Understanding Relapse: Toxic Attitudes or Responses to a Relapse

An excerpt from 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery
by Allen Berger, PhD., Hazelden Publishing

Faulty Assumptions

In my experience, faulty assumptions are among the most common myths that alcoholics and addicts tend to believe about relapse—perhaps without realizing it.

A relapse always means that I don’t want to get sober.

This is utter nonsense. Most of my clients who relapse sincerely want to stop drinking or using. So a relapse does not mean that they aren’t motivated to get sober or stay sober. It means they simply don’t know how—often because they are either ignorant of or desensitized to their needs at their particular stage of recovery. A relapse contains important information about what is needed in your recovery—and what is missing. Analyzing a relapse and understanding its message is crucial to getting back on track and staying sober.

A relapse means that I’m not working a good program.

While it may be true that certain areas in your recovery may need to be tightened up or addressed, a relapse doesn’t mean that the program you were working was “bad.” This is an overgeneralization—a form of black and white thinking that is toxic to recovery and creates many problems in itself. A relapse is saying that something else is needed; it doesn’t necessarily mean you were or are working a completely deficient program. In fact, if you relapse and reach out for help, you are working a great program.

A relapse means that I’m starting all over again—that I’m a newcomer.

This is another example of the black and white thinking that is a hallmark of toxic beliefs. The reality is that can’t erase what you’ve learned in recovery prior to your relapse. The recovery tradition of counting “sobriety” as our latest number of uninterrupted days without alcohol or other mood-altering drugs troubles me a little. This makes it seem like we have to go back to home base and begin again every time we relapse. If I counted my asthma-free days that way, I’d be totally depressed! Sometimes I wonder if we need a different way of keeping track of sober time, a system more in line with what it means to recover from a chronic illness.

To prevent another relapse I should be critical of and punish myself.

This is one of those futile self-improvement games where you come off as always wrong, inadequate, or incapable so that no one expects anything of you. In fact, you are likely to relapse again if you play this game with yourself. Why? Because beating yourself up undermines the learning process. It’s an established fact that we learn better through rewards and praise than with punishment. Self-contempt doesn’t prevent a relapse; it is more likely to ensure one. We suffer from a chronic illness that requires ongoing care and management. This requires that we cultivate an attitude of compassion based on self-concern, self-respect, and self-support.

I should be ashamed of myself for relapsing.

Shame is a common response to a relapse and often causes us to lie about what has happened. We go underground and withhold the truth from our sponsor, from our peers in AA meetings, from our spouse or family, from our best friends, and even from our therapist. We feel horrible about falling short of our goal and letting our loved ones or friends down. Shame is based on the toxic belief I am a mistake. Unfortunately, a relapse may seem to validate this sense that we are losers. Shame must be neutralized if we are going to integrate the lessons inherent in a relapse.