Just like one would never shame a diabetic for a dangerous blood sugar spike, one should never shame someone with a substance use disorder for a relapse. However, getting back on the horse and preventing further setbacks requires taking accountability for the role one does play in any given series of events. When a relapse occurs, it’s all too easy to point the finger at someone or something else. One could say, “if only I hadn’t lost my job,” or “if only my family would get off my back,” or any other combination of justifications. At the end of the day, sobriety is simply the state of being sober. Period. Putting down a drink or drug doesn’t mean life is going to be a piece of cake. Life continues to happen: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good news is that recovery is different from merely abstaining. Recovery is a personal growth process through which one accumulates the tools and skills to deal with “life on life’s terms”. In other words, one “recovers” the ability to process emotion and stress without looking for an external means to “feel better”.
After a relapse, one can usually trace one’s way back to the source. It might come as a surprise, but the cause of relapse is not the manifestation of negative (or positive) events. On the contrary, the issue is that somewhere along the line, coping skills and relapse prevention tools were either unlearned or left to collect dust.
While each relapse might feel like rock bottom, trapdoors pose an ever-present risk of descending to a new low. What are these trapdoors? Moreover, how does one avoid them?
The 9 Most Common Relapse Trapdoors:
1. The Absence of Social Connection – While it’s hard to trust the source of an internet quote, Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”. Einstein’s quote relates to recovery because it explains why a healthy peer group is necessary for problem solving and providing the positive energy needed to buoy to a higher level of consciousness. In early recovery, the brain is undergoing an intense biological healing process. Substance use damages the part of the brain that controls decision making and impulse control, and can also diminish gray matter. This means that it’s a good idea to run most (if not all) decisions by someone with a substantial amount of recovery time. The wisdom and support of a peer can guide one through the precarious early days, as well as serve as a reminder to continue to use one’s tools as one accumulates more recovery time. Furthermore, there is nothing more valuable than a friend who has been through the same trials and tribulations. More than anything else, healing from substance use disorder requires unconditional love and support.
2. A Lack of Accountability – Social connection and accountability go hand in hand. Discipline and habit are essential components of sustainable recovery; cultivating discipline and creating habit are nearly impossible without a source of accountability. Unfortunately, substance seekers often manipulate the environment to be as conducive to substance use as possible. It is imperative, therefore, that a person in recovery find peers who will empower rather than enable.
3. Unwillingness – For some, putting down the drink or drug is the easiest part. Keeping it down is the real challenge. Recovery requires a willingness to listen to others (i.e. problem solving from a different level of consciousness) and a willingness to engage in self-examination. This can feel like an unbearable blow to the ego… and subsequently lead to resistance. A lack of willingness is one of the greatest barriers to recovery. Tragically, it keeps people from accumulating the tools necessary for success.
4. Failure to Engage in Personal Growth – A sign of progression in recovery is the ability to “deal with situations that used to baffle”. However, one doesn’t gain this skill by osmosis. In order to achieve a different level of consciousness (and become more capable of problem solving independently), self-reflection is required. One doesn’t elevate to a higher level of consciousness without making an effort to change. This means confronting personality traits that are no longer bringing anything to the table.
5. Stress & Uncomfortable Emotions – The presence of stress or painful emotions are leading precipitators of relapse. It’s not the stress or the emotions themselves; it’s the inability to cope in a healthy way. While it might seem reasonable to attempt to escape stress, anger, and sadness, the realistic solution is to learn coping skills and stress management techniques to make these sensations manageable, and to also process and move through them. Using substances to avoid or numb only serves to prolong the inevitable. Feelings are meant to be felt. Denying them simply causes them to lie dormant until the opportunity arises for release.
6. An Unsafe Environment – A popular recovery cliché posits that “the only thing you have to change is everything”. It sounds like a tall order, but an environment where substance use and toxicity run rampant is not conducive to recovery maintenance. One must ask: “Are these people, places, or things worth my very life?” How does one elevate to a higher level of consciousness in an unhealthy or unsafe environment? According to motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with”. Choose carefully.
7. Dishonesty – Another popular recovery cliché states that “our secrets keep us sick”. The antidote to this is honesty. Not making many recovery meetings? Hanging out with old drinking buddies? Failing to keep up self-care habits and personal growth disciplines? These are secrets which should be shared with a sponsor, therapist, mentor, or recovery friend.
8. Pride – A leading (but often overlooked) precursor to relapse is a lack of humility, i.e. the belief that “I’ve got this”. Unfortunately, once substances rewire the brain, it will never be the same again. Life may start to improve with support and the use of skills, but this can often lead to a false sense of confidence. The brain will always be wired to seek external relief to feel better. When one becomes misguided by a false sense of security and abandons an effective recovery regimen, the brain will naturally revert to its old wiring. Relapse may not be immediate, but it will be imminent.
9. Unreasonable Expectations (Control) – In the song “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon sings, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. A huge barrier to sustainable recovery is the failure to accept “life on life’s terms”. Expecting things to go a certain way is not only unrealistic, but also a recipe for automatic mental anguish. It’s impossible to control the mysterious manner in which life unfolds; the only thing one can control is one’s reaction to the unfolding.
A failure to recognize your personal “trapdoors” can lead to a whole new level of suffering. If you’ve fallen through – or need assistance identifying relapse trapdoors in your recovery – please call (888) 649-1149 or contact us here.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Use Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.