Why would anyone relapse when things are going well?

Following the carrot In recovery

It can be daunting, those first steps of recovery, returning home to your family and career and friends and knowing that you must figure out how to navigate that web of fellowship and work and yet still be careful, still mindful of what you’ve learned about yourself in rehab. You learn to breathe and meditate or pray, you learn to say no when you need to and take time for yourself. Your mental health is still getting top billing, not just from you but hopefully from those closest to you, those who know what you’ve been through to get here and are willing to help be gatekeepers with watchful eyes to remind you of what you know, that you can do this. You’re strong.

After awhile, the gatekeepers relax. You relax, one fractional inch at a time, because it has been months since you even thought about drinking or using. You settle in to your “new normal” and a quiet voice inside whispers to you, “Nice job…you’re doing it…keep it up…”

Relapse during crisis or turmoil

It’s easier to notice when things are rough. When external circumstances seem shaky, when workloads become heavy, when relationships begin to waver, both you and your gatekeepers sit up slightly, sniffing the air for a sign of impending issues that might cause a slip. Your awareness goes back into overdrive, and that voice in your head maybe begins a loop, “You can do it…just hang in there…” And if a relapse happens, everyone nods with a sad, hopeful smile, “Well, things were awfully tough…that was a huge blow…now you can come back stronger than ever…” It doesn’t feel shocking, somehow, because everyone could see, including you, that the train was slowing or wobbling or coming off the tracks altogether, and you take a deep breath and get back to work with the railway, straightening and securing once more the tracks of your future success.

Relapse during good times

But when things are going well, when the relationship is better than its ever been, when you feel more connected than ever to your friends, and when the job is staying on track and tidy, a relapse feels unnatural, like some mental earthquake has come to shake the very hinges of all you’ve created, something no one predicted. “Why, when he was doing so well? Everything was going right for a change…” Even you will question your own success up to this point. “Maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was, if this could happen even when things were great…”

A Common Misconception

It’s a common misconception that people only drink or use drugs when they are sad, depressed, anxious, or trying to escape some other “negative” feeling. We tend to be somewhat prepared for that, or at least feel we can understand it a bit if it happens. But believing that as long as things are going well your recovery is safeguarded ignores the very thing that caused the addiction in the first place. Very few people reach for pills or the wine in a conscious effort to derail their life, they extend their arms in order to grasp at something they feel is not within them, something they feel is lacking. Whether that is peace and tranquility from the problems of the outside world or being able to turn up the volume on feverish happiness, they’re mistaking where their feelings are coming from either way. There are no feelings inside a bottle. There are no emotions held within a pill. What appears to give one person a feeling of mellow relaxation can just as easily appear to give another a feeling of panic at the loss of self control they experience, so neither of those can possibly be inherent within the smooth glass of liquor or in the slick casing of a drug.

A Carrot on a Stick

Instead, understanding that your thoughts about everything you experience is like the proverbial carrot on a stick inside your mind—where thought goes, that faithful donkey of emotion follows—is what allows you to finally, truly understand what caused your addiction in the first place. Right now you could sit and remember the most relaxing vacation you’ve ever taken in great detail, labor over every point you have stored in your frontal lobes and you will likely begin feeling calm, relaxed and peaceful even if you’re sitting in your not-quite-comfy office chair. Likewise, you could begin mulling over that nasty fight you had with a friend, picking apart the details of what they said to you and how wrong they were to say them, and you will likely become frustrated, agitated, and even a bit angry once more even though they’re on the other side of town in their own not-quite-comfy office chair. This is the perfect illustration of how thought leads emotions to arise within, and it doesn’t take any external circumstance, person, or object to cause it.

Whether things are going amazingly well or your train is headed dangerously close to derailment, you hold both the carrot and the stick above your donkey. The direction you point those is ultimately always up to you, but until you truly understand this, it will always appear to be coming from the outside, and your poor donkey will continually get stuck in the mud next to the broken down train, and the cycle continues. Seeing thought for what it is and understanding that it doesn’t have to be a directive you must follow, and truly understanding that emotions and urges do not have to be paid attention to or obeyed is what illuminates the donkey, the carrot, and the stick and allows you to lead your donkey to endless pastures of tranquil green grass, day after day.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our scientifically proven method of substance abuse recovery, give us a call at 1.800.556.2966. We offer a non 12 step, mindfulness based outpatient recovery program, the only one of its kind in Georgia. We have partnered with sober living homes to allow even those who don’t live nearby the opportunity to attend our program, and offer flexible scheduling Monday through Friday, including evenings.