By far the most likely time to relapse is in the first two weeks after stopping drinking. But relapse after 100 or so days is also extremely common. I want to talk about three aspects of relapse at this time in terms of what’s happening in our heads.
- 1. Why we feel so devastated but shouldn’t
- 2. Why relapse is so common at around 100+ days
- 3. What can be done to avoid it
We tend to use our Day Count a measure of our progress. The big advice to us is to keep the horizon close… “One day at a time”, and this is important advice because if we let our minds drift into the future then we sabotage our own effort. This is to do with self-belief; do we think it’s possible to not drink for the rest of the day? Yes, but do we think we can stop drinking forever?… oooh, not sure about that! So we work hard at keeping our effort in the present and we count the days as a measure progress. While we think like this then more days=more success. But this focus on our day count is crushing if we drink again. If we drink again then our day count drops back to 0 and this gives the impression that we have “lost” ALL of our recovery. But this is not true, and it is not true because by using our day counter as a progress measurement we misrepresent what it really is.
We are compelled to stop drinking by the chaos and suffering it causes in ourselves and others. We stop drinking because our lives are in chaos, we are deeply depressed, we are anxious, scared, alone and hopeless. We stop drinking because we need to be rid of all of these things. Our aim when we stop drinking is to become emotionally well again; to gain some control over our lives and be free from all the guilt, fear, misery, loneliness and hopelessness. But that isn’t what our day count measures!
We use the day count to REPRESENT our progress because we don’t have any convenient way of measuring our ACTUAL progress. This approximation is roughly representative while we don’t drink, but becomes entirely un-representative when we DO drink. While we don’t drink then our “recovery” (i.e. our return to mental wellness) is roughly proportional to the time since our last drink, but if we DO drink again then this measurement is entirely misleading. If we drink again then our Day Counter drops back to zero, and because we have equated “days” with “recovery” then we convince ourselves that our recovery is therefore also at zero too. But this is completely incorrect because the day count isn’t actually a measurement of recovery at all, it is a measure of abstinence… and that is not the goal we are striving for.
We are not struggling to gain abstinence; we are struggling to gain wellness. Our aim is not to be alcohol-free for (for example) 365 days only to still feel just as guilty, ashamed, fearful, hopeless etc. as we were on Day 1. There would be no point in doing that whatsoever… we may as well carry on drinking! Our aim is to be free of all of these things and THAT is why we are doing this. Abstinence is not actually the goal. The goal is wellness. Abstinence is only the means to get there it is not the actual objective. We are not ultimately striving for abstinence we are striving for wellness, and these are completely different things. But the Day Count only measures abstinence.
If we drink again after a significant dry period then we do not lose all of our “recovery”, in fact we lose very little. Not only do we lose very little, if we will learn from the experience then we actually gain from it. Our loss is an apparent one not a real one. The only way to truly lose the recovery we have worked so hard to win is if we drink heavily again for a sustained period. This will cause us to become alcohol-tolerant again and once there then our dopamine and serotonin levels become depleted and we are once again emotionally distressed and hopeless. But even then not all the gains are lost… we still know that stopping drinking is possible, and we also know that while we didn’t drink our life was better… these are both things we did not know when we first set out… we had to take them on trust initially.
Reliance on the Day Count is completely misleading when it comes to relapse and it is this joining together of two different things (that abstinence=recovery) that makes relapse such a bitter pill. While it FEELS awful we are actually misleading ourselves. All recovery is not lost at all, nor is the effort that went into it wasted, it just seems that way.
The effort that went into achieving some wellness is not lost at all; most of that wellness gained still remains. The good days won were still good days, the disciplines learned are still known, the truths that stopping drinking is worthwhile and that stopping drinking is possible are now known to be true, they are no longer taken on faith in the hope that they are true. All those sober days are still days that we did not accumulate awful guilt and shame, they are still days that we didn’t do terrible things and they are still days we didn’t want it all to end.
Relapse makes us feel awful, like total failures, but this is only our own pride beating us up. Nobody who knows what they’re talking about makes that judgement. Take a look at the comments that come in here after someone relapses. None of them say “you should have tried harder”, “you are just weak” or “you just got lazy”, they universally say, “dust yourself off, stand yourself up, and give it another go”. We feel terrible after relapse because we judge ourselves. By all means be angry with yourself, but after giving yourself a good talking to step back onto the path; you are not starting the journey again from the beginning, you are starting where you fell off.
That first point I wanted to talk about is that our reliance on our day count is misguided; we falsely equate abstinence with wellness, and it is this that causes our deep anguish if we drink again. But the next thing to look at is why it is so common for us to drink again at around this time?
Relapse at 100+ days is remarkably common. The likelihood of relapse does not diminish over time in a simple linear manner: there is a bulge in the graph at around 3-6 months. So what causes this? The answer is that several things come together; the problem changes, we change, and what we are fighting with changes.
Our principal challenges in becoming alcohol-free are; cravings, altered emotions, falsely biased memory, and lies. When we first set out the biggest challenge is the cravings; the seemingly incessant wordless demand that we drink and drink now. As we repeatedly deny these cravings then the triggers that cause them lose their power, and over time the most commonly met triggers cease to cause debilitating cravings; they become manageable. In general the intensity of cravings subsides, but we still get the occasional huge craving out-of-the-blue. This a craving from a powerful trigger the circumstances of which we don’t routinely meet any longer… and hence haven’t de-powered yet. When they come they are shocking as they catch us un-prepared to fend off a big craving; we haven’t met one for a while. But except for these out-of-the-blue events the cravings we experience have significantly dropped in intensity. We gain confidence that we have them under some control and we manage a sustained period when cravings cease to make us drink. But the automatically operating parts of our brain still want us to drink. We have successfully closed many of the doors in our minds to addiction so our brain have to work to find doors that are still open, and in doing this our condition takes on the appearance of being cunning… it finds ways to trick us. As the intensity of cravings falls away the lies that our brain constructs to try and make us drink again become the more significant challenge. But this happens at a time that we too are changing.
When we first stop drinking we are completely desperate and we get a huge lift in determination from this. It is this boost that allows us to overcome withdrawal when we couldn’t previously. It is often referred to as “the gift of desperation” but unfortunately while it gives us extra strength to get started it doesn’t last. We only get this boosted determination while we are desperate, and we are only desperate while we feel we are in imminent peril… but this recedes as time passes. Once we stop drinking then our brains start to re-adjust to life without alcohol. Dopamine, and Serotonin return to their normal levels and the “flight-or-fight” response stands down: we become less miserable, irritable, restless, hopeless and care-worn. With this return of the brain to an alcohol-free state our desperation disappears, and so does the additional strength we got from it. Indeed, for a while we experienced an over-shoot in the amount of dopamine and serotonin our brains released, and this gave us the “pink cloud”. But as the pink cloud fades the reality of our struggle starts to take its toll. We still have to work hard every day at not drinking, but no longer feel that rewarding glow of wellness… “It’s not worth it” creeps in. No longer driven by desperation this idea is not immediately dismissed… it lingers and grows.
The period of around 100+ days marks a time when the main challenge has moved from being cravings, to self-sabotage. It is also a time when our driving motivation has dropped… the necessity of stopping drinking becomes less convincing. The third thing that hits us in this period is the out-of-the-blue cravings that hit us when we are unprepared for them. While we faced fierce cravings daily we were constantly on our guard to fight them off. But when the intensity drops away then we stand down our readiness to fight. This leave us exposed to unexpected and powerful cravings.
Put these three together; out-of-the-blue cravings, diminished conviction of the necessity to stay alcohol-free, and increasingly self-sabotaging ideas, and on a bad day we have the recipe for relapse.
Overcoming addiction is difficult because the challenge changes and we have to keep adapting to meet the changes as they come.
We learn to help ourselves navigate cravings; delay, distract, deny, and we have to similarly learn to how to help ourselves through the self-sabotage. The best defence is to anticipate its coming. When we know that our brain is going to try to trick us then instead of negotiating with the idea when it comes we can immediately move it aside as known to be false.
Our brain is good at finding plausible reasons why we should drink, but its repertoire is remarkably limited. These are some of the most common lies that come forward:
- Maybe you weren’t that bad
- Just one won’t hurt
- You can probably control it now
- Forever! (You know you can’t do this forever so you may as well drink now)
- It isn’t worth it (you’re missing out on all the fun)
- No-one will know
The problem changes and what we need to do to fight it also changes, but the consequences of going back to drinking remain precisely the same. We are still susceptible to addiction, we still can’t limit or control our drinking, and drinking will drive us back into the downward spiral of despair.
Relapse does not change the necessity of stopping drinking, and it does not diminish our ability to achieve this… in fact it improves it. If we will look at the circumstances that lead to us drinking again then we will know how to recognise this in the future and avoid it. Experiencing a relapse can feel utterly crushing, but it doesn’t diminish our ability to win through, it improves it.