“So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
-Holy Bible, New International Version, 1 Corinthians 10:12
Initial detox from chemical dependence is exhilarating. You feel better—physically, mentally, and emotionally—than you have in years. Anything seems possible. You believe wholeheartedly that “I’ll never go back to that old misery!” You believe you’re immune to relapse.
So why do a good half of those who get sober, wind up experiencing major relapses?
No One Is Immune to Relapse
Part of the reason is physical; many chemical substances permanently increase the neural system’s vulnerability to a “domino effect” triggered by the smallest taste. (That’s why AA members always introduce themselves with “I am an alcoholic,” even years after their last drink.) Part of the reason is mental; unless the initial detoxing is backed up by careful planning and a commitment to new, wholesome habits, the mind will be poorly equipped to think of alternative responses when old triggers resurface.
But perhaps the most dangerous enemy is overconfidence–an attitude of “now that I’ve beaten this, I’ll have no trouble staying free of it forever.” If this is your first recovery experience, it’s easy to forget that one can win several major battles and still lose the war. Climbing the first major peak doesn’t remove the entire mountain range.
The Problem with Overconfidence
That’s not to say you should expect constant struggle and stress in your new life, just that every life is an ongoing cycle of rest, challenge, and triumph (and not necessarily according to any “reasonable” order or balance). The trouble with overconfidence is that it convinces us we can anticipate and plan for anything–or, worse, that our decision to do better has in itself some magical power to automatically clear all relapse temptations from our path. No human being is capable of controlling everything that happens in the world, and expecting to be the exception will only give you a spoiled-child mindset driven by resentment and a deadly sense of entitlement.
The most dangerous form of entitlement may be the “I work hard to earn it” type. Substance abuse is as likely to have its start in compulsive achievement as in a sense of hopelessness; if life won’t give you the easy rest you expected, or if you can’t keep up with everything you “should” do, why not turn to an artificial means of relaxation or energy to claim what’s legitimately yours anyway? And why shouldn’t an achiever like you be able to “handle it”–and how can you face stepping into a support group or treatment center and admit you’ve been capable of making a mess of things?
If that sort of thinking played any role in your substance-abuse problem, beware: you’re a prime candidate for trying to force your new start into the old “I can and should work constantly and do everything perfectly” mold. And that path–stress-attracting, obsessively busy, stubbornly proud–leads along the edge of the slippery slope of relapse. Plus, if you do relapse, the same pride issues that originally let you get so low before seeking help, will be there discouraging you from coming clean with your support system and getting back on your feet.
The pride and “fairness” expectations that feed overconfidence can be tough opponents. If you want to beat “this should be easy” temptations–and thus avoid or recover quickly from relapses–remember:
Support is Essential
On both the human and the spiritual levels, both in the form of regular organized meetings and of having someone to call on quickly in an emergency. Most relapses have some link to a person’s feeling “too busy” to stop and talk to others, which leads quickly to rationalizing that it’s not all that important or urgent anyway. It may not feel as urgent as life’s other duties, but its strengthening effect makes it vitally important.
If over-busyness is a real problem, you may benefit from a more practical level of support: delegate a task, hire help, trade tasks with a friend to relieve each of you of the most personally difficult items. The pride of overconfidence says you can’t trust others to do it right; clear thinking knows that reducing overload is the only way you can trust yourself to do your best tasks effectively.
Life is a Marathon, and a One-Way Marathon Too
Not only can’t you go back and do things differently, you can’t put things in the present back “exactly they way they were”; nor should you try, not least because “the way things were” was probably a major factor in triggering your substance-abuse problem in the first place. Take what you’ve learned from the past and what you have in the present, and use this to build a better future–but not in the expectation of reaching a “point of rest” where life is free of setbacks and challenges. That sort of life would soon become pretty boring anyway; and even if a “trouble-free life” were possible, making it your sole goal will only give you more trouble in the form of stress and resentment.
Go Easy on Yourself
You wouldn’t (I hope!) berate a fallen friend with “you should have watched where you were going” lectures before helping him up and doing what you could for any injuries. Why treat yourself any worse? Just as you are no more infallible than any other human being, you are no less deserving of sympathy and understanding at points of weakness. If you do slip or relapse into old habits (chemical or otherwise) don’t waste time beating yourself up; do what you need to recover, lean on your friends and Higher Power, and start fresh. And, whether you’ve had any recent slip-ups or not, always treat yourself well by caring for your physical health, enjoying regular rest and leisure, and celebrating small victories rather than dwelling on small imperfections.
One little-known secret of regular victory, is embracing your vulnerability.
Relapse Prevention at Kemah Palms Recovery
As part of our evidence-based addiction therapy services, Kemah Palms Recovery uses relapse prevention therapy to prepare clients for post-treatment life. Our addiction treatment options in Houston include:
- Medical detox program
- Residential addiction treatment program
- Intensive outpatient program
- Partial hospitalization program
No matter how long you or a loved one has been in recovery, no one is immune to relapse. For help, call Kemah Palms Recovery today at 866.604.1873.