Metaphors and Paradoxes Found in Relapse

By Ken Wells - 09/03/2020


Series One: Blog Thirty-Six

When you read about recovery from addiction, you want to learn about someone who has overcome the dregs of destructive behavior. Yet, what about those who don’t? There are addicts who wallow in the failure of chronic relapse. Those who appear defeated and appear as pathetic and hapless. There are addicts who never achieve long term sobriety even though they attend 12 step meetings regularly, but are unable or unwilling to do what others have done to achieve sobriety. What if anything can addicts with a track record of failure teach? To uncover brilliance in the presence of failure, I share this metaphor

Let’s say you get lost in the woods and you are barefoot. You are wandering and hoping that either someone will find you or perhaps you will stumble across a path that will take you somewhere—anywhere but lost! In this lost condition, you don’t know what direction to take. One way or the other will take you deeper into the forest, deeper into being lost and full of despair. As you walk, your feet are bruised and bleeding from the rock and stubble from the forest floor. At a moment of great hopeless exasperation, you suddenly stumble onto a well worn path with wet moist clay that feel so soothing to your bruised and battered feet. Your heart leaps for joy in anticipation that any direction you take on this path it will lead you somewhere that will end in safety. Immediately, you faintly hear familiar sounds that appear to be from those who are having a picnic! As you walk toward the sound, you begin to recognize the voices and become overwhelmed by the wafting odor of your favorite picnic foods. You are famished and exhausted from your lost journey. You walk faster. As the trail winds itself through the woods it straightens and about 700 yards away it spills into a meadow and you then see your long lost friends and family having a wonderful picnic!  Even though your feet are hurting, you begin to run down the trail toward the loved ones having the picnic. After a few steps you come to a screeching halt because you notice that the next 600 yards of the trail is inlaid with red hot coals and you are barefoot. Perplexed, you wonder what to do. You consider taking a shortcut through the woods, but then you tell yourself that is how I got lost in the first place! You begin to think about someone-anyone who might come to your rescue. You yell to the top of your lungs but no one in the meadow can hear you. You decide that the only way to go forward is to walk across the red hot coals, even though you never took a fire walking course. As you step forward with the first step, you recognize that as the red hot coal singes and stings your feet with excruciating pain—that what it really represents is the loneliness that you have attempted to avoid your entire life. Each red hot coal represents an emotional experience that you have attempted to sidestep. There’s hate, shame, anger, emptiness, resentment and every unresolved emotional pain you have ever felt.  As you take these excruciating painful steps, you see your Higher Power, (Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, the collective energy of a trusted support group.etc) walking alongside and giving you the energy and inspiration to take the next step. Each step requires embracing the emotional struggle that you were determined to previously escape. As you take each painful step, you begin to realize that you never really make it to the meadow. You don’t need to because the picnic comes to you.

In recovery it’s only by leaning into pain and facing it, does healing ever become real. Most addicts who fail in their recovery, find the red hot coal of emotional struggle too painful and spend the rest of their lives wandering lost in the woods.

Relapse is a paradox. In order to move past the recovery, you have to embrace the most painful part of the relapse and let it teach you what you need to know to be sober. Here is a short list of paradoxical wisdom that can be learned from relapse failure:

(1) In order to move forward from relapse failure, you will need to grasp the understanding that you must go down and sit with the discomfort that comes from failure and know that you will come back up.

The only way to know this is to practice it. When you sit with the discomfort of failure, it will teach you what you need to know to center yourself in recovery. Sitting with discomfort is not the same as wallowing in the mud of failure which involves helpless rumination about your failure. Sitting with the discomfort is when one does not try to medicate or avoid the painful consequences of acting out and allows the deeper wisdom to come through listening to the difficult emotion. If you will listen to the unwanted emotion it will tell you what you need to do to take care of yourself. This is an art form that requires discipline and training.

(2) In the presence of relapse, you must go back to the beginning in spirit while never starting all over. 

Life is a progression. It flows like a river. Of course, you never put your foot in the same place in a river. In recovery you can never go back to the place you began. It no longer exists. What can exist is the recapture of a beginner’s spirit-being willing to do whatever it takes to move forward and experience sobriety. You simply build over and again from your failed expedition toward sobriety. It is in this sense of recovery that T.S. Eliot’s famous words apply that “We shall not cease the exploration—and the end of all our exploring—will be to arrive where we started—and know the place for the first time—through the unknown, remembered gate—when the last of earth left to discover is that which was the beginning—“

(3) Recovery in relapse requires that you talk about what does not get talked about. 

For addicts who have relapsed there is a lot that is not talked about. Essentially, relapse insists that the details around build up behaviors that accelerate acting out be explored and identified. There is plenty to talk about whenever relapse occurs. Whenever I listen to a relapse disclosure, most often, it is like pulling eye teeth to get the content of what happened. Often, it is piecemealed. Sometimes, it is like the vending machine—push the right button by asking the right question and you get a response. Otherwise you are left in a fog of uncertainty.  Like completing a puzzle, the inquisitor, pieces together the story over time, perhaps never getting the whole story from start to finish. And that’s just the details of behavioral relapse.  Then there are the mistaken beliefs that dominate and the disconnection from feelings. This is where you as an addict lose yourself and sell yourself down the river called relapse.   

In 12 step meetings, it is common that the disclosure involves an abbreviated admission of relapse, picking up a white chip and a commitment to start all over, again. What gets overlooked is the important detail that led to the acting out. What was the legitimate need that needed to be met in a healthy way that was overlooked? What was the unwanted feeling that relapse behavior helped to avoid? What would have been a healthy way to address the undesirable experience? These answers can only be addressed when an addict determines to talk about what most often does not get talked about. Telling on yourself is paradoxical to the voice of addiction which urges you to speak in half truths, duck and dive reality and keep secret your motive for doing what you do that puts you in high risk for relapse.

Addiction relapse is like getting lost in the woods. The only way to find yourself is to lean into what you don’t want to face, embrace the painful experience of consequences and then solve the Rubik’s cube of addictive craving through telling on yourself. 

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