Rabbi, psychiatrist, and chemical dependency counselor Dr. Abraham Twerski, author of Addictive Thinking, explains the distorted thinking that often follows relapse.
Growth in Recovery
Because recovery is a growth process, relapse is an interruption of that growth. But relapse does not mean going back to square one. Yet almost without exception, that is what the relapser is likely to think. After two years or twelve years of recovery, a person who relapses may feel back at rock bottom. This conclusion is mistaken, however, and can negatively affect recovery from a 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 beginning with a conclusion rather than looking at the facts of their situation: the progress they’ve made, the skills they’ve learned, the rewards of recovery. Instead, the person who has relapsed wishes to continue the use of chemicals. The ideas of futility and despair are nothing but typical addictive thinking, the purpose of which is to promote continued use of chemicals. The correct conclusion, as the following story illustrates, is that relapse doesn’t wipe out the gains recovering addicts have made to that point.
One winter day I had a package to mail at the post office. My car battery was dead, and I had to walk eight blocks to the post office. I tried to watch for slippery spots on the sidewalk, but, in spite of my caution, I slipped and fell hard. While I fortunately did not break any bones, I did feel a jolting pain.
I may or may not have uttered a few expletives at the person who should have shoveled the sidewalk more thoroughly. But I knew that whether I fell because of the deceptive appearance of the sidewalk or my negligence, I was not going to get to the post office unless I got up and walked, pain and all. As I limped on, I was even more alert for possible slippery spots that might bring about another fall.
In spite of my painful fall, I was two blocks closer to my destination than when I had started. The fall did not erase the progress I had made.
This is how we can view 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 icy slip, be even more alert to those things that can cause relapse.
Relapse of Thinking
A shrewd observer, whether therapist or sponsor, may detect a recurrence of addictive thinking that is likely to result in relapse. If this is corrected, relapse may be forestalled. For example, a recovering person who begins exhibiting signs of impatience has likely slipped back into the addict’s concept of time. Someone who claims not to need as many meetings because she is now in control is probably back into 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 recurrence of what we have come to recognize as addictive thinking may be a prelude to relapse. Prompt detection of the relapse into addictive thinking and reinstitution of healthy thinking may help the addict avoid the chemical relapse.
Reentering a Twelve Step Program
Many people become frustrated on returning to AA, NA, or another Twelve Step program after a relapse. They remember the wonderful feeling, the glow, and the warmth they experienced on entering the program the first time and are disappointed when they don’t get this feeling on reentry.
But there is only one first kiss. The experience can never be duplicated. On first entering the Twelve Step program, addicts find others like themselves. They are made to feel welcome and comfortable as they become part of the recovery population. The person returning to the program looking for this feeling will likely be frustrated and disappointed. It won’t feel so fresh and new.
Cocaine addicts say that throughout their addiction they tried in vain to recapture the high of their first use, but they could never do it. Attempting to reexperience the first high of recovery is quite similar.
Remember this, for it is important: Be realistic about relapse. The growth in sobriety that preceded relapse is not lost, and a person can’t expect the original experience in recovery the second time around. These are two facts that addictive thinking often distorts.
Excerpted from Addictive Thinking by Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. Abraham Twerski is founder and medical director emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A rabbi, psychiatrist, and chemical dependency counselor, he is the author of numerous journal articles and books, including Without a Job, Who Am I?; I Didn’t Ask to Be in This Family: Sibling Relationships and How They Shape Adult Behavior and Dependencies; and, with Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, When Do the Good Things Start?