It’s not necessary to overthink or be extremely philosophical about the matter of relapsing.
A Zen monk would say that there’s no such thing as addiction as an entity in itself—that addiction is all in your mind. This is true, but it overcomplicates the solution to everyone’s problem with it. Addiction is born from anxiety, which likely originated in our childhood experiences, mainly during the formative first decade of our life. Addiction begins as a coping mechanism that provides us with relief from feelings of anxiety and stress.
In many ways an addiction to anything is a solution to our original problems of feeling pain and not being able to cope with a variety of negative feelings. No matter how you describe the addiction scenario, it’s really that simple.
There are an infinite number of addictions and an infinite number of people who succumb to them. There are also an infinite number of ways to stop negative behavior patterns. But what is the direct route for most people? What ways of stopping the addictions do most people practice? What is the path of least resistance? And is there one path for everyone?
No, there is not.
What we can say, though, is that if you take certain actions while you're in the process of recovery then the results will be disastrous. For example, perhaps a person has quit drinking but they spend every night of the week at the bar they used to frequent. Their just being in that place is a huge mistake in itself. If their stress levels are the same and they’re not doing their necessary recovery work, there’s a 99.9% chance that sooner rather than later they’re going to order a drink.
It’s easier to explain the ways that people fall backwards and relapse with addictions than it is to offer a prescription that will help all addicts. For most addictions, whether they involve food, gambling, sex, workaholism, adrenaline rushes, caffeine, or anything else, it’s very easy to see when relapse becomes inevitable.
It’s not so much that the addictive behavior is a symptom of some type of disease, although it might be. And it’s not that the addiction is an evil spirit that just possesses us and pops up whenever we’re not looking. The mechanics of overcoming addictions are simpler than that. The bottom line is that we have to have a new set of positive behavior patterns that prevent us from dwelling on our addictive behaviors and the circumstances surrounding them. If we’re not engaging in positive behaviors on a daily basis then we become vulnerable to relapsing.
We have to continually do the work to maintain abstinence. But we have to take it a step further—it isn't enough to just maintain. We have to go back and start to chip away at the façade that is broken on top of our faulty mental and emotional foundation. This foundation is made up of many different aspects of self. It encompasses our character, our learned behavior patterns, and our defense mechanisms.
Because this is the case, it’s not possible to simply bring ourselves back to our earliest troublesome memories and erase them. The process of healing takes time. It cannot happen in a few minutes, a few weeks, or a few months.
This doesn’t mean that during the time that we are improving ourselves we’ll be in a constant state of vulnerability to some type of regression. That’s far from the truth. We can have a noticeable degree of relief almost immediately if we take the right actions. The actions that we take to stay abstinent from addictions are focused on daily activities, not weekly or monthly activities.
I have made a list of things that I must do each day, seven days a week, without fail. Largely because of my personality type, if I take a single day off then it blurs my objectives. The day off sometimes turns into two days off, and then a week or a month passes by without me having taken the crucial action on my list. I become vulnerable to relapse at that point.
The good news for me is that I do not relapse on the major five addictions that I have committed myself to abstain from. The bad news is that I have an extremely high threshold for very low emotional bottoms. I can find myself being lulled back into a very unconscious state.
When my consciousness becomes dulled, lots of time passes and I realize that I forgot who I am. I forgot my purpose. I look back at such periods of my life and see that years went by during which I made no progress on particular areas that needed attention.
For me that is unacceptable. I hold myself to a higher standard. I don’t want to underachieve when it comes to my happiness, my health, my relationships, or my dreams.
Relapses are a long time in the making. They begin with the absence of necessary recovery work. They begin when we allow our emotional dramas to dog pile on top of us. They begin for many of us when we feel lonely or feel abandoned. Those are major triggers.
There is another crucial factor. It’s the experience of the old vibration of anxiety that’s been within us since the time that we were kids. Maybe when we were younger we couldn’t quite understand what that was, but it was painful. In my own experience, as I got older that pain became unbearable and I had to find relief from it. I didn’t reach out for drugs and alcohol. But I’d do things such as go to car dealerships and buy new cars. Or I’d turn on the TV and drown my thoughts and emotions out. Or I’d work excessively in order to numb myself.
Our world is a giant global society that’s rife with problems. It’s a breeding ground for addictive behavior patterns, anxiety, and confusion. We as a species have created a great many problems that have very little to do with the true struggles of life. We don’t have dinosaurs chasing us down the street. And here in the West (unlike other parts of the world) we are for the most part safe from natural disasters and starvation.
We suffer primarily because of our lifestyle patterns. We suffer because we don’t have the proper coping mechanisms. It’s hard to believe that creatures as smart as us, creatures who can launch human beings out into space, cannot figure out how to be happy as a society and how to be free from the need to intoxicate ourselves.
A sign that a relapse may be imminent is if there is an impulse to return to the addictive behavior pattern that characterized your particular addiction. The impulse may be minor or it may be severe. When this is the case, it means that we haven’t gotten to the root of our problem and fixed it. If we’re not completely healed, it’s likely that we’re going to continue to look for ways to soothe discomfort.
It’s necessary to endure that discomfort until we find a way, each and every time, to mentally and emotionally work through it on the spot. To give a couple of examples, in a moment of discomfort you may find yourself looking in your phone for a drug dealer’s phone number or considering going to a bar for a drink. When we see the relapse temptation coming, we have to sit with ourselves and count to 10 very slowly. As we do so, we must breathe through the nose and chant the sacred words, “This too shall pass.”
There are no words that are more powerful than those in such moments. Those words are pure truth, because nothing on our physical plane of existence will remain the same forever. When we feel the urge to act out, one of the reasons that we give in is because we feel like the urge will never let up.
But it will let up. Each time that we make it through an urge without acting out—each and every time—we build up some strength. Each time we make it through, we don’t take a step backwards. Each time we make it through, we don’t take risks with our long-term happiness or our health.
After the urge passes, we can go back to our mental and emotional healing work. We can investigate what’s really going on inside of ourselves. Every time that I don’t relapse into the addictive behavior that I struggle with, I gain valuable experience. I realize once again that I don’t have to participate in that behavior anymore. I boost my self-esteem, I boost my strength, and, over time, I boost my happiness.
There is one thing in particular that a recovering addict with significant time in sobriety has to be cautious about. It is complacency. When we take our sobriety for granted, we tend to stop doing the necessary ongoing work. Fear, laziness, denial, and lack of knowledge can feed into such a dangerous state of being.
Be proud of your sobriety. Be excited about it, be happy about it, and be eager to engage in works of service in connection with it. But at the same time alway be on your guard against becoming complacent about it.