Why I relapsed used to be a mystery to me.
I felt like I was on autopilot the whole walk home. I don’t remember any of the thoughts going through my head, just that I had this strong internal force that seemed to have completely taken over my body. I got in the door, kicked my shoes off and threw my jacket onto the floor. I brought my bag with me onto the couch, pulled the bottle out of the bag and without hesitation cracked the cap and took a long swallow.
Reality suddenly came rushing back. I felt my heart drop and blood rush to my face as shame washed over me. I said I wasn’t going to do this anymore. How did I end up here again?
Getting my first long stretch of sobriety was extremely hard. Early attempts usually lasted no more than a few hours, and it took me months before I was able to go a week or more. Sometimes I would be fine for a few days then something bad would happen and set me off. Other times just the grind of the day to day became too much and drinking was a quick way to break the monotony.
Relationship-wise, it was hard for me to have someone I love to be proud of me for not drinking and seeing the disappointment in their eyes when I saw them again with a bottle in my hand. When asked by those close why I didn’t stop: I couldn’t answer. It was a feeling more than a logical reason. I would end up stuttering out something along the lines of “I don’t know” or “I just can’t” which seemed to make them frustrated as they couldn’t understand.
It needed to stop. I was losing friends, family members had lost hope in me, I couldn’t hold down jobs. I saw the path I was going to go down if I didn’t quit for good and it terrified me. The problem was, it seemed as the stakes got higher the harder it was to stay sober.
Obviously what I was trying was either not working at all or was not reliable enough for a long term solution…
The Willpower Method
I was approaching sobriety the only way I knew how: having “more willpower” and trying to “tough it out.” Sometimes I could get through the urges no problem, other times I didn’t stand a chance. The more I thought about it the more I felt this was not the right way for me and I could break this down to three reasons:
My Willpower was Endurance Not Strength
I used to think of willpower as being strong enough to get past the cravings I had. As it turned out this was not the case it all. Instead of an urge being a boulder I could be strong enough to push out of my way it was more like a hot iron being pressed to my leg that I had to endure until it was taken away.
For me, willpower was more being able to hold out through the cravings until they passed.
My Willpower was Finite
Once I realized this, it became clear to me that my willpower was a finite resource. On days where I hadn’t needed to tap into it I could grit my teeth and get through the cravings. The times where I had to put a lot of energy into just getting through the day I would go to my willpower reserve and there would just be fumes.
I have read a lot of articles saying that willpower can be infinite if you have the right beliefs behind it. I have mixed feelings about this: the idea being that if your reasons for why you are withstanding something is strong enough you will be able to push through the pain. I personally found that when I relapsed a lot of the time it was in spite of my best interests – as if I was punishing myself. In this case reasons why I shouldn’t go out the window because I didn’t care what was best for me; I was running towards self-destruction.
That being said, even with the strongest beliefs behind it – I was in a position where I constantly had to withstand pain or discomfort. I had to stop and look at my process, which leads me to my next point…
My Willpower was not Addressing the Real Issue
Sometimes I would not have drank for a few months before relapsing. Then suddenly my old habits would creep up on me to kick me when I was down. I felt like I had to constantly be on guard. Instead of always running, hiding, and enduring, I stopped to think if there was a deeper reason behind these seemingly random relapses. After so many sobriety attempts I noticed there started to be a pattern to my behavior. Maybe this was something that I could address and understand better to make it less painful, or maybe even from happening altogether…
Once this clicked for me, willpower was no longer an option. I sat down and thought of some of my previous relapses and dug a little deeper into them…
7 Different Relapse Types and What They Were Trying To Tell Me
I was sober for a few weeks when I started pursuing a girl that I worked with (yep, bad idea!) After dating a couple months she became distant and told me she had been seeing someone else and suggested we didn’t see each other anymore. Trying to push this hurt out my mind was difficult when I had to see her every day. Eventually, it became too much and I started drinking to forget about it.
What it meant:
The desperation relapse happened when I faced an intense and overpowering pain and I needed to escape it IMMEDIATELY!
I had been on a particularly bad bender. I swore off drinking (for the hundredth time) and spent a few shaky days sweating it out. After about 4 days I started to get my energy back, I was starting to feel human again! Then the voice crept in: “You are doing so well, you got this drinking thing under control. You know what? The problem wasn’t drinking itself – it was (insert insane justification here.) If you just control yourself and only have a 1 or 2 a night you can drink like ‘normal’ again…” Of course, 1 or 2 quickly turns to 3, 6, 12, and so on.
What it meant
I still linked in my brain feeling good or celebrating to alcohol. I felt that the “positives” of drinking outweighed the negatives. As soon as I started to feel better I convinced myself I could get some of the “good” parts (none) of drinking while trying to avoid the bad.
I told a close friend something personal about myself I thought was in confidence. I later had it brought up to me by another person. Saying I was frustrated was putting it mildly, I was outraged that my friend went blabbing their mouth like that. I was so mad I aggressively drove to the store, got a bottle and started slamming drinks.
What it meant:
Someone had broken an unspoken rule of mine. I made an assumption that he would have known not to repeat what I had told him and felt betrayed and hurt. I was giving into my anger and drinking to fuel it in an attempt to reassert myself in the situation.
I was behind on rent and still didn’t have enough money this month to catch up. I kept screwing up at work and was worried that the money that was coming in was going to be gone soon. I got a text asking where I was – I had forgotten I had made plans with a good friend. I felt anxiety completely take me over and my body shrink down. I just needed to put everything on hold for a day.
What it meant:
Relapse came when I felt I had too much on my plate. Many small things that by themselves wouldn’t have been a huge deal but when piled up on top of each other have an avalanche effect and made one big thing. Trying to solve all the problems at once and not knowing where to start made me feel extremely overwhelmed.
Social Pressure Relapse
I had been sober for a few months when I traveled back to my hometown to visit my parents. I made plans to meet up with friends I hadn’t seen in years. These are friends I still kept in touch with but also used to drink heavily with. I hadn’t told them about my sobriety yet and was feeling nervous about doing so. I saw them start cracking beers and instantly felt jealous that I wouldn’t be able to join in with them. They asked if I wanted one and I told them I hadn’t been drinking lately. They tempted me with the “but just one isn’t going to hurt right?”
What it meant:
Social pressure relapse stems from a fear of being rejected. I wanted to fit in with my friends and felt that since the direction and flow was going so smoothly if I said “no” it would make everything weird or uncomfortable. I tried to assume an old role I was no longer living.
My girlfriend at the time and I were in a heated argument. At the time this was a regular occurrence. I felt as though we were very close to the end of our time together and were just together at that point out of habit or convenience. After this particularly intense fight, I thought that might be the one to end it all. I stormed out of the house, got booze and started drinking in front of her in hopes to incite another fight.
What it meant:
This relapse came from a place of fear when I felt I’d lost control. I resorted to a desperate measure of relapsing at first in anger to regain a sense of control (aka “I can do whatever I want”) and then afterward in hopes that my significant other would come to my aid to helpme rebuild a caring relationship.
I missed my reading in the morning, I forgot to bring a lunch so I had to skip a meal. I got frustrated and lost my temper at work which I said I was going to stop doing. When I got home I was so tired that I didn’t exercise. I was planning to send a message to my mom later but I just don’t have it in me. I thought: “I’m so bad at this. Why can’t I just stick to I plan in a day?”
What it meant:
I had set myself a lot of goals to hit in a day without really easing into it. I had very high expectations of myself and what I needed to accomplish in day to be able to feel good about it. I had to remember that no one is perfect. I needed to take smaller steps and lower my expectations for what was needed to have a good day.
When I found the reasons I was relapsing and looked at them all together I noticed something: they all occurred during a time of intense emotional distress. Now, this may be obvious but at the time I was always in reaction to these events happening and was never able to step back from the emotional rollercoaster to make that realization…
“Safe” Decisions and Hard Choices
The thing was, I was sitting getting my desired outcomes through drinking. I would fall back into old patterns because drinking did actually get my needs fulfilled. If I felt I had lost control and wanted to assert myself I could drink and get angry and start yelling – that would certainly get a reaction to reinforce my beliefs. The problem is that this is the easy way out – it gets what I need in a roundabout way but it does a lot of collateral damage in the process. I could actually put myself out there and communication with the person and tell them my needs but then I risk being rejected and feeling even worse. Instead, I would opt to be in control of the pain myself by being the person who makes it. I would drink and get the outcome in the “safer” decision instead of making the hard choice to put myself out there.
I found that unless I had a plan in place for those times of intense emotional distress I would just revert back to “safe” decisions. Once I understood the reasons why I was relapsing I could then find more healthy alternative actions to achieve my desired outcomes.
Realize that sobriety does not give invincibility to having tough days. This concept took longer for me to get than I would like to admit. I would “do everything right” but then bad things would still appear. “This isn’t fair! I didn’t do anything wrong – why is this happening to me?!” I learned to anticipate that somethings are just out of my control and a part of the natural variance of life. There are going to be good times and bad times – once I accepted that, it made going through the bad times easier.
There are great sites out there like SoberNation whose members share their stories. LEARN FROM THEM! There have been countless times in my life when someone would warn me or try to give me advice but I would plow ahead anyway thinking it would not apply to me. When you learn the stories of others, read between the lines – what really caused them to drink more than the surface issue? When you look back at your own relapses ask yourself: “What were they trying to tell me?”
What were your relapses trying to tell you? Don’t be shy, what may seem obvious to you might be a revelation for someone else! Share this article and submit your answer below