Why Relapse is Not a Sign of Failure

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Relapse can put our recovery into gear—as long as we’re willing to learn from it. (EtiAmmos/Shutterstock)

Many recovering addicts and alcoholics view relapse as synonymous with failure. We see it as a sign that we have learned nothing from our daily regimen of meetings, meditations, and calls to our sponsors. After spending weeks, months or even years working toward our spiritual development, one relapse sends us right back into our old mindset of shame and self-loathing. From a certain standpoint, however, relapse does not indicate failure at all.

Consider, for a moment, the following passage from Chapter 8 of Alcoholics Anonymous, “To Wives”:

“Perhaps your husband will make a fair start on the new basis, but just as things are going beautifully he dismays you by coming home drunk. If you are satisfied he really wants to get over drinking, you need not be alarmed. Though it is infinitely better that he have no relapse at all, as has been true with many of our men, it is by no means a bad thing in some cases. Your husband will see at once that he must redouble his spiritual activities if he expects to survive.”

The last line of this passage makes all the difference. Relapse does not indicate failure, provided we learn something from it. In fact, this supposed failure often spurs us to work twice as hard on our recovery, benefiting our personal growth in the long run. Another way of saying this would be that relapse only results in failure if we allow ourselves to see it as such.

We would caution all addicts and alcoholics to remember this, should they happen to find themselves on the other side of a relapse. The defeatist mindset leads to disastrous results.

The Mindset of Failure

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Believing ourselves to be failures can set off a domino effect of destructive behaviors that must be halted immediately. (Indypendenz/Shutterstock)

We set a low standard for ourselves when we accept a label of failure. Even worse, we convince ourselves that we are incapable of rising above the bar that we have set. When we indulge this mindset in response to a setback in our recovery, the result is often that our relapse continues with little hope of an end in sight.

The mindset of failure affects far more than addicts and alcoholics alone. Experts in fields such as business and education caution against it frequently, suggesting that we replace this way of thinking with a “growth mindset.” This mindset—which revolves around the simple notion that our intelligence continues to grow and adapt throughout our lives—gets us out of the idea that setbacks indicate permanent failure. Rather than believing that our mind exists in a fixed position, incapable of growth, we treat ourselves with compassion and understanding. This sense of self-compassion, according to the University of British Columbia, leads in turn to an overall better sense of well-being.

How do we foster a growth mindset to overcome our sense of failure after a relapse? It depends on the cause of the relapse itself. In most instances, relapse emerges from one of two basic mentalities. The first involves an attitude of extreme self-assurance, to the point that we neglect our recovery. The second begins with a far more negative outlook, which often grows into an overall sense of defeat.

Despite the polar differences between these two attitudes, each provides us a similar opportunity to learn about our recovery. If we take this approach, the rewards may prove magnificent indeed. Rather than fostering a mindset of failure, we can enhance our sense of self and bounce back stronger than ever.

A New Bottom

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It is easy to lose our way when blinded by pride. (Oleg Gekman/Shutterstock)

When someone we know suffers a relapse, we often hear people say that they simply “needed to experience some more consequences.” This may sound cynical, but we can certainly find merit in this statement—to an extent. On one hand, no one technically needs to experience consequences. In fact, much of the arrogance we exhibit in active addiction may arise from these same hardships. A night in jail or a short stay in the hospital can serve as a wake-up call, but it may just as easily convince us of our strength. Instead of seeing ourselves as out of control, we see ourselves as people who can walk away from just about anything unscathed.

Anyone capable of this mindset during their darkest hours may find their self-confidence doubled once they enter recovery. At its onset, this overconfidence finds roots in our maintenance of a healthy program. The constancy we develop through habitual upkeep of our sobriety, such as attending ninety meetings in ninety days, may become warped in our own minds. Psychotherapist and essayist Michael Formica explains:

“The challenge arises as, through this constancy, we get more and more comfortable with the idea that we have some semblance of control over our behavior. That comfort breeds confidence, which is good, propelling recovery forward. But it can also sometimes lead to an overconfidence that underlies the illusory notion ‘I can have one beer’ or ‘I can buy one lottery ticket’ or ‘I can short this bill to pay that one.’”

In other words, we take our recovery for granted. We see it as something we are rather than something we do. This causes us to become unmindful of our thought patterns, failing to see when we begin engaging in dangerous behaviors. Formica’s secondary examples of purchasing lottery tickets and defaulting on bills indicate patterns for which we should remain on the lookout. If we find ourselves taking unnecessary risks or ignoring our personal and professional obligations, we should take heed before we find ourselves on the road to relapse.

Relapse due to overconfidence does not suggest failure, but rather a need to form deeper habits. When we return to the fold, we embrace our recovery with a greater sense of consciousness. We realize that we never hit our bottom because, in the literal sense of the word, no such thing as a “bottom” truly exists. Our only true failure in this case is the failure to completely embrace the First Step. Armed with a deeper understanding of our powerlessness over substance abuse, we acknowledge the gravity of our situation and begin practicing the principles of sobriety with greater respect for the consequences of false pride.

Out of the Darkness

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No one can help us if they don’t know that we are drowning. (Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock)

When relapse arises as a result of negative emotions, a similar failure to acknowledge our triggers may lie at the heart of the issue. In this case, however, the addict or alcoholic is often fully aware of the problem. But instead of acknowledging the issue and facing it directly, we attempt to suppress our feelings and hide them from others.

This happens for a few reasons. Perhaps we simply prefer not to face our demons, and would rather pretend that they do not exist. Or, as in the above case of overconfidence, we believe that we can handle our issues on our own. Often, however, our prime motivator is fear. We don’t tell people that we are struggling because we are afraid of letting them down. We assume that others will lose faith in us if they know that we have lost faith in ourselves.

In this last case, relapse does not produce feelings of failure. Instead, feelings of failure actually precede the relapse itself. Our fear then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For fear of letting people down, we engage in the one behavior that we know will disappoint them.

Our self-fulfilling prophecy does not manifest out of nowhere. In fact, it manifests as a direct result of our attempt to suppress our fear of failure. An Australian study on “ironic control theory” explains that attempts to suppress negative thoughts will lead to greater intrusions of those same thoughts. In many cases, these intrusions even follow us into the dream world. And when someone who fears failure in sobriety dreams of relapse, their fear of failure will likely increase upon awakening. Before long, they become so downtrodden that they decide to simply throw up their hands and give in.

The addict or alcoholic who relapses under these circumstances is not a failure. Yet they would benefit from a lesson similar to that of the individual whose relapse arises out of confidence. Much like those who approach recovery with arrogance, those who relapse out of self-defeat have not truly accepted their powerlessness. Instead, they see their vulnerability as a failure so great that they must hide it from the world.

Such a person does not take their triggers for granted, but instead takes for granted the tools that lie at their disposal. Specifically, they take for granted the understanding of the fellowship. Hopefully, upon admitting their relapse, their discovery that they have not been abandoned by their support network will give them greater faith in the value of honesty next time they feel as if they are struggling. In this sense, their relapse will not feel like a second chance, but rather a first. Because, for the first time, they will learn to give themselves a break and put their faith in others, rather than shouldering their burdens alone.

Stabilizing After a Relapse

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We cannot move forward from a relapse until we break our self-imposed bonds of secrecy. (Moolek995/Shutterstock)

Whether caused by confidence or lack thereof, relapse does not indicate failure. Unless, of course, we refuse to learn from it. Some addicts and alcoholics, known as “white chip wonders,” stay sober the first time. But much as Thomas Edison did not figure out the light bulb on his first try, some of us require a bit of trial and error before we learn how to establish a program that works for us. Winston Churchill once remarked:

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Do not take this to mean that you should go from relapse to relapse with impunity. But should you experience a backslide, do not stay off the wagon for keeps. Get right back on and do what you need in order to steady your grip.

We cannot accomplish this alone. Before doing anything else, we must respond to relapse by telling somebody about it. The longer we keep it a secret, the harder we find it becomes to fess up. Nobody enjoys the long walk across the meeting hall to pick up a new white chip. But this humbling experience often proves the first step toward a brighter stage of our journey.

If our relapse truly took its toll on us, we may require stabilization of a professional nature. Those of us who relapse following treatment programs often return for at least two weeks of partial hospitalization. This very return to treatment may feel like a failure in and of itself. But we assure you, it usually proves quite the opposite. Many clients who walk back through our doors with their heads hung low find themselves leaving two weeks later with their chins up and their resolve stronger than ever. Nobody who experiences a relapse should feel themselves to be incapable of a similar transformation.

Do not resign yourself to failure. If you have recently experienced a relapse, seek help to learn what you can and emerge from this a stronger person. And if you require stabilization, contact Amethyst for help getting into our program. You might have trouble being gentle with yourself right now, but we are here to help you through.

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