Relapse is it a Choice?
An article by GERARD “Jerry” J. EGAN LMHC
I have had the pleasure and joy as well as the agony and disappointment of having been allowed the honor of working with addicts and alcoholics for the past thirty-one years. As a result of this lifetime of counseling substance abusers and their families I have observed the following dynamics of a relapse.
It has been believed that relapse is a part of recovery and that for most people trying to get clean and sober it is just a rite of passage. It would be better to begin to think about and believe that there is a strong possibility and hopefully as a result of this article that “we can make it a strong probability that relapse no longer needs to be a required regression on the way to recovery.” Those who believe that relapse is a necessary part of recovery need to recognize that there is a universal principle that “what we believe is what we conceive and achieve.” If we think that failure is necessary prior to success then that becomes the proverbial self fulfilled prophecy. Since no one knows the future we need to begin to stop acting and believing that we do know the future.
What is being proposed here, is that every addict and alcohol and in fact every human being has the capacity of exercising and utilizing their personal power “or choice” to change their lives and improve the quality of their lives and that no one needs to be condemned or condemn themselves with destructive faulty beliefs that become tragic self for filling prophecies.
What can be done to facilitate a more rapid and long lasting recovery? If it is a matter of just making the right choices, why do so many fail to enter of remain in recovery? The answers to these questions may be found by a close examination of the concept of addiction. If a person is an addict or alcoholic do they have the power of choice? If a person is addicted how is it interrupted so that the person can begin a new life? Once the active addiction is successfully interrupted why does a person return to active substance abuse and then back into dependency. The following concepts based on thirty one years of observations will demonstrate why relapse occurs and how it may be prevented. Once these concepts are better understood and the necessary insights come to light it will be possible to avoid recovery failures by just simply exercising the power of choice.
Before beginning this discussion there is one founding principle that needs to be explained. That principle is that “the decision that any person makes is based upon how much value they attribute to each of the choices.” The choice that seems to have the most value; is the choice that most people will make. It is no mystery why a person will return to substance use; since getting high creates one of the greatest sensations that a human being can experience. The measure of this may be found in the fact that most people would believe having a child has to be the greatest event or feeling that a person could experience and yet this still pales in comparison to using alcohol or drugs. The fact is that if being a new parent was actually that fantastic and spectacular why does that person go out and get high the very day of their son or daughter’s birth. For these people it is an obvious fact that only drugs and or alcohol can satisfy the need for extreme pleasure since being a new parent does not meet this level of joy or excitement.
It now becomes quite clear that the use of mood altering substances meet an emotional need in a manner that no other human experience can. This is one of the main reasons that people relapse not because they want to get high but because nothing compares to “the getting high experience.” After a period of time free from alcohol and drugs that individual begins to feel short changed and longs for an exciting and powerful emotional or physical experience. Substances seem to have more value than recovery and so they make a decision to use drugs since recovery is experienced as having less value. All decisions are based on perceived value and all value is determined by emotional sensations and experiences. There is no logic in relapse decisions; since the action is driven by blind feelings and emotions. Addicts and alcoholics have a tendency to allow their emotions to control their behavior and actions and by challenging this tendency the person can significantly improve their chance for a long lasting recovery. Feelings are the cause of relapse and when a person is able to manage this risk they have a high probability of staying clean and sober. “Either you have to manage your feelings or your feelings will manage you.”
Certain feelings are the enemy of a person’s chances for a long lasting recovery. For instance “I don’t feel like calling my sponsor.” or “I don’t feel like going to a meeting today.” or “ I feel like drinking or getting high.” or “it didn’t feel like it was working” or the most devastating of them all “I felt I could control it.”
The simplest method to protect sobriety is to learn to ignore negative destructive feelings and sensations. The best way to accomplish this is to learn the simple technique of “Challenge to Change.” If a person teaches themselves not to immediately respond to any feelings or sensations then they begin to build the necessary personal power to resist relapse.
A simple exercise to accomplish this is to select three things daily that is good for recovery- that you absolutely do not want to do and force yourself to complete them. In this manner you are teaching yourself that “feelings do not direct actions.” Through this simple process you will develop resistance strength. With practice this activity will enable you to manage dangerous feelings and emotions through the process of preventing emotions from directing your behaviors. There are many activities that will accomplish this shift from being ruled by your emotions to using personal power to make the right decisions regardless of any accompanying feelings or emotions. A small sample of these are Make your bed every day and take your time and put much effort into; if you smoke cigarettes before lighting it look at your watch and wait one to three or more minutes; eat the right foods not just the ones that emotionally appeal to you; apologize when you are wrong; if you pray-then pray on your knees remembering that addiction drove you to your knees as evidenced crawling and vomiting when using drugs and alcohol; take a shower every morning even if you take one at night so that the water jump starts positive feelings and sensations upon waking and getting out of bed; eat breakfast every morning to stabilize the brain; exercise daily; attend meetings daily; volunteer somewhere. The list of activities is endless and the most powerful ones for you will be doing the ones that you absolutely do not want to do. Such simple things as “wash dishes and glasses as soon as you use them” or “always place books and papers in a neat and orderly manner; rather than just tossing on the table or floor.”
Those hard choices will make it that much easier to make the right decisions when temptation tries to overwhelm you.
It is through exercising the power of choice through self imposed discipline that your personal power is harnessed and released which builds self esteem and increases a healthy self confidence that will enable you to make the right choices regarding recovery.
To sum this up in one sentence it may be stated this way, “Relapse and recovery are not choices but the results of the choices we freely make on a daily basis.”