Relapse is part of recovery, right?
We hear this a lot in the recovery community, but is it accurate? At the core of this message is an admission that for many of us, recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line.
We progress, then we fall back. We try, and we fail. (I’m certainly guilty of it.) Basically a lot of us screw up before we get it right. But is it really part of the process?
There was a conversation happening online a while back amongst my beloved #recoveryposse on Twitter about the whole “relapse is part of recovery” thing.
I can’t remember who said it, but the response was and indignant NO. It’s not. We should stop saying so. Relapse isn’t part of recovery. It’s part of addiction.
Understanding Relapse Cycles
You see it all the time. I’ve certainly been guilty of it.
We get it in our heads that we’re going to quit drinking, using, smoking, eating McDonald’s three times per week, what have you.
And that declaration is so packed with hope that the adrenaline kicks in. You’re giddy with excitement about this new life that you think you want.
Sometimes it’s enough to propel you into the first week or two without too much headache. You feel transformed.
I got this!
Until you don’t. Inevitably something will happen to test your resolve. And if all you’ve done is blissfully ride the adrenaline wave for a week or so, chances are you haven’t prepared for this moment.
It’s what takes so many of us out.
“But I was doing so good!”
Spend any amount of time in the online (or offline) sobriety world and you’ll hear this over and over. Someone will say, “I drank. I don’t understand. I had 13 days and was doing so good!”
I have been this person. Maybe you have too.
And sometimes the commonality of this experience dulls the severity of it.
If 60% of the people in your community are screwing up every couple of weeks, it takes the edge off your own relapses and THAT is dangerous.
Why do we do it?
I have spent countless nights and mornings, often in the midst of a grueling hangover, asking myself this question. Why did I do it?
It’s gut wrenching.
And well-intending people will say that it’s okay. I’ve said it to others, probably this week!
But it’s not okay. Relapsing is not okay, but you will be okay. So long as you keep trying.
And that’s the kicker. (More on trying in a minute)
Relapse is a red flare.
I believe that we relapse when we’ve left something untended. Sometimes we’ve left everything untended.
We get so hyped up on the energy of finally breaking free that we forget to come down and do the real work.
You THINK you’re ready for a party, but you’re actually not.
Lesson learned. (Hopefully.)
The Definition Of Insanity
Okay, back to the whole “trying” thing.
Maybe you’ve heard this quote from Albert Einstein before. It’s a good one. He said:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
This is painfully applicable to relapse cycles. As far as Einstein’s nugget of wisdom goes, I was absolutely bonkers when it came to sobriety.
I would relapse, start over, relapse, start over, and on and on and on. Did I change up my strategy? Nope. Well, maybe I changed up the self-help book I was leaning on, but effectively, no I did not.
I didn’t drag my defeated butt to AA or join any other sober communities. I didn’t make an appointment with a doctor or psychiatrist to have an open discussion about what was going on with me.
Hell, I didn’t even talk to my closest friends about the drinking. I’d blabber on and on about anything else (mostly dramatic retellings of my innermost miseries), but never about the drinking.
I just kept starting over and trying to white-knuckle my way to sobriety, allowing the tug and pull of to drink or not to drink to occupy 80% of my brain.
I was miserable.
I wasn’t really trying.
The extent of my trying came in the now comical form of attempting to read a Gabby Bernstein book and force a spiritual reckoning with my “higher power.” She told me through her books that she went from boozy cocaine addict to sober, spiritual warrior overnight.
She asked God for help and he/she/it actually responded and said if she got clean, all her dreams would come true. AND I BELIEVED IT.
Like with every fiber in my being, I thought I could visualize, meditate, and beg my way out of drinking. I lived in a constant state of denial, refusing to see the extent of my brokenness.
And so I kept screwing up.
I’m sure I invented a million different reasons why sobriety didn’t work for me and turned those things into excuses to keep drinking. It was easier to believe I was irredeemable than to muster the courage to go to an AA meeting or say the quiet part out loud: “I have a problem with drinking. It’s ruining my life and I don’t know how to stop.”
Walking The Tight Rope
There’s a delicate balance we have to strike in sobriety.
On the one hand, if we DO mess up and drink, we need to feel empowered to start again. To believe that one mistake does not condemn us to a life of drunken misery. That pieces of the sky are not falling on our heads.
On the other, we can’t be so cavalier about it. If you’re taking your sobriety seriously, you have to be equally serious about relapse.
Drinking again after you commit to sobriety is a BIG deal. And if it doesn’t feel like it is, then it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about whether you’re truly committed to sobriety in the first place.
Drinking habits and alcoholism exist on a spectrum. Maybe yours is not an urgent case and you’re still in the questioning phase (totally fine!).
But be honest with yourself.
If you fall into the range of harmful, at-risk, or dependent drinking, then you may be staring down a shrinking window of opportunity to get it together.
And for those of us who fit that descriptor, it’s important to re-evaluate how we look at relapse.
It is not necessary or useful to beat yourself up over it. But it is a sign that you need to do more and approach your sobriety from a different angle.
And you know what?
You don’t have to know what that different approach is. If you did, you might not have relapsed in the first place. No, you just have to be teachable and willing to accept help from someone who’s been there.
Maybe that guidance comes in the form of AA and working the steps with a sponsor, maybe it comes in the form of a psychiatrist or addiction specialist. Perhaps you check in to a program or find a sober community to help keep you accountable.
It could be a combination of any of these plus something else altogether.
The point is, you have to take action and ownership of your sobriety. Think of it as a necessary step towards a healthy, happier life (because it is).
Every relapse that we survive is a gift, an opportunity to start again and do better. (We don’t get an unlimited supply of those!)
It is also a big sign that we don’t have control of this thing.
The Way We Delude Ourselves In Sobriety
String together enough sober days and you start to believe you’ve “cured” whatever problem drove you to drink yourself stupid every day. So we test the waters and drink again.
Sometimes it’s okay and we stop after two. Other times we get blackout drunk and wonder what would possess us to do such a thing.
I’ve certainly done both.
And the problem is that deep down, I wasn’t actually sold on sobriety. It was more like I was trying to give myself space from it, to prove that I didn’t “need” alcohol or that all those sober days reset my brain, transforming it into one that can handle alcohol responsibly.
Whew! Got that out of my system. Now I can drink like a normie. Sweet!
Of course, that’s a lie.
But it’s a telling one!
We just proved that sobriety wasn’t our real goal. Drinking like a normal person was and somewhere we got it in our brain that a sober month is all takes to get there.
And it’s also how we find ourselves trapped in these terrible relapse cycles. Round and round we go, never changing, perpetually miserable.
You either want to get sober, or you don’t.
I didn’t want to get sober for the longest time.
Here’s a list of things I did want:
- to not get drunk all the time and make an ass of myself
- to moderate my drinking
- to only have one or two drinks at a time and then go home
- to not think about drinking (or not drinking) every second of the day
- to be happy and healthy
- to enjoy my life
- to love myself
I wanted to fix all the problems drinking had brought into my life while still being able to drink a little here and there.
It’s the same logic that makes me want to eat whatever I want and still be skinny (which I no longer am).
We want everything to change, but are unwilling to let go of the things that holds us back from getting there. And so we relapse and drive ourselves nuts in the process.
You can’t half-ass sobriety.
You’re either 100% in or you’re pretending. And the thing is, a lot of us have pretended at one point or another. Sometimes for years.
But if you find yourself frustrated and depressed by an inability to stay sober long term, try having a heart-to-heart with yourself.
Are you really 100% committed to sobriety? Have you truly tried? Are you getting the help and support you need? Have you accepted how bad this problem really is for you?
My guess is the answer is no to at least one or more of these questions. But the beautiful thing is that you can get there.
Even if you’ve been mucking it up for the better part of a decade (in my case) or longer, you can get there. But first, you have to be honest with yourself. And then you have be done.
Like deep down in your bones, I can’t do this anymore, done.
Crack yourself wide open and see what happens.