Ancient legend tells the story of a magical bird, radiant and shimmering, which lives for several hundred years before it dies by bursting into flames. It is then reborn from the ashes, to start a new, long life. This is the Phoenix.
What does it mean to relapse?
Relapse is a return to substance abuse following a period of abstinence. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of those in recovery relapse within their first year of treatment. Whether relapse lasts a week, a month, or even years, it occurs often enough in the recovery process that it is now considered a natural part of recovery.
The risk of relapse is greatest during the first 90 days of recovery, and although that risk decreases in or after a short time, it is always a possibility. In fact, relapse is sometimes referred to as “resumed” use or a “recurrence” of symptoms. Consequently, it is important to understand that relapse does not stand for moral weakness. It merely demonstrates how challenging it can be to resist the urge to use again in response to intense cravings before new coping strategies and new routines have been established.
Addiction recovery is a process
You made the decision to become sober. Your life is getting back on track, your relationships are better, you feel more connected than ever to your friends, and your job is progressing as planned. Then out of nowhere a relapse occurs. It feels surreal, like a mental and emotional earthquake that shakes the foundation of all you have worked hard for. The first thought that comes to mind is…why?
In addition to giving up the substance of addiction, recovery requires significant changes in lifestyle and behavior. This includes everything from changing social circles (including friends and maybe even family) to developing new coping mechanisms. It involves discovering emotional vulnerabilities, naming past hurts, and then confronting them. Leaving your addiction behind means learning to navigate new and even unfamiliar territory, often completely reinventing work and life skills.
Recovery takes time
Addiction is a process that involves learning mechanisms in the brain, and the same is true of addiction recovery. Unfortunately, most of us are geared to expecting this learning to occur quickly. We expect it to follow the strictly linear path of mastering perfection, progress, and then improvement. This in turn leads to success, security, and happiness. This is a worldview of progress that is not realistic. Most of life tends to move in a cyclical progression.
Psychologist Frederic M. Hudson explains it this way: “A world with frequent pockets of chaos requires a perspective that can find meaning in the bad times as well as the good. Cyclical thinking seeks order within the change process itself. Life transitions, job losses, political surprises, and accidents are windows for learning rather than barriers to progress.”
Why do addicts relapse when things are good?
It is a common misconception that people only drink or use drugs when they are sad, depressed, anxious, or trying to escape some other “negative” feeling. That scenario serves to help us understand, in some small way, what is going on. But it is foolish to believe that as long as things are going well, your recovery is safeguarded.
Relapse often occurs in response to a trigger, i.e., when a person in recovery encounters a person, place, or circumstance associated with addiction and the extreme highs it brought, regardless of its destructive nature. Common triggers include stress, anxiety, depression, boredom, and conflicts with the people around you. Experiencing situations that remind you of your past addictions can also serve as a trigger. When a person experiences these negative emotions, the first instinct is to turn to something that will ease their suffering.
Impostor syndrome and self-sabotage
Throughout active addiction, addicts do many things they are ashamed of and feel immense guilt over. When you get into recovery and begin to rebuild your life, this leaves you vulnerable to experiencing the “impostor syndrome”, a psychological phenomenon in which people have trouble believing success is legitimate. In this situation, individuals feel that they do not measure up to others and that they are frauds on the verge of being exposed. When these thoughts begin to creep in, many people in recovery subconsciously begin to self-sabotage their recovery.
Self-sabotage can be directly attributed to fear…. even fear of good things, like success, more responsibility, or happiness. While each person is unique, the following are some reasons for addiction relapse when things are going good.
Causes of relapse
We all experience stress from time to time. And while stress is generally viewed as a negative emotion, that is not always true. However, regardless of whether stress is brought about by negative circumstances or positive circumstances, it is still stress. Although no one ever manages to avoid stress completely, there are strategies that can help those on the path to addiction recovery deal with it in a healthy manner. For example: talking to a sponsor or therapist; attending support meetings; avoiding major life decisions early in recovery.
Struggling with the effects of withdrawal is among the major reasons given for relapse. While there are different levels of withdrawal symptoms depending on the substance used, common symptoms include hot and cold sweats, nausea, restlessness, vomiting, insomnia, diarrhea, and muscle pains. As bad as these are, reintroducing addictive substances back into the body is undeniably worse. Doing so can be extremely detrimental to the recovery process. This is why it is strongly recommended that those addicted begin their withdrawal in a rehab center. These facilities have trained medical professionals can help with the detox process.
Challenging and negative emotions
Regardless of the impetus for beginning the use of illicit substances, it is their intense and often euphoric effects that explain the addiction. Because most people do not immediately recognize substance abuse as the addictive behavior it is, it can be difficult to perceive the danger. It is this denial that hinders people from seeking help. Even when things are going well, there are still emotional struggles to be faced. Withdrawing is extremely tiring and demanding. Connecting with people is not easy and reconnecting with friends and family is draining. Learning to be aware of your emotions…accepting, feeling, and coping with them is important to recovery.
People or places connected with your addiction
You are responsible for protecting your sobriety every day. Recognizing that the people who took part in your addictive behavior are potential triggers is critical to recovery, even if they are no longer using. This is especially true if they were the reason you began using in the first place. Additional triggers include being in an environment that reminds you of your addiction, such as a place you frequented to drink, smoke, or use drugs. Another powerful trigger is the substance itself. Just knowing it is nearby is enough to trigger a relapse.
Confidence is a wonderful attribute, but overconfidence can be dangerous. While it is good to trust in your chosen recovery program and certainly to believe in yourself. Taking for granted the effort involved in the recovery process is detrimental to progress and recovery. When things are going well, there is always the risk of overconfidence. This can cause you to believe that you will never look at a drink or drug again. But by doing so, you open yourself to creating risky situations in which you have to try to prove that you can control your urges.
Neglecting Self Care
Taking care of yourself is important to fostering growth in areas of self-awareness and to avoiding relapse. Self-care includes caring for the whole person: physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. Maintaining a pro-recovery diet is one important component of self-care. Because we feed both our body and our brain when we eat, good nutrition enables you to make more positive, rational decisions. And in addition to a healthy diet, attending recovery meetings, mindful meditation, and daily exercise helps you cope with cravings and possible relapse.
No one should assume that recovery will be free from worries or problems. There are likely to be plenty of hard days. Once you allow yourself to have unrealistic expectations of your recovery experience, you set yourself up for failure. Therefore, it becomes imperative to set new expectations and remember that you will need support during difficult days. This expectation also applies to how you view others. When holding family members and friends in high regard, any mistake they make can result in you being disappointed. Because recovery is a lifelong process, success is more likely when you learn to focus on rebuilding healthy relationships and a healthy life, one day at a time.
Living In Chaos
Those in the throes of addiction live minute-to-minute with the associated chaos…how to get high, how to hide their addiction, how to get money, how to avoid the police, etc., all while analyzing everyone else for ulterior motives. Although most are grateful to be out of that chaotic lifestyle when getting into recovery, subconsciously many were and still are addicted to the chaos itself. While it seems counter-intuitive, this is because the chaos supplies a distraction from the pain. It provides something to spend time and energy on, allowing you to avoid looking in the mirror and facing your problems.
A person in recovery may slip into relapse simply because they are bored. Our brains lie to us by convincing us that everything is better, or you are never bored when you are drunk or high. Boredom often leads to complacency and complacency is a major cause of relapse. It becomes easy to believe that you can safely get high just once and go right back to a normal life. One strategy to overcome boredom is to create a positive, sober support system. For example, having friends or family you can call on, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new and different things…new hobbies, new activities, and even meeting new people.
Lessons from the legend of the phoenix
According to legend, the phoenix symbolizes renewal and resurrection. While each may read into the legend that which speaks to them, the following may ring true for those who relapse when things are going good:
- You are not alone – Everyone experiences hurt and pain at one time or another. In spite of the varying degrees of each personal experience, the first step to healing begins when you recognize that you do not have to bear your burdens alone.
- Learn to trust again – When beginning to rebuild trust in recovery, you must first learn to trust yourself again. Find that which is good and healthy in your life and build on that, even when you are afraid. Do not let your past define your future.
- Every day is a new day – Living one day at a time is advice that promotes mindfulness. It is important in recovery to set goals, but also to stay in the moment, looking forward to new successes each day. Every day you have a new opportunity to begin again.
- Let the hurt die – You have to face your hurt at the source and then let it go. This does not make it all right, but it helps make you all right. Hurt has to die in order to end its path of destruction. This process takes time, strength, and endurance. Not only can it be painful, it can also be mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing.
In addiction recovery, there is a promise of renewed hope and resolve that can never be experienced without the death of the old and a rebirth of the new. Understanding that there will come new challenges in life, both good and difficult, and learning how to successfully navigate them is important to success in recovery.
The Phoenix itself was reborn from its own death and completely ruined state. It rose up young and strong, brilliant, and beautiful again, just as it had requested in its song to the Sun.