"A relapse can become a teachable moment if we take the time to connect the dots."

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Episode 125 -- June 24, 2021

Learn from Loss: Relapse as a Teachable Moment

In his book Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery, William Cope Moyers shares his own story of alcoholism, addiction, and healing as a way to help others understand how addiction works and find hope in the practical promises of recovery, regardless of how hopeless the present moment seems.

In this excerpt, Moyers presents the awful reality of relapse not as failure, but as information we can use to improve, heal, and reclaim our recovery. No matter what happens in the journey, we know that the only way forward is to keep going.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Teachable Moments
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." So it can be with relapse. The pain, embarrassment, and shame of relapse usually leaves us down and out and despairing once again, asking ourselves, "Now what?" But our recovery experience can be different this time—if we can keep our original commitment to get and stay sober in perspective with what's gone awry. A relapse can become a teachable moment if we take the time to connect the dots. Connect them and eventually this is the picture that emerges:

The choice to take the first drink or hit is yours alone.
Nobody made you do it. Although you might not yet know exactly why you did it, you can recount the events as they unfolded, from the moment the idea popped into your head to the split second before you put into your body the substance that you knew would disrupt your life as the craving for more took over. You can then make a commitment to avoid the people, places, and things that triggered the thought that you could use again without negative consequences. This isn't about blame or finding fault. It is, however, about accountability. This is your chance to own your addiction and to take the necessary steps to get back on the path to recovery.

There was probably plenty of opportunity to prevent your relapse right up until the moment you did it.
If only you had honestly shared your thoughts and feelings with somebody in a position to help you—a family member, a recovery coach or sponsor, your counselor, a friend or "fellow traveler" in your circle of recovery, anyone—before the dealer or bartender handed you your drug of choice. Stealth and secrets are a driving force of addiction and, therefore, of relapse. We addicts are notorious for keeping quiet and looking good on the outside even as our brains scream for a hit or a drink and we are falling apart inside. Nobody I know has ever relapsed if he first told the right person what he was about to do. There is nothing wrong with wanting to get high again. Keeping it to yourself, however, can be a deadly problem.

Addiction is an inconvenient illness.
It's easy to resent having to take time out to recover from it. This is especially true after the acute crisis has passed, when you feel better, but you've only just started to put back together what was fractured. It's also easy for the efforts required to stay substance-free to slip further and further down your "to do" list, with kids to raise, a demanding job, school, marriage counseling, summer vacation, a sick parent to care for, the holidays, mowing the lawn, and everything else that life demands and also give us as rewards. You may have altogether stopped making any special efforts in working a recovery program. Look at your calendar in the days and weeks before you tripped up. Take an inventory of what you did the past couple of months. Where were your recovery-related activities? Did you do those things that you'd been told would keep your sobriety firm—for example, practicing daily meditation, attending recovery meetings, reading recovery literature, pitching in to help others?

When we're not actively taking responsibility for our recovery, we're coasting.
"We coast in only one direction, downward," George Weller, an addiction counselor, told me more than once. Even before we get to the point that we take the drink or drug again, we've already lapsed into the same pattern of behaviors that are all about our addictive personality, which is characterized by dishonesty, selfishness, and resentment. When we start acting like the addict of old, we're bound to start using like one. We lose pace in keeping ahead of our illness. It snaps at our heels. Suddenly it catches and then overtakes us. We're high again.

A lot of people relapse because they don't pay attention to what else is happening in their bodies.
Emotional pain and mental illness can blindside even the most committed alcoholic and addict in recovery. If you don't get the professional help you need and then follow the counselor's treatment plan, including taking appropriate nonaddictive medications, it won't be long before you're askew. Once out of balance, you'll lose perspective and know those feelings again that you were medicating with alcohol and other drugs in the first place. This is also true if you suffer from physical ailments, such as high blood pressure, an overactive thyroid, or premenstrual syndrome (PMS), that require medications. When we feel lousy mentally or physically, we're vulnerable. Take care of yourself—body, mind, and spirit.

A drug is a drug is a drug—that's all that matters to you.
If your drug of choice isn't prescription painkillers and your doctor wants to prescribe them for pain, you will be very tempted to not tell him or her that you're an addict. Maybe you don't think you have to, because it's only medicine, and medicine prescribed by a doctor is good for you, right? Why suffer? Suddenly you're enraptured with a new lover, and, if you're not abusing the new drugs, you'll be in danger of being reminded of the "good old days" and will be right back where you started, or worse, with your drug of choice, or worse. It's also common for addicts to take up gambling, pornography, and other compulsive behaviors that trigger the same brain chemicals that some drugs do. Then they find themselves in the throes of addiction again, the only difference being the name of the drug. The key is to remember that abstinence doesn't just apply to your drug of choice but to all mood-altering chemicals and compulsive behaviors.

If you've made these connections, perhaps now you understand how your relapse unfolded. If you've so far avoided stepping into the trap, you make these connections and your prospects to stay on the sober and drug-free path improve, especially as the years go by. Most important, stay teachable. Relapse doesn't mean starting over. It means starting again by starting differently, this time with more self-knowledge and a renewed commitment to recovery.

In my recovery journey, what I've learned through the years to keep me sober has as much to do with coming to terms with what I did wrong or realizing what I can do better as it does with what I've done right. Relapse is never a goal. But if it happens, then make it your goal to take from relapse what is required to avoid it the next time.

About the Author:
William Cope Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, "carries the message" about addiction and recovery into the public arena, especially to policy makers and civic groups across America. He uses his own personal experiences to highlight the power of addiction and the power of recovery. In 1998 his efforts were honored by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), which awarded him and his family its highest achievement award, the Gold Key. He and his parents, Bill and Judith Moyers, also received the Arthur Liman Public Interest Award from the Legal Action Center. This award salutes families and individuals whose work has advanced public understanding of public policy issues related to addiction.

Moyers is the author of the best-selling memoir Broken and a journal and DVD set designed specifically for those in early recovery, A New Day, A New Life. Before joining Hazelden in 1996, he was an award-winning journalist for fifteen years. He has worked at CNN, Newsday, and various newspapers around the country. Moyers has appeared on Larry King Live (CNN), The Today Show (NBC), and The Oprah Winfrey Show. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek magazine. He also writes a nationally syndicated column on addiction-related issues for Creators Syndicate.

© 2012 by William Cope Moyers
All rights reserved