Is Relapse a Normal Part of Recovery?
By Carole Bennett, MA
As a substance abuse counselor I am asked this question all the time. Because I am not in recovery myself, my answer comes from years of counseling alcoholics/addicts and processing their answers along with my own professional insight.
So, with that said ... Is relapse part of recovery? Yes and no depending on who you are talking about. If one has relapsed, learned from their "slip" and embraced a stronger, more formidable recovery, then the answer is "yes." However, if one continues to relapse because they have not tethered a confident and secure change in their lifestyle, then relapse just becomes an excuse for buying more time before committing to sobriety. Hence, the answer is "no."
I have befriended many alcoholics/addicts and a number of them have embraced their clean and sober lifestyle from the day they committed to it. However, the majority have had some hiccups along the way.
Four Dispositions that Trigger Recovery Relapse
For the alcoholic/addict that is working a recovery program there can be four main dispositions that present formidable challenges which can trigger relapse. Relapse is an individual preface, and depending on the personality of the recovering alcoholic/addict, their relapse triggers might be different from others. The four that I discuss here represent the broadest of relapses and represent "Kryptonite" to anyone in recovery no matter how long or how strong their program is.
1. Recovery Expectations:
Expectations that either fall short or are unfulfilled can open the flood gates to relapse. Expectations can be unrealistic, and the alcoholic/addict can get swept up with what they think is a fast or easy recovery, which develops into a honeymoon period reflecting a happy work environment and fairy tale relationships. When events or people don't turn out to be what the alcoholic/addict "expected," they don't know how to deal with their frustration or disappointment hence, they turn to the only way they know to comfort themselves; getting high or intoxicated.
Relapse is common when the alcoholic/addict has not had enough recovery under their belt through 12-step meetings, sponsorship, counseling or their own personal determination to rely on an arsenal of "tools" to ward off the relapse demon. With an addictive personality, the pendulum swings so far in either direction that there is no middle ground of normalcy. Life to them is often black or white. The highs are too high, and they represent a false state of contentment. Eventually, those highs can't stay so lofty, and the alcoholic/addict needs to learn to work with, understand and accept expectations that may fall short of their intended mark.
Conversely, the lows can get so low that the alcoholic/addict doesn't know how to crawl out of the hole, dust themselves off and move on. They are very hard on themselves and don't trust that it will be "okay" if they are patient and take their time to re-group; hence they often resort to their addiction. Taking away the pain of reality with alcohol or drugs is the only thing that the alcoholic/addict has known for quite some time. It has for years been a "Pavlovian" response to stressful or difficult life situations. As the alcoholic/addict matured, they might never have learned how to "roll with the punches". In lieu of these experiences, the alcoholic/addict escaped to their addiction and therefore stunted their emotional growth.
As the recovery process gets underway, the alcoholic/addict realizes what they missed through all the years of substance abuse, but often doesn't have the patience to wade through the discomfort of this new emotion and therefore retreats (or relapses) to their safe haven of addiction. Their expectations of falling right in step with the rest of society can fall short as they have not literally clocked in the life hours as others have because they were intoxicated or high as others dealt with relationships, careers and family.
When the alcoholic/addict harbors resentment toward a person or place, (whether a current resentment or one from 20 years ago) the resentment can be so overwhelming that in order to stop the internal anger or frustration, the alcoholic/addict needs to self-medicate in the hopes of turning off the "noise."
In order for recovery to be strong and for relapse to no longer be an option, these resentments must be dealt with through 12-step meetings, sponsorship, and counseling. If not resolved, these resentments feed upon the alcoholic/addicts inner turmoil until busting free in the form of relapse or reckless actions. As a counselor working in a rehabilitation recovery program, all too often I have heard my clients share that because they were resentful towards a girlfriend, family member or institution they thought "who gives a f***" and went out and used or drank.
To the "normie" these resentments may cause a pimple or two, and usually our actions and emotions stay in check and we work through them and move on. The residual effect may produce some discomfort or even anger, but the outcome is rarely as detrimental as it is for the alcoholic/addict. The "pity-pot" to the alcoholic/addict is a handy way of keeping their resentment alive. "Oh, woe is me, no one understands me, I'm doing the best I can, but I guess it's not good enough, etc..." The alcoholic/addict can find great comfort on their "pity-pot" and if enough pity is spent on the pot, then lo and behold, they have found their right to drink or use. They believe their own press which tells them that they are no good or a failure, and the only thing that will dull the pain or make it go away is alcohol or drugs.
There is nothing you can do as the family member or friend to help the alcoholic/addict deal with their resentment. Remember, some of their resentment might be about you for something you did or did not do yesterday or years earlier. These resentments need to be worked through with a sponsor from a 12-step recovery program who has dealt with their own resentments and a professional counselor.
I believe the statement goes..."An idle mind is the devils play ground." This is true for both the "normie" and the alcoholic/addict. Often boredom can be a contributing factor in the world of addiction. However, many "normies" find themselves eating too much, gambling, shopping to excess, etc. ... because of boredom. Various addictions and their degrees of severity impact everyone's life differently.
Routine and concrete scheduling is a life-saver for the alcoholic/addict. Knowing where one has to be and when; being accountable to someone or something else provides a safe framework for the newly recovering alcoholic/addict to live with and depend upon.
Is the fear imagined or real? Most fear that anyone experiences (whether you are an alcoholic/addict) or not, is imagined. Basically, it is fear of the unknown - of distrusting an outcome and not feeling in control of what may or may not happen. People can be gripped with fear and it can cripple their ability to make important changes in their life. Although they may be very aware that their current lifestyle is unacceptable, overwhelming fear of changing what they have known for so many years keeps them from taking steps toward a better life.
I heard a woman share about her fear of getting clean and sober. She stated that she was afraid of not knowing who she would be once she embraced an alcohol-free life; after all, she had grown very accustomed to her alcoholic self and was anxious about a new identity. After years of sobriety, she professed that she liked and respected herself more now than she ever could have imagined.
Getting beyond fear requires a lot of strength and trusting in a belief that a "higher power" will take care of you. It does not matter if one practices a formal religion or not. I believe that as long as there is some kind of spiritual belief then self-confidence and faith will grow and with that, our fears start to dissipate.
© Carole Bennett