Relapse as an important tool for sobriety?

Relapse? Help is here - Life 360…


It’s odd to think of relapse this way. However, if we don’t what is the alternative? Relapse as a failure – moral, personal and spiritual? If we allow relapse to fuel our self-destructive thoughts or allow it to propel us into a self-destructive tailspin, then relapse becomes nothing more than an epic failure.

Like the Apostle Paul on the topic of sin and grace (see Romans 6), I’m not suggesting that we intentionally relapse so we can develop it as a tool nor am I suggesting that relapse is completely positive either. What is true though is that, if we do not use our relapse to better understand our addiction, our inner addict will have a tool to use against us and we will be destined to fail at the same or similar point.

The Learning Process

1. Reinterpreting our guardrails.

One of the most important principles in maintaining our sobriety is the establishment of guardrails in our lives. I have, with a debt of gratitude, and with great respect shamelessly borrowed the concept of guardrails from Andy Stanley, who developed a sermon series “Guardrails”, which was and continues to be one of our family’s favourite.

One of the best ways to explain how to protect sobriety is the concept of ‘guardrails’. Stanley explains that guardrails are placed along our highways at dangerous points to keep us safe. They prevent us from careening over the edge and help us stay on course. Guardrails are not constructed in the most dangerous area of the road; they are constructed in areas where you could still drive. The point of a guardrail is to keep us from veering off of the safe area into an area of actual danger. Nobody argues the point of a guardrail or claims that they are taking up too much valuable real-estate where we could still drive. Almost everybody with a driver’s license understands the concept and the importance of guardrails.

We want to apply that concept in our lives. Stanley suggests the definition of guardrails for our lives - “a personal standard of behaviour that becomes a matter of conscience that serves to protect you.”

Guardrails, in terms of our sobriety, are protections placed long before using again becomes an issue. In the heat of the moment, almost every addict can confirm, there is a split second where they know they are about to use and the thought that they shouldn’t do it. In this nanosecond of clarity, they have a choice in what they are about to do. This moment in time rushes by so rapidly that we easily continue past it to our own peril.

I’m reminded of a sign with a giant X placed on the side of the runway at the Air Force Base in Cold Lake Alberta where I worked in the 1980’s. We called it the “go/no go” point. As an F-18 was speeding down the runway, if it reached this X and did not have takeoff speed, the pilot had to immediately throttle down, drop the tail hook of the aircraft so the aircraft could come to a safe stop. However, if the pilot kept on going past this X, he/she would not have enough runway left to become airborne and would speed off the end of the runway into the approach lights, brush and eventually trees. There was no time to pause and reflect, the aircraft was moving too fast down the runway and the sign appeared for only a nanosecond and in that moment, the pilot had to shut it all down without thinking. As an air traffic controller, I saw this very scenario played out time and time again. It always worked, until one day it didn’t. The F18 blew by the go/no go point and careened into the lights and the brush at the end of the runway destroying a multimillion dollar aircraft and razing the lighting for that end of the runway. All I could see was a huge dust ball out of which the ejection seat carried the very fortunate pilot to a safe parachute landing. The difference between a successful stop on the runway and a devastating crash was training and vigilance. The one time it didn’t work was with a pilot who didn’t fly much because he worked in an administrative role.

For the untrained and inattentive addict, the X appears too fast and their reaction is so slow that it is likely too late to avoid a wreck. Awareness can help. Reflecting on the anatomy of a relapse, examining it in detail, looking at our emotional needs and the cause and effect can bring valuable learning so that when we see that X we can throttle down and stop safely. Additionally, and importantly, guardrails can be placed far enough back that we have time to pause and reflect, time to save ourselves the devastating and costly wreck. Relapsing into a huge wreck is a good indication we need further training and need to establish a new guardrail further back.

2. Reinterpreting step one of the 12 steps.

"We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and our lives had become unmanageable."

A relapse is a good reminder that we are:

Addicts. Some may say it out loud (Hi my name is Bill and I’m an addict) and some may even think they truly mean it when they say it. But inside each of us familiar thoughts rattle around in our heads; “I’m not REALLY an addict.” and “Pornography is not as bad as alcohol.” The alcoholic may say “Alcohol is not as bad as cocaine!” The Cocaine addict may say, “Cocaine is not as bad as crack!” The Crack addict may say, “Crack is not as bad as meth!” and so on.

The premise of step one is that we first become truly aware that we really are, in fact, addicts. This means, letting go of the idea that we are casual users who have control. And letting go of the idea that we are somehow better than other addicts; other porn addicts, alcoholics, or drug addicts. We are not better, we ARE simply addicts.

Powerless over our addiction – not powerless in general, but powerless specifically over our addiction. Again, until we truly accept this in our DNA, we have thoughts to the contrary, “I could stop if I REALLY wanted to.”, “I’m in control.” and I’ve got this!” The “I got this!” thought is dangerous and insidious and particularly evident when we experience a period of sobriety. It leaves us thinking we are not really addicts and we’re in control and this leaves us open to relapse. Relapse is an unparalleled reminder that we are in fact addicts who are not in control of our addiction.

Life in our addiction is unmanageable. This is true because we are addicts who are powerless over our addiction. Step one informs us that “our lives had become unmanageable.” It uses the past tense “had”. That may be true for some or for you, but when addicts first become aware of the nature of their addiction they typically do so because their lives are in chaos - unmanageable. Life may be manageable or more manageable now, but when our addiction takes control, as it wants to, life is not manageable. It is the loss of manageability that brings many to the understanding that they are addicts who are powerless over their addiction. It is the loss of manageability (the addition of chaos) in our lives which haunts us as the “ghost of Christmas future.” Relapse is a two-edged sword that can lead to a return of chaos or, when used effectively, can stave off unmanageability.

3. Doing the work.
There is a good reason for the saying from AA, “it works if you work it!” Complacency is not an option when it comes to our addiction. Sobriety is a verb. It’s not a destination or a place of Zen and relaxation where we can say, “I have finally arrived, now I can relax.” It’s the opposite of that, a place of vigilance and work. In the case of relapse, doing the work means reflecting, in detail, on the minutiae of the circumstances, our motivation, our need for intimacy/love, our frustration/anger, other emotions present, our thought processes, the impact of the decision to use and an evaluation of our guardrails.

4. Talk about it and get feedback.
Don’t try to hide the fact that you relapsed. Hiding it is connected to shame and prevent you from gaining valuable insight. Some people think it’s easier just to hide it and not talk about it. One relapse leads to another and another in rapid succession and eventually the people around them notice anyway and those people are more disappointed by the lies and the lack of trust than the relapse its self. Talking it through with others invites their empathy, support, trust and assistance. Lying and keeping it from them invites the opposite; their indifference, opposition, distrust and apathy. Talk it through with your partner, your counsellor, with your accountability partner, with your group, with other addicts. Learn, grow and make changes based on their insights.

5. Stop the self-flagellation & move forward.
Get past beating yourself up over the relapse. That’s not to say, “forget about what happened” or “it’s all good”, but rather not allowing ourselves to wallow in self-pity and allowing the inner addict to use relapse as a tool against us. By all means, do all of the steps and in particular steps 1, 5, 8 and 9; but do the steps and the work in place of the self-pity. Doing the work to move forward helps change self-pity and self-loathing into a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

When used effectively, relapse can be a tool for sobriety. Otherwise, it can be a tool our inner addict uses against us. The unique part is, we get to decide.

Journal Exercise

In regard to relapse, take some time to reflect in detail on each of the following and record your reflections in your journal:

• The circumstances.
• My motivation for going past the X.
• My unmet need for intimacy and love.
• Any feelings of frustration or anger that allowed me to relapse.
• My thought processes – things I was thinking leading up to the relapse, things I told myself to make it ok to move past the X.
• The impact of the decision to use. The impact on
o my sobriety,
o my self-esteem and self-worth,
o my spouse,
o my family
o other relationships
• The things I told (am currently telling) myself about me.
• What new guardrail(s) need(s) to be in place?

Don’t short change yourself and your sobriety with this exercise. It’s understandable not to want to delve into what we see or understand as a failure on our part. However, this is an opportunity for success down the road. Use it to develop a tool for your sobriety and deny your inner addict a tool for future failure.

Pornography becoming a challenge? Take the

pornography addictions test

and find out where you stand.

Larry G. Pardy CD RSW