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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

Recovery is a unique experience with countless benefits and pitfalls. Relapse is part of recovery and yet somehow when folks temporarily go back to drinking/using, they react as though they have not only lost everything; they’ve lost it once and for all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Getting Back Up After Relapse

If you screw up something important at work or at home, you don’t throw your hands up in the air and say something like, “Well that’s it then. I just can’t do this and I never will.” Nope. You get back up and try again. You seek out people who know more than you and learn from them. You figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

Of course, in recovery, “It” is you, your life and your program. You’re not a problem to be solved. You’re a person worth investing in. Not only do you get to make that investment every day; you also allow others to benefit by serving you. This seems counterintuitive but it’s an honored truth in programs like AA and NA. The only way we keep it is to give it away.

What’s Different This Time?

What I see as an addictions counselor is that when folks relapse their shame comes back tenfold. They project their feelings on to others. They speak of having let everyone down when in most cases they have only harmed themselves. Withdrawing from supportive others follows because judgment is our expectation. This leaves us isolated and at greater risk.

One of the most amazing things I’ve seen at an AA meeting is when someone picks up a white chip symbolizing day one of Recovery. Those in attendance clap. They applaud the person’s resilience and they’re happy because the disease didn’t win. This is the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes.

Folks say to me all the time, “I just need to get back to where I was.” To which I ask, “Isn’t that where you were just before you decided to do some drugs?” Why would anyone want to go back to such a precarious place? Let’s go somewhere better, somewhere safer. Let’s get to a place that helps you to have greater faith in yourself, in your program, and in a Higher Power.

With each relapse it can get easier or harder to restart your program. As with everything else in life, it’s all in how you look at it.

Cumulative Recovery

When we use we don’t lose the gains we’ve made. We don’t forget what we learned or take back the pain we let go of.

One of the greatest success stories I’ve had the honor of serving developed a way of seeing his past attempts at sobriety as having value and of constituting a “Cumulative Recovery.”

In the past he experienced every period of sobriety ending in relapse and therefore saw them as failures. Today he knows that failure only occurs when we stop trying.

Now he understands that every past period of sobriety was a success. Today his goal is to put together not only the pieces of himself but also the valuable lessons piecemealed through his years in and out of recovery. He’s come to see in retrospect that there were always conditions and stipulations on his recovery. Now he truly understands the meaning of doing “whatever it takes.”

We’re slow learners in the school of hard knocks. He said to me, “I could never do step one right because I was always thinking about how bad step four was going to be.” This is addictive thinking and it doesn’t go away on its own, no matter how long we stay clean/sober. Looking ahead, anticipating, writing scripts (predictions of how the future will unfold), worrying, all of these undermined his ability to be in the here and now.

He’s one more of the long term addicts I know who saw himself as a “chronic relapser.” I hate that term not only because it envisions past efforts as failures but also because it predicts failure in the future. Everyone has lines they fear crossing. Some of us have plateaus we believe we can’t go past.

Milestones & Plateaus

Six months sober is a common time for relapse. I’ve always believed this is about as far as most people can “white knuckle it.”

Even when we’re working recovery alone, we unthaw, we experience some healing and we start to perceive things more accurately. The good thing about being sober is we feel more and the bad thing about being sober is we feel more. We most often go back to drinking and drugging to avoid our emotions.

  1. 'Keeping It Simple' we recognize that we need strategies to cope and people to support us. Otherwise we go back to what we know.

  2. When we’re sufficiently lost and overwhelmed we feel a burning desire for control. The easiest way to take control is to shoot ourselves in the foot. Self destruction is familiar and we do it very well. We know how to restart at day one and get back into our comfort zones.

Being comfortable is being complacent and no addict or alcoholic can afford this. It’s simple – we’re either continuing to grow, heal, and learn or we’re regressing. Comfort zones are made of stretchy material. We need to continue expanding and incorporating healthy relationships and experiences. Being stagnant means we quickly get lost in our own heads and start clinging to illusions.

Attitude Is Everything

Control is an addict & alcoholic's number one character defect. If we’re not trying to control everything we feel like we’re out of control. The key to self control is in step one of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.

If we are to have recovery & long term sobriety then we must learn how to live a manageable life. The keys to manageability are accountability, responsibility, acceptance of what is, and reaching out for help.

Recovery has been defined as “awareness of the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that block change.” These are the things we have control over. We choose to be aware or unaware.

A Better Life Awaits After a Relapse

We can choose what attitude to have. We must reconcile our beliefs with our behaviors and be accountable to others, not only to stay sober but to have a better life.

About the author Jim LaPierre:
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. Check out my recovery community at SoberNow.com. Thanks! Jim
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Page last updated Nov 06, 2023

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