The Relapse FormulaFeb 28, 2021
Relapse is one of my favorite subjects because I lived in it for two long years. After five years of sobriety, I found myself chugging warm chardonnay in a parking lot.
Relapse brought me shame. Shame brought me more relapse.
I would drink, feel like a failure (both the world and my own voice told me I was one), and wallow in deep shame. It was that very shame which then became the seed for another drinking bout - and, you guessed it: more relapse.
From the outside, when someone relapses, it looks like the person chose to go back to their addiction. Outsiders judge harshly.
The person who’s relapsing will hear the judgment for others, then add their own inner punishment: “What is wrong with me? What was I thinking? Why am I such a shitty person? When will I learn? I’m such a failure.”
If the world punishes and shames you, and you punish and shame yourself, how are you supposed to stand a chance to get out of this?
Who is in your corner? Nobody.
Mid-relapse, even my trusted mentors and sponsors would take a deep breath, and say “we’ll be here when you are ready.” without judgment.
The thing is: I felt ready every morning. I just didn’t know how to make that be a true step in the right direction.
Because before I could do anything about “being ready” shame would cover me with it’s heavy coat, and the only way to stop from drowning would be to “give myself one last drink, to feel better one last time.” And it would begin again.
What kept me stuck in relapse was a dangerous formula:
Shame + Staying in place = Relapse
Shame is the painful feeling of being a failure. Not of having done something bad (which is the definition of “guilt”) but of being bad. It does nothing for us but hold us back.
Imagine being a hamster on a wheel. You have zero chance of stopping the wheel. It’s both propelled by your feet, and moving by inertia. It’s in constant motion; you have no choice but to keep running. How do you get out?
You need to jump off the wheel. You need to take this radical step, find three seconds of bravery, and leap. It’s the only way.
What does jumping off the wheel really mean? In a practical sense, it means doing something differently than what you normally do. Disrupting the process.
If the formula for relapse is:
Shame + Staying in place = Relapse
The formula for breaking the relapse is:
Ditching Shame + Self-Compassion + Radical Action = Healing
Here’s the catch: The formula above depends on you. And when you are in relapse, the last person you feel you can count on, is you.
So here's how you do it:
- Rather than default to: “I am a shit person for drinking again” take a breath and you can say something like: “I am stuck in addiction. What I need is to quit feeling bad, and start feeling good. Today, I refuse to dive into shame. Not doing it. Period. Moving on.”
- Once you release the shame, immediately add tenderness. Rather than saying “I am an idiot,” breathe. Open up your heart and say “I am stuck but I love myself and I will get through this.”Having self-compassion does not mean you stop being responsible for your healing. Your addiction is not your fault - but it is your responsibility.
- Then, comes the radical action part. Action means doing something to grow your recovery. This may mean:
- Going to a meeting (of whatever program you’ve chosen - online or in person)
- Telling someone what you are doing and asking for their support (accountability partner)
- Reaching out to a sponsor, mentor, teacher
- Joining an online recovery community
- Reading a book on recovery (Big Book, Quit Lit, Recovery Lit - here is a great list)
- Hiring a Recovery Coach
- Buying a Recovery online course (invest in your healing)
- Working on your program of recovery (in partnership with your sponsor or mentor)
- Reaching out to help someone who’s like you (yes, even where you are, you can help)
- Taking care of yourself (body, mind, soul)
Break your own cycle. Do one small, tiny action that changes your regular pattern of shame-pain-relapse.
The next time you stumble and relapse, or you see someone else stumble and relapse, hold space for it in a different way.
Don’t place blame or assume (anything)
Don’t dismiss as being a choice - it’s not.
Open your arms.
Drop any shame.
Find the next little radical step.
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