The Relapse Roller Coaster

By Ken Wells - 06/30/2020


Every day in the life of a recovering addict embraces the roller coaster experience that addiction recovery entails. In the beginning days, there is the euphoric high that comes from knowing that there are no more lies and secrets that you need to hide. Getting honest with yourself is so difficult, but when you do there is freedom. In a liberating sense you embrace Janis Joplin’s phrase that “freedom’s just another way to say you got nothing left to lose’.

Nonetheless, on another day, or even during the same day, you can be on the edge of acting out. Your body craves its drug of choice. You can think of nothing else but thoughts of getting hammered, screwing your brains out or getting wasted. You may be with family and friends physically but in your head you are craving for a hit so bad that even those who know you best are aware that you’re gone in your head to your addiction.

There are many shades of withdrawal. None of them are pretty. For the most part it is pure hell. Then there are times in recovery when there is fear of being some place in public with your family and running into an old act out partner. It’s so riddled with feelings of anxiety and panic and can be so unnerving.

Some people look like they get traction from the very start and don’t appear to look back. But, then there’s the rest of us. At first getting sustained traction and sobriety is impossible. You keep coming back and picking up a 24 hour chip until it seems like your pockets are full. No one creates long term recovery without facing some days when you just want to quit. Many do just that. The ashen taste of never getting it figured out or knowing that you could have gone to a meeting, picked up the phone, not isolated, stayed away from your drug of choice and a myriad of other things you could’ve, should’ve and wish you had done but didn’t do them. Now, there’s this unbearable hollow emptiness and deep seated loneliness inside that dominates every corner of your messed up brain. You wonder will you ever learn and practice what you know? You tell yourself it is not rocket science. You are not mystified. You know that any choice you could have ever made would have been better than the one you made. In recovery, relapse is a reality for most. Most times you are not bewildered, trying to figure out how you fell into the hole of relapse. Most times you know you decided that you wanted what you wanted when you wanted it and decided to pay whatever price it took to get it. Now you sit in a shit hole of thought and emotional pain not wanting to face what you have to do to crawl out of the hole and stand up again. You just want to quit and disappear. Most addicts in recovery know this experience well.

Those who crawl out of the hole never feel good about it. It just beats the hell out of wallowing in the mud. There is no real infusion of inspiration and emotional warmth in standing up once you get out of the hole. For a while, that seems like an eternity, you live a different type of double life. Inside you feel like you want to withdraw into a nondescript isolated place and die. Yet, on the outside you know you have to muster the energy to do the next right thing, like going to a meeting and once again step up for yet another damn 24 hour chip! At home, it’s likely worse. Your partner feels traumatized, betrayed, isolated and discouraged. Likely, you experience their withdrawal and encounter their interrogation, mistrust and rage about your behavior. It’s so easy to surrender to the “hell with this”.  At this point, most addicts just go down the slippery slope of acting out again to get away from the intense emotional and physical pain. To avoid the pain, an addict will return to self-absorbed narcissistic behavior. The whole world is about them. To escape the riveting pain of reality through addictive demand an addict will take up all the space in the relationship room. It’s like your addiction becomes this huge exercise ball in the room and gets blown up to occupy all the space and your family gets smashed against the wall. Your addiction takes up all the room, even in your recovery. Families tiptoe around your recovery wanting to be sure everything is done to keep you sober, only to watch you fall off the wagon again.

This is the often described roller coaster recovery ride described by addicts and their families. So, how do you get off the roller coaster? How do you do the next right thing when every corner of your brain tells you to quit- that it’s too hard and that it doesn’t matter anymore? Here are a few considerations:

1. Embrace the next right thing while wallowing in the mud hole.

I get calls from addicts sitting in the middle of the mud hole of their addiction, a lot. There is nothing I can tell them that is inspirational while they sit with the mud of their addiction smeared all over themselves. They feel like shit, look like shit, smell like shit and are totally overwhelmed by their shitty behavior. The only thing that I tell them is to do the next right thing— to get up out of the mud hole. This usually means going to a meeting and telling on themselves to their recovery support, including their partner if they are in a relationship. Nothing spectacular and always intensely painful. This is true whether the acting out is habitual or has been a rare and distant experience after years of sobriety and recovery. The experience described is pretty much the same and the prescription for healing the similar for all. It’s not rocket science.

2. Take a shower and get all the mud cleaned off.

Sometimes, this is literal. Washing away all the vomit, urine and human excrement that an addict literally wallows in is an actual experience. Many times, it is a metaphor. To wash away the emotional grit and gunk that clogs an addict’s brain is a critical step toward addressing relapse. Sometimes this can be best done with a sponsor and a 12 step group. Other times, being sequestered in rehab is necessary, but not magic. The magic is when an addict turns the faucet on and washes the mud off. It requires self forgiveness which means to walk in the opposite direction of addictive behavior, once again, and to practice not holding the act out against themselves. This is hard work and will require outside support. It will require applying the lotion of gentleness and self care, particularly at a time you don’t want to.

3. Take a deep breath, get yourself dressed and stick your nose right back in where you were before you jumped in the mud hole. 

Go back to your recovery program right where you got off. In recovery, knowing what is the right thing to do becomes blocked by and mesmerized by the bewitching power of addictive behavior. You can know what to do but not have the motivation and recovery energy to do it. You will need to lean on and depend upon your recovery support to take initial steps. Do the steps where you left off. You may need to go back and address step work to strengthen recovery. However, in truth, none of us ever really go back and start all over because wherever we crawl out of the mud hole, we take all of those experiences of addiction and recovery and build on that. It’s true that you can’t solve your addiction problems by using the same kind of thinking you used to create them. So you will need to continue bathing yourself with affirmations. This can be hard work in itself. What you think about always expands. If you wallow with hangover thoughts from addictive behavior that is what will expand in your reality. Guilt will remind you that your addictive behavior hurts, you and others. Once it has served its purpose get rid of it by ignoring it. Take control of your thoughts by acting that what you would like to be is the behavior toward yourself and others you will do, independent of feelings that dominate you. You must act on the unrepeatable miracle of the universe you are regardless of painful feelings. Eventually your actions will create the feelings that will be congruent to your recovery behavior. M.Scott Peck wrote in his seminal book The Road Less Traveled that “life is difficult”. Recovery is difficult. Yet, when you think of the emotional stench of mud hole behavior, it is the only exit from the roller coaster of addiction. 

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