Many alcoholics and drug users consciously make a commitment to the sober life. Whether they come to that point through health problems, a dramatic family intervention, contact with law enforcement and the justice system, enrollment in an outpatient treatment program, or rigorously attend frequent AA meetings, many out-of-control addicts (whether they use alcohol or drugs) often manage at some point in their lives to truly find the keys to control.
These former drinkers and drug abusers learn to understand and appreciate the very personal triggers to their addiction behaviors. They gain the skills to cope with them or to avoid them entirely. They find a sense of self, of honesty, of presence, and a control over their lives they never had when they were using or drinking. Navigating through those personal “high drama” situations that trigger anxiety, anger, and self-recrimination becomes part of their personal skillset.
So if being sober is so wonderful and achieved by so many, why do so many others relapse into “the high life”? Why is relapse back into addiction so common? Why do they—after all the work they’ve done—still return to use or to drink?
There are many pitfalls—some obvious, others more subtle—that can cause anyone to slip back into the destructive miasma of alcohol or drug dependency. Here are the Top Three:
1. Addiction To the Pain
An active addict, regardless of the substance—and alcohol is certainly as addictive as many other drugs—rarely recognizes the degree of pain experienced while using or drinking. In becoming sober, they may have not truly confronted the sources of their emotional angst and anger; they may have successfully dealt with some of the painful issues that were triggers to drink or use, they may have willed themselves away from drugs or alcohol, but the need to mask the pain remains and can easily return to the surface where the only relief comes from using or drinking again.
When the pain is “manageable” through drugs or alcohol, that becomes the solution. The pain becomes as much a part of the addiction as the palliative booze and pills. Only when the pain is finally acknowledged and confronted in the clarity of honest self-appraisal and self-appreciation, can it be managed without the artificial and addictive suppressants of drugs and alcohol.
2. The Fear of Missing the Party
When your life revolves around the people, places, and events that were simply a part of a life of using and drinking, when you feel comfortable with those friends in those environments, you might miss them when you become sober. We tend to forget memories of negative consequences, but easily recall “the fun” we had. If you tell those friends you’ve chosen to associate with other sober people, what’s going to be their reaction if you simply quit drinking or using with them? Aren’t they going to look at you differently? Aren’t you going to be missing out on all the fun and camaraderie? Won’t you be “different” and unable to experience what has always been so much “fun”? Won’t you lose some of those old friends?
3. You Can Drink Or Use and Stop Whenever You Want To
Addictive Drugs leave behind a little fantasy in our memories. Because of the immediate timing of the rewarding effects of drugs and the delayed timing of the consequences, our emotional memory records a fantasy about the drug or alcohol, while the consequences get stored in the rational parts of our brain. The fantasy can linger until the problems are resolved and then resurface with just the idea that ”One won’t hurt,” or “I can handle it just this time.”
We’re all masters at rationalizing any set of circumstances and outcomes if it serves our purpose. When it comes to “having just one”, the rationale is simple: if you can drink in moderation, then why not? If you can use recreational drugs on weekends only, then what’s the problem? Many drinkers and users who have successfully made it through rehabilitation programs and into sobriety experience that fantasy around the 3 month mark in their recovery, although it can happen at any time. They soon discover they can’t maintain control and quickly relapse back to the problem with even more self-recrimination and shame than before.
For those who don’t learn that this is an illness and not simply a lack of willpower or moral conviction, this off-and-on struggle may go on for years…until they learn how to respect themselves as someone suffering with the disease of addiction.
Can we maintain self-respect while admitting we’ve lost control?
When psychologist Abraham Maslow published A Theory of Human Motivation and developed what is referred to as his “hierarchy of needs”, he identified both our most fundamental physiological requirements (air, water, food, sleep) and those closely related “deficiency needs” which, when not met, create anxiety, tension, and stress. Prominent among those is a need for respect and esteem, the most vital source of which comes from our capacity to love.
When we confuse controlling alcohol or drugs as a sign of respect rather than respecting the power of drugs to control us, we stay locked in the addiction.
When our self-esteem is diminished, no amount of public fame, glory, or acclimation from others will give us the strength we need to remain sober.
When we lapse back into addiction or alcoholism, our self-talk becomes increasingly negative, so we continue drinking or using drugs to mask the pain of self-recrimination, guilt, and anxiety. When you are drinking and using it is hard to see the positive. The addiction only rewards focusing on the negative to give you another “reason to drink”. We deny our self-worth, just as we deny the problem of addiction, and our self-respect spirals downward to the point of further eroding self-esteem. The circle is complete…and it must be broken. The underlying sources of our pain must be confronted and resolved.
The healing begins by acknowledging two things:
• The power of addiction to distract us from our purpose in life.
• The power of recovery that is within each person waiting to be released.
We can learn how to put our minds at ease by learning how to forgive ourselves and how to set new goals centered around growing self-respect.
Solving these issues of personal esteem and self-respect may entail a journey marked by periods of discomfort and emotional exertion. But the journey’s destination—sobriety, health, well-being—are worth the effort.
Believe you’re worth the commitment, believe you’re of value to yourself and everyone around you, and you will have taken the first step on that journey toward recovery.
Join us at Recovery Road Medical Center in Santa Barbara and we can put you on the path to a “new you.”