The following is excerpted from the book:
What About Relapse?
We don’t blame someone with high blood pressure or asthma for the biological malfunction happening in their bodies. And we certainly don’t shame them when they have acute flare-ups of their illness. Why is it different for the meth addict? And what is relapse but an acute flare-up of your disease?
It’s important to begin to understand addiction through the medical model so we can jettison the guilt and shame associated with relapses. This is not to excuse or encourage slips, but to be realistic. The fact is that many recovering meth addicts will slip during the journey of their recovery. I slipped and used several times before I finally quit. It’s part of many of our stories. The goal for you, here, is to keep that slippage to a minimum.
In this chapter, we look at what to expect when you slip and how to minimize the duration of the relapse and, hopefully, not slip again.
Get help. Get out of guilt. Don’t judge yourself or beat yourself up. The past is past.
— Nolan, 9 months clean
W H A T T O E X P E C T
Lie #1: Relapse is a Moral Failure
The statistics aren’t pretty. 70 to 80% of those who go to rehab for treatment will relapse in the first year. But what does this mean for you? First, the good news is you don’t have to be average.
You can be the exception. This most recent relapse can be your last.
The key is to: 1) end your relapse as soon as possible, and 2) learn from it so it won’t happen again. We’ll look at this in greater detail shortly.
The truth. Recovering from crystal meth is a life-long challenge and very few people who are addicted stop using successfully the first time around. I’ll say it again: the average is 7 to 13 relapses before success in quitting takes hold.
For most people, learning how to keep off meth is the same as learning a new skill—like riding a bicycle. Do you know many people who learned to ride a bicycle without falling over a few times? And some of us fell many times before we finally learned the skill.
Relapse does not mean moral failure. It is part of recovery for most addicts. I know I seriously tried to stop several times over a four month period before I finally quit. You could say, “Well, Joseph definitely showed poor judgment during those months because he kept picking up.” Maybe. But crystal meth profoundly affects the brain. My brain was hijacked during those four months by a terrorist that didn’t want to surrender. In those first few weeks, when the brain’s cravings are at their peak, we make impulsive decisions without thinking them through—because we literally can’t think them through. Our brains are impaired.
Also, users who smoked or injected their crystal, have extremely severe cravings during recovery.
So, yes. If you relapse it’s completely natural for you to feel discouraged, even angry. But don’t turn that anger on yourself—or others. Turn it toward your disease. Remember, your disease lies to you about your recovery. You have one of the few diseases in the world that tells you, you don’t have it.
Which brings us to the next lie your disease wants you to believe…
Lie # 2: My Previous Progress in Recovery Was Wasted
Sometimes, someone who slips will claim in exasperation, “I lost all my clean time. I’m back to day zero. I have to start everything over.” That’s just how your disease wants you to look at it—as a huge mountain to climb that’s so big, you just might as well not even try again. A more accurate way to look it as is: “I have been sober 20 of the past 21 days. Compared to any other three week period before I came into recovery, this is progress.”
If you’re in a 12-step program that counts days, months and years, you have to restart your sobriety clock and establish a new sobriety date, the first clean day after the relapse ended. Here’s the silver lining: you don’t lose the lessons learned from your previous recovery time. I’d be willing to bet that your previous clean time experience (be it once or a dozen times) probably helped you come back to sobriety faster this time around. We just don’t lose all that clean time experience. It stays, working on us from the inside. That’s why it’s important to remember, even though you reset your sobriety date, your previous clean time counts. It’s there, accumulating wisdom.
Sometimes you’ll hear an old-timer say something like, “I have X years continuous sobriety.” If you ask them why they phrase it that way, they’ll respond that when it comes to the “total number” of sober years accumulated, they have much more—and they don’t wish to discount that other sobriety time. It’s there, just not continuous.
Look at the last several months, or year. If you have more clean time in the last three months than you have relapse time, focus on that. You are definitely heading in the right direction. Don’t beat yourself up.
As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And a solid program of sobriety usually isn’t either.
(Now, having said that, there’s this: there is an emotional and psycho-spiritual growth that only comes with long-term continuous sobriety. It’s something you’ll have to experience for yourself.)
Bottom line—none of this is to encourage or excuse relapse, but you need to learn not to demonize relapse, either.
If it never happens to you, great. No one is happier for you than I am. But, if you are involved in any groups of recovering meth addicts, from CMA to rehab to group counseling, you will see people relapse. Many, many people. You may not relapse yourself, but it’s almost certain that people you care about will. So be kind to yourself and your fellow tweakers who are with you on the journey to sobriety.
And for those of you are in “the Program,” get back into the rooms of AA, NA or CMA. Raise your hand when they ask if there are any newcomers. You have nothing to be ashamed of—in fact, you’re one of the strongest people in the room at that moment. I’ll say it again: recovering addicts are some of the strongest people I know and, when sober, become men and women of amazing character. Our suffering makes us that way.
Welcoming Embraces and Cold Shoulders
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “cold shoulders” you might receive from some other recovering addicts when they find out you relapsed. You’d think, when it comes to understanding and having compassion, no one would be more accepting than another addict, right? It should be that way and, often, is. There are many welcoming embraces when you come back from “field research,” as relapsing is sometimes called in the rooms of CMA.
But the truth is when people react negatively to your relapse, they are usually coming from a place of fear. Maybe they put you on too high a pedestal. Or maybe someone once advised them to, “Hang around the winners only.” And they don’t have the broader perception to see that, by coming back to recovery from your slip or relapse, you are indeed an extraordinary winner. It’s their loss. Forgive them, then focus on your own recovery.
There are at least two important lessons you get from a cold shoulder. The first is: the opportunity to respond to someone else’s fear with compassion. Really, the person turning a cold shoulder needs your kindness and loving compassion now more than you need theirs. They are closing their eyes to the parts of life and recovery they’d rather not see. This is not solid recovery behavior, but old addict behavior. You know, ignore life and pretend it’s not there. The second lesson of a cold shoulder is: you’ll have more compassion and understanding for others who struggle with relapse in the future. Because you’ve felt the pain of a cold shoulder, next time it happens to someone you know, you’ll reach out a warm embrace and soften your heart to them.
You open your eyes. Open your heart. To yourself and to all others who struggle with relapse.
7 to 13 times—the average with crystal meth. I hope you are above average. There’s no reason you can’t be. But if you are not, don’t beat yourself up.
And when someone gives you a cold shoulder, remember this: You are not toxic. What’s truly toxic is their thought that makes them respond in fear. Not you, my friend.
W H A T T O DO
Get Immediately Back into Recovery
The sooner you get back to your recovery the better the odds that you’ll make it through this slip to quit successfully. Often, we begin a slip by listening to our disease’s favorite lie: “It’s only for one night. What can that hurt?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve not met many tweakers who were successful in a one-night stand with crystal meth. (For me, at the end, it was five nights. Every time.)
Another great lie from your disease: “You’ve already slipped this once, so you might as well do another run. You’re going to have to set a new sobriety date anyhow. So what’s another few days?”
But is it ever just another few days? Get back to recovery as soon as you can. Don’t listen to your disease. Remember, it wants you dead.
Don’t Dwell on Shame and Guilt
Infants fall down many times before learning to walk upright, but if they didn’t keep trying and falling, they’d crawl forever.
Don’t dwell on shame and guilt. Ultimately, excessive guilt is just an ego trip. It’s not the end of the world as long as you’re back into recovery.
And the most important thing to do is…
Try To Learn From This So It Won’t Happen Again
Hello? When did this relapse really begin? Here’s a hint: the relapse began long before you picked up the pipe, straw, or syringe.
It may have begun when you started flirting with old triggers—certain people, places, or things. Or maybe you started missing meetings. Then you began listening to the lies your disease whispered. You romanticized using and the cravings quickly overwhelmed you. All of this occurred before you picked up the drug itself.
Carefully examine how this relapse came to be, so you don’t unknowingly repeat it.
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