an embarrassment to my family. I stop and say to myself, “Nice try.” Again, I recognize it as an attack. Just think, if you were trying to pull someone into destruction the first thing you’d do is mess with their mind…shake their confidence. When you look at it that way you can get pretty good at dismissing those thoughts. They’re nothing but arrows being fired at you to break you down.
2. Addiction Switching is a Form of Denial
If I am in treatment for alcohol addiction and I’m now suddenly smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, it’s pretty safe to say there’s something I’m still not dealing with. Oh sure, we can say it’s the “hand to mouth” action that has formed a habit, but I disagree with that. I could put my empty hand to my mouth all day long and I’d feel completely unsatisfied. It’s the hand to mouth bringing me a drink, or a cigarette, or my tenth bite of cheesecake that is really the problem. I’m bringing false and temporary satisfaction to myself. I’m appeasing the emptiness within myself just for a few minutes…and we often continue on like this, in a state of semi-denial just sleepwalking through our days from one distraction to the next. I have found in these instances that right at the moment I’m desiring to reach for something to fill my void, if I turn and talk to God, that sudden urge subsides and I can return to contentment without the aid of a ‘something’.
Do I always do this? Does it always work out? Do I always choose correctly? Absolutely not. The day before Christmas I found myself devouring every sweet thing I could get my hands on. My whole M.O. was “more, more, more” until I stopped, finally, and listened to that still small voice, “What are you doing? Why are you frantically searching for temporary fulfillment? I’m right here…” The temporary fulfillment has become a habit. It’s what we know, so we reach for it without thinking. Our job is simply to make another choice…to allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable for a few minutes and ask God to fill whatever emptiness is in us, even if we have no idea what it is. He doesn’t ask us to identify anything or work it out. He just asks that we bring it to Him. “Here’s the mess. I don’t know what to do. I need you.” That’s all.
3. Avoid Compromise Like the Plague
One of the identifiers of relapse mode that I found very interesting is called the cognitive behavioral relapse prevention model. It defines relapse as a violation of a self-imposed rules towards maintaining recovery. I always call it feeling clean when I lay my head down at night. We can call them self-imposed rules, but I like to call them crossroad decisions. I envision it as a little fork in the road. Will I go left or right?
Like when I decided to get behind the wheel of my car and drive ‘just to church’ or ‘just to the grocery store’ even though I didn’t have a valid driver’s license. When I made that first decision to get behind the wheel it was a violation of my self imposed rules…my own knowledge of compromise. It was a crossroad decision. In fact, I remember feeling God telling me, “This is the wrong choice, Robin. This will not turn out well.” And it didn’t. Driving without a license to church turned into driving to the beach and eventually driving to the liquor store. Compromise is a slippery slope and it was that one choice that opened the floodgates to a hundred other bad choices. It was that first compromise that ended in the final binge that took me to the end of myself, and then I checked into rehab. So, of course, God will work all things together for my ultimate good, but now I see those ‘little compromises that don’t really matter’ as huge traps that truly DO MATTER.
So those are my three big aha moments about relapse. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about. No one wakes up and says to themselves, “Today is the day I will fall back into destructive behavior,” and yet we get there…somehow.
I believe once we expose the ‘somehow’ and demystify it, we will have the tools we need to honestly assess our mindset and prevent relapse mode while it’s still miles away from us.
Also, I think having a life purpose is a big part of staying sober. I started this blog as much for me as I did for you. Between writing for my clients, I need to feel useful. I need to have a purpose. If you’re reading this right now, thank you. You’re part of my recovery.
If this has helped you in any way or if you have thoughts on this topic, please…please…please leave a comment and discuss. You never know who you might reach just by taking the time to add your viewpoint or clarity to this article.
Hope you’re having an amazing and relapse free day!
Love you all! xo
If you are currently trapped in the obsession and need help, contact us now: 239-440-6856