- a partial antidote to
returning to using
"I had a flood of relief when I realized you were in relapse!"
"What do you mean 'I'm in relapse!?!?!' I haven't used anything!" my shocked client said.
"Well - exactly!" I replied - "That's great!"
"What the hell does that mean???"
"It's simple, really - and that's the beauty of it, and why it's great that you were only in relapse."
"Wait - what? Only in relapse?"
"Yes, that's right - you were, and probably still are a bit, in relapse. Think about what you told me... how you were getting all wound up, emotionally, over what they said to you. How you were so very upset by it. How much serenity were you able to do, in the middle of that stuff?"
"Ok - No serenity - 'cause I was really upset"
"Exactly. And when you're upset like that, you told me how you were feeling really resentful, and like you wanted to do something to them to teach them a lesson - now, if that continued for a while longer, would you feel more inclined, or easily tempted, to actually use?"
"Probably... yeah... but I didn't use!"
"That's what's great and wonderful and congratulations to you for it! Instead, you called for help. And when you did that - you did recovery."
"But isn't relapse using?"
"No - it's not. Using is using. Relapse is everything you do that leads up to actually using.
This is a really unfortunate confusion in many of the 12 step rooms. People say 'I relapsed' when what they actually mean is they went out and used."
Relapse is something most of us do every day, sometimes dozens of times a day.
Relapse is a normal part of good recovery
Using this interpretation of relapse changes how we can see our progression in recovery. For a long time after we come into and start the process of recovery, we're still cleaning up from our old emotional patterns... from the habits of feeling like we're less than, or a victim, or that we don't belong, or we're excluded, or... the list is long! Those emotional loops lead us into thinking loops, which tend to accelerate and inflame our emotional pain. Not knowing how to effectively work with healing emotional pain is (in my opinion) the biggest and most common "culprit" in defeating recovery.
From the time we first stop using, our common goal - and our deepest hope - is to live clean and sober, free of addiction or alcoholism. We just didn't know how to do that, beyond "just not drinking / using". We may have achieved some progress from working a 12 step program, attending meetings, and gaining a sense of belonging in a fellowship - but we still have loads of emotional, communication and behavior patterns that we need to learn to correct.
While we've stopped using the drug(s) of choice, we're still largely in the grip of the disease of addiction / alcoholism. We have the same coping skills we learned before we started our journey towards clean and sober living. Most of those skills were the ones which contributed to our sickness... and so it's quite understandable that even though we've taken away the drink / drug of choice, that we still experience much of the same emotional chaos that we did when actively practicing.
We do it most often without even knowing we're doing it, until we get to a point of pain.
So in those moments, we're practicing relapse - a return to the behavior that characterized some of the underlying and contributing factors of our disease. Until we "get it" - until we make the connection between how we're participating in allowing the voice of addiction to "run us" - we swing back and forth between practicing recovery skills, then relapse behaviors, and then recovery skills again.
When I catch myself doing relapse, and interrupt it by doing something recovery related, that's when I start to really accelerate my recovery and move closer to practicing creating serenity.
It was 1987...
... and I was three years clean, when I first heard about and read "Staying Sober: A Guide for Relapse Prevention" by Terence T. Gorski. That was where I first heard this idea about relapse as what happens, as what we do, that RESULTS in actually and ultimately using.
It became a favorite self-awareness skill
I'm a total enthusiast of this understanding of relapse, because it's actually useful to me. It gives me a reference point that I can use. It's like an emotional / thinking / spiritual GPS at any point, and leads me to asking questions that help me get "back on track" to practice recovery. Things like: "Is what I am doing leading me into - or out of - recovery?"
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