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Relapsing after Long Term Sobriety - Coping with Embarrassment and Shame

Confidence without Complacency

For most of us, the longer we stay sober, the more confident we become that the possibility of relapse is behind us. The wisest of old timers in programs like AA advise vigilance against complacency. Addiction is life-long and never completely dormant. When we deny it our drug of choice seeks new ways to undermine us. Even with long term recovery, elements of addiction can return in the forms of addictive thinking, addiction impulsiveness, unhealthy perception and poor emotional regulation.

All it takes to relapse is a lack of maintenance or increased hardship.

We stop doing the things that promoted sobriety and fostered continued growth. We get caught up, stressed out, and begin to isolate ourselves from those who hold us accountable - maybe you find yourself staring into a beer cooler or driving through areas you know you need to avoid. Ignoring the warning signs leads unavoidably back to destruction.

Returning to Insanity

The choice to relapse means coming out of remission. Many of us were lulled into the false belief that after so many years we can control the thing that controlled us.

  1. We generally find that the disease returns with a vengeance.
  2. The first drink/drug most often leads to unprecedented destruction, making our efforts to return to sanity/sobriety all the more difficult.

In moments of lucidity, we're overwhelmed with the sickest form of déjà vu. This is all too familiar. We can't believe it happened. Shock and dismay most often lead to further use because everything seems confusing and we fear that all is lost.

Recovery without Ego

Shame and embarrassment kill, but if we go back to meetings or to other folks who helped us get sober and admit to relapse we feel like we've disappointed everyone.

  • We ensure a downward spiral when we hide our suffering. Our disgrace becomes a barrier to getting sober and restarting our recovery.

As the disease of addiction progresses, a horrible reality ensues: It gets harder and harder to differentiate our ego from our disease. Addiction thrives in strife and internal conflict. I urge those who have relapsed to spend absolutely no time thinking. Run, do not walk to those who want to help you return to the solution.

Going Home

It's easy to forget that we didn't judge others who relapsed. It's easy to forget that people don't stop caring about us just because we used. Addiction makes for a fickle memory.

If you've ever seen someone pick up a white chip at an AA or NA meeting, you've witnessed a healthy perspective on relapse. The contrast is stunning - a person who wants to crawl out of their skin is applauded by those filled with joy that we're back and that the disease didn't claim our lives.

What We've Lost

It's only our ego that's attached to the time we had sober. Addiction is lifelong and recovery is twenty four hours at a time. If we have new wreckage in our lives due to relapse we have all the more reason to maintain a healthy perspective. Not everyone gets to come back. Go see your doctor immediately and deal with everything else slowly.

Don't Call It a "Slip"

The cornerstones of recovery are accountability and responsibility. To say that we've "had a slip" is a minimization that puts one in peril all over again. It's also a conversation-ender instead of a solicitation of support.

We can't afford to get caught up in why we drank. Better to identify what we need to promote relapse prevention. Sponsorship, use of contacts, and being accountable to those who understand addiction improves our chances more than any other approach.

Moving Forward & Lessons Learned

Sometimes life gets unmanageable.

Regardless of how good our recovery is, there are times when life simply brings us to our knees. We experience losses (grief relapse), unexpected challenges, or tragedies that we are powerless to prevent or control. We may feel we're "moving backwards" when in fact we're hitting a low point in sobriety. As painful as these times are, maintaining a healthy perspective is vital. These times underscore the adage, "I wouldn't trade my worst day sober for my best day drinking." Under the influence, life isn't manageable and is almost always built on illusions.

Remember, suffering is the touchstone to spiritual growth. For all that we have lost, there is always more to gain. Relapse can create a new-found willingness to make connections, take on new challenges, and to be of service to others. Taking these steps ensures that our suffering comes to have meaning.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. Check out my recovery community at: SoberNow.com. Thanks! Jim

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