Recovery is a growth process, and relapse is an interruption of that growth. But relapse doesn’t mean going back to square one. Unfortunately, that is almost always what the relapser is thinking. After four months or four years years of recovery, a person who relapses may feel like they’re back at rock bottom. They may believe that they “haven’t changed at all.”
But they’re wrong. And this mistaken conclusion can make things worse, inhibiting their recovery from from the relapse. Many people who relapse think, “What’s the use? I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. I might as well give up the fight.”
The problem is they are jumping to a conclusion rather than looking at the facts of their situation: the progress they’ve made, the skills they’ve learned, and the rewards of recovery.
We know that there is a part of the person who has relapsed that wants to continue the addictive behavior. The ideas of futility and despair are nothing but typical addictive (all or nothing) thinking. All or nothing thinking inevitably leads to despair when we fail to measure up to our standards of perfection.
All of our behaviors – including our patterns of thinking – have a purpose. The purpose of the addictive, all or nothing thinking is to promote continued addictive behavior. In other words, the all or nothing thinking leads to despair, which creates an excuse to just go act out again.
The truth is that relapse doesn’t wipe out the gains recovering addicts have made. It’s important for people in recovery to keep this in mind.
Important Caveat: With respect to rebuilding one’s relationship with spouse or partner, things are different. Relapse often does wipe out the gains that have been made in restoring trust. That’s what makes this complicated: we have two issues that often get confused: recovery and relationship restoration.
Relapse back into addictive behavior destroys trust, and – in terms of the relationship – puts the relapser back at square one with his or her partner. But in terms of recovery – in terms of their growth, their well-being, the progress they are making in becoming a different person … relapse doesn’t destroy those gains. This is what relapsers – and their partners – need to remember.
Think of recovery like riding in a boat across a lake. Relapse would be the equivalent of falling out of the boat into the water. If you fall out of a boat, you aren’t sent back to the shore where you started from — you don’t lose the progress you’ve made. You just fall into the water. You can choose at that point to get out of the water, back in the boat, and continue the journey.
This is how we understand relapse. Regardless of its pain, relapse is not a regression back to square one. The progress made up to the point of the relapse can’t be denied. An addict who relapses must start from that point and, as with the fall out of the boat, be even more alert to those things that can cause relapse.
One way to be alert to relapse is to watch for addictive thinking. A wise observer, whether therapist or sponsor, may notice instances of addictive thinking that are likely to result in relapse. Understanding and correcting this thinking can prevent a relapse.
In the paragraphs above, I highlighted the “all or nothing,” perfectionistic mentality that underlies many kinds of addictive thinking. But there are other manifestations of addictive thinking. Here are some examples:
- A recovering person who begins exhibiting signs of impatience with the process has likely slipped back into the addict’s concept of time (gotta have it now).
- Someone who claims not to need as many meetings because she is now in control is probably back into the mindset of “omnipotence.”
- Someone wallowing in remorse may be regressing into shame.
- Someone who reverts to rationalizing or projecting blame, or who becomes unusually sensitive to other people’s behavior, may be experiencing the hypersensitivity or self-righteousness of the addict.
- Becoming morose or pessimistic can signal the depression or the morbid expectations characteristic of addictive thinking.
Any manifestations of these kinds of addictive thinking may be a prelude to relapse. Recognizing the relapse into addictive thinking and reestablishing healthy thinking may help the addict avoid the relapse into addictive behavior.
Remember this: Be realistic about relapse. The growth in sobriety that preceded relapse is not lost, and the drift into addictive behavior is fueled by addictive thinking.
Special thanks to Dr. Abraham Twerski for ideas in this article.