"Relapse is looking for the right thing at the wrong address."
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Episode 42 -- August 15, 2020Trust Your Story, it's Bigger than the Present Moment
In times of stress and uncertainty, it's common to worry about relapse, either for yourself or someone you love. Extra anxiety, fueled by global, local, or even personal experience with the coronavirus pandemic, may lead people to cope in all kinds of unsafe ways. Relapse is about more than using a mind-altering substance again. It's about sliding back into our former ways of thinking and believing. We reach for the drugs, alcohol, or other behaviors to avoid or obscure the pain and fear that come with these old habits of heart and mind. In this excerpt from his book, Destination Joy: Moving Beyond Fear, Loss, and Trauma in Recovery, Earnie Larsen reminds everyone in recovery that avoiding relapse depends on our willingness to "face what is chasing us." No matter how hard or harrowing they feel, our own stories contain the lessons and leadership that will teach us how to remake our present existence into a life of joy and gratitude.
It has been edited for brevity.
Some people are able to carry incredible amounts of pain and not relapse. Others aren't. Relapse is as much a mystery as is the miracle of recovery. Why do some find ongoing recovery without relapse so difficult?
I've learned it is impossible to predict who will "make it" and who won't. Some we would bet are going to fall flat on their faces in a weekend end up getting their one-year, five-year, then ten-year medallions. What is there to do but shake our heads in amazement and marvel at the mystery of it all?
Others who seem not only to talk the talk, but walk the walk, start their recovery like a house are; then, boom, the tiger eats their soul again. Why? It's not enough to simply say, "They didn't work their program." Of course they didn't. But the question is, "Why didn't they?" On the surface, it looked like they had surrendered and had all the information and intention in the world to stick with their program.
Relapse is always returning to the old way, the old lie, in an attempt to medicate life's pain. Relapse always has the element of unfinished business, lies, and secrets. Relapse is always a matter of failed honesty in dealing with life as it is. Failed honesty creates isolation. It seeks a place to hide until all that's left is our pain and ourselves twisted together like two snakes trying to kill each other. Who wouldn't relapse if they believed that failure and loss were all life had to offer? Mental drunkenness always precedes physical drunkenness.
Every person in recovery has to deal with their version of the "evil committee" in their heads. Some call it "the junkie," "rats in my brain," or "the lie." Whatever the name used, the reality is we all have a magnet drawing us to self-destruction rather than self-compassion, to delusion and denial rather than honesty, to isolation and hiding rather than relationships and honest, loving connections.
Relapse is looking for the right thing at the wrong address. Human beings are made with a hunger for loving connections. Without them, we wither and wobble toward the dark hole that relapse is. Recovery, on the other hand, is learning to love.
No Stranger to Relapse
Audrey was no stranger to relapse. She frequently relapsed early in her recovery from alcohol, pills, and an eating disorder. She said she failed to get into the spirit of recovery even though she practiced it daily. At a recent open meeting, she told how God used her cat, Damian, to develop what she calls "the head to heart feeling." She explained: "My heart was numb my whole life. I couldn't feel anything for anyone including myself. Damian was never a cuddly cat, but one morning he jumped into bed with me and cuddled up next to me like a spoon. I remember that moment distinctly because I was entertaining thoughts of suicide. He continued to have his 'love time' every morning, and slowly I came to know what love felt like and so lost the desire to end my life."
Damian wasn't a thought or a wish to Audrey. He was an experience. His cuddling up to her like a spoon was something that happened. And in that happening was an invaluable lesson. Love trumps isolation. All any of us wants is a bridge off our private Devil's Island. Only love, recovery-love, provides that bridge. Reflect on the story that is your life. Has anything else ever worked for you?
Audrey believes her Higher Power put Damian in her life for that reason. Audrey says, "I think it's too much of a coincidence that this tiny, furry, warm being decided to snuggle me as I was hitting bottom. It was a gift from God." Messages from beyond our understanding can come from anywhere. These messengers or angels are everywhere, trying to break through our walls of fear, delusion, denial, or plain old not paying attention. Damian was just such an "angel' for Audrey.
A number of long-time recovery people who read early drafts of my book said they liked the way all the various stories validated the point I was making. Everybody likes the stories. I explained that I don't use the stories to validate a point; it is from the stories that the "points" come. The stories of recovering people's experiences came first. There are the lessons of what works and what doesn't. There, hiding in plain sight, is what we need to know about recovery. As we develop more confidence in the power and validity of what we have learned along our way, we become less dependent on the needs of others telling us what's what. In each of our stories are all the answers we will ever find, or need.
Have you relapsed? Perhaps more than once? Do you know others in the program who live with an abiding sense of anger, shame, or fear and therefore are in constant danger of relapse? Where does all that pain come from? How do you go about focusing the power of your program on these recovery issues? (A man in one of the groups I go to calls these abiding issues "spiritual sores." It worked for me.)
Look at your story. The answer is there. Think about it. If you relapsed, why? What pulled you back into isolation and fear? What would have helped you do the next right thing rather than the next wrong thing? The willingness to take a stand, to turn around and face what is chasing us, is the necessary task in avoiding relapse. This courageous facing up to our lives as they are, with all the ghosts we may have inherited and created along the way, is the essence of ongoing, lifelong recovery as human beings.
I encourage you to honor your story no matter how many bad times there may have been. Our story is all we have. It is the raw material we are given to make our existence a thing of beauty. What we have made and can make of those bad times, as bad as they may have been, shall be the most glorious part of all.
About the Author
Earnie Larsen was a nationally known author and lecturer. A pioneer in the field of recovery from addictive behaviors and the originator of the process known as Stage II recovery, Earnie authored numerous curricula, DVDs, audio CDs, and books with Hazelden and other publishers, including his 2010 Hazelden book Now That You're Sober: Week-by-Week Guidance from Your Recovery Coach, written with his sister, Carol Larsen Hegarty. With degrees from Loyola University and the University of Minnesota, Earnie had been a counselor for more than forty years.
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