Thirty-one years ago I was a neophyte in the recovery world. Determined to overcome my addiction, I did everything my sponsor told me to do, read books I could get my hands on and listened to audio tapes that would help me stay sober. I did everything my therapist would suggest. I was all in. On one occasion, I engaged in regressive therapy which involves experiential steps toward resolving past painful events. The therapist was a specialist in uncovering unresolved painful events in life. The session itself was very emotionally charged and plunged into significant past emotional trauma. When the session was over, I recall leaving the therapeutic setting feeling pretty raw emotionally. What I was experiencing was a lot vulnerability. Even though I had established a significant length of time in sober living, I found myself in a kind of trance cruising and searching for a way to act out in my addiction. What I learned was that uncovering pain from past traumatic experience creates increased vulnerability and high risk toward relapse unless sufficient self-care is administered before and after trauma work. I learned to practice bookending my therapy sessions with connection and accountability with support people before and after therapy sessions.
For sure, relapse is not necessary for addicts in recovery. Yet, learning to address lapse or relapse behaviors is imperative toward building long term recovery. There are high risk zones and pitfalls in recovery that addicts must be alert to avoid the backsliding into old destructive behaviors that is common for many.
Wake up calls are life experiences that take addicts by the nape of the neck and shake them with reality that they are facing major relapse unless something dramatically changes quickly. I hear wake-up stories all the time. It may be a sex addict in recovery who shared that he was on his way to acting out with an escort when his car broke down on the way. He decided to call his sponsor instead of following through with his destructive act out. As a result, he determined to re-engage his program. He was saved from the slippery slide of relapse by way of a wake-up call in a random mechanical failure. I have listened to alcoholics and drug addicts share similar near misses around relapse. For one, getting lost trying to find the location of a dealer and for the other, driving to her old neighborhood bar only to learn that it had closed because of a COVID outbreak, represented indelible near-miss wake up calls.
For sure, cravings for the dopamine hit that comes from addictive urge is a daily possibility for addicts in recovery. Engaging in addictive acting out can be like turning on a fire hose of dopamine to the brain of an addict, triggering euphoric response. The level of dopamine rises with anticipation and spikes when addicts act on their addictive urge. Living without the hit is tough. Usually, an addict will feel worse before he feels better. As a result, many addicts live on the edge of their recovery program and bash boundaries around their addiction behavior. There is a certain rush just being near an addictive environment. Thus, the old adage “if you hang around the barbershop, you’re gonna get a haircut”. Inevitably, unattended high-risk behaviors will cascade you over the falls of addictive behavior.
Wake-up call experiences in life can be utilized to help get your attention before relapse. Here are a few considerations:
Often I listen to sex addicts share that they are hit on constantly. One will tell me, “I was minding my own business and she came up to me and began flirting and throwing herself at me. What was I to do?” Or I have heard complaints like “I was sitting alone and he just came to me with warmth and a smile so I had no choice but to be nice to him.” It’s almost as if helplessly they are unable to prevent these high-risk people and situations from happening. It’s not as if sex addicts are the most drop-dead gorgeous people who have to tolerate being hit on; most people are not constantly badgered by sexual invites from others. Substance addicts complain the same way. “Everywhere I go I am being offered a drink or asked if I want to score,” some will say. The answer to these challenges can be unraveled by taking an attitude inventory. First, “Am I serious and committed to ending the addictive behavior?” If so, then eliminate the high-risk behavior by rolling up the welcome mat. Stop communicating availability in terms of the environment you hang out, the conversations you have with others and the energy about the addictive behavior that you communicate. Simply put, shut down the energy that you are available for sexual intrigue if you are a sex addict and turn away from addictive environments while spurning the encouragement of those who would invite you to use or sit in high-risk scenarios. When you eliminate slippery places, you likely will not slip.
Many addicts who attend 12-step meetings enjoy the community and gain from the insights shared. Fewer take the insights seriously toward life transformation. There is a difference from attending 12-step meetings and being all in. Follow through with boundaries, commitments, and program work require an addict to abandon half-hearted attempts at recovery tasks. All in is a plunge experience; it is like cliff jumping — when you take the first step there is no turning back because of your complete abandonment to whatever it takes. When you compromise, make excuses, make commitments and don’t follow through, you exemplify half measures that never work. It’s like getting a prescription from your doctor, purchasing the medicine at the pharmacy, then taking the medication out of the bottle and laying it on the counter, pouring yourself some water and then drinking it without the pills. If you are blaming others for your downfall, keeping secrets about your thought and behavior life, and giving negative voices free rent in your head, this is the evidence that you are not willing to go to any lengths to create the sober life you want. In the presence of many new approaches and technology for healing, the only way to emotionally grow yourself up and address addiction will be through complete involvement in your recovery program.
Denying the reality of what is in your life is a set-up for relapse even when wake-up calls are ringing all around you. Many experiences about recovery are not pleasant. The discomfort of real consequences from addictive behavior can be an intrusive reality that is shoved in your face with no reprieve. Loss of job, family, and esteem can be repressive. The whirlwind of addictive behavior always includes unfair treatment and unfair judgment. Consequences and restrictions can seem overwhelming. Yet, you will not find peace and sobriety until you can accept the limitations and implications of your addiction behavior. “This too will pass” will only be true for you through surrender when you can concentrate less on what needs to be changed in the world around you, and more about what needs to be changed within you and your attitudes. Acceptance is an age-old process that paves the way toward long-term sobriety. Without it, the phone will ring off the wall and you will never answer the wake-up call in recovery.
Questions like “After so much time in recovery sobriety, why did I so quickly reach for my addictive behavior?” “Why do I struggle so much with behavior and attitudes that sabotage closeness to people I love?” “Why do I procrastinate facing the fear of my childhood or addressing Step 4 work?” are all about the underlying conditions of unresolved family of origin issues. Relapse is about losing who you are and forfeiting your potential for who you are meant to be. Relapse gives you the opportunity to claim lessons from the past and to reclaim your truth. If those underlying conditions aren’t treated, the return of those symptoms may cause you intense discomfort that can trigger your desire to go back to using. That’s the primary reason there is such a high rate of relapse among people who have become dependent on addictive behavior. It has less to do with the addiction and more to do with the original causes that created the dependency. There is a wake-up call for each of us who are tempted to walk only to the first oasis in the desert and camp out for the rest of our days. The wake-up call is to go the distance all the way through the desert to the other side. That other side is the peace that comes to those courageous enough to address the unresolved family of origin issues that trigger the addiction.
Bushwhacking is a term applied to a way of hiking in the wilderness. There is no trail. You just go— through thickets, over boulders, aimlessly moving into the adventure of the woods and great outdoors. It is a very uncomfortable way to travel. It may or may not be a shortcut. What is involved is an adventure and exploration of the forest. Recovery growth engages a form of bushwhacking. Going deep always includes an uncharted course to follow that embraces getting out of your comfort zone. It calls for you to acknowledge your inconsistency. It requires that you own your incongruence. It demands that you admit your hypocrisy. It summons you to submit to the accountability of community to draw you back from these human frailties to be true to your heart. This is the wake-up call that curates relapse prevention and cultivates the character of long-term sobriety.
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