Stopping drinking is a monumental task. It requires that we recognise the unwanted behaviour of our mind as it arrives and then contradict it. We have to do this with force of will while our condition wields dopamine which has the express purpose of directing behaviour. That dopamine is supported by an unfaithful memory and sabotaging lies which constantly tell us that having a drink is a good idea. The challenge is not only a stern one it continues without pause for weeks and months and only very slowly relaxes its grip on us.
It is amazing that anyone manages to overcome addiction yet most do, but nobody truly succeeds at their first attempt. Everyone that overcomes addiction fails before they succeed. Our first failures are not being able to adhere to our own decisions about limiting how much we drink. We try everything we know to control our drinking but fail every time, and then we still try again, and again. We are desperate to avoid the conclusion that we don’t want to believe; that we can’t control our drinking and that it will have to stop completely. But eventually we can no longer deny the truth. Our drinking is out of control and we cannot regain control. It isn’t fun anymore, it is destroying us. We can’t stop, but we can’t carry on either.
This is the pivotal point at which recovery becomes possible. It is the point at which denial collapses and we realise that change is necessary. This does not mean that we will be successful, what it means is that it is no longer impossible. We finally reach the point that the pain of carrying on drinking exceeds the pain of stopping and we give it a try. But it is only when we first stop drinking that we fully feel the extent to which we are captured by alcohol. In previous attempts we have lasted one, two or three days before drinking again but we have never before felt the full intensity of cravings or the non-stop head chatter. It is a huge step to accept that we have to stop drinking, but it is an even bigger step to sustain that belief against an incessant barrage of self-sabotage. We aren’t prepared for the extent to which our own mind will try to convince us to drink. Very few are already sufficiently convinced of the necessity of their course to overcome this self-sabotage and the great majority will fall for it. Some will manage a few days, some a few weeks, and some fall into a prolonged pattern of stopping for a spell then drinking again. But with successive efforts we get better at recognising and dismissing our own sabotaging thoughts and we achieve longer stretches of sobriety.
If we stop for a month or more then we not only weaken a lot of our drinking triggers but our brain undoes many of the changes it made to compensate for regular alcohol-impairment. If we do drink again however we immediately start re-strengthening our drinking triggers. We strengthen a drinking trigger when we drink in response to the craving it launched and we weaken the trigger when we don’t. But the reward system evolved to accommodate changing circumstances and one aspect of how it does this is significant if we stop drinking for a period and then start again. This feature of the reward system is illustrated by how its triggers respond to a seasonal fruit. When the fruit first comes into season then we take it and establish a trigger. If the fruit remains available then each time we take some we are driven more strongly toward it, and the trigger increases in strength for as long as that fruit remains available. But if we keep doing this when the fruit ceases to be in season then we would waste a lot of time and energy searching for fruit that will never be found. When the fruiting stops then the trigger to seek it out begins to fail, loses strength and our interest in the fruit reduces. But it is what the reward system does when that fruit comes back into season that is most important to us. When the fruit becomes available again then it would be inefficient to slowly bring that trigger back up to strength. If that fruit comes back into season then the most beneficial response is to restore that trigger to its full strength quickly, and this is precisely how the reward system behaves. The trigger for that fruit became weakened when the fruit was out of season, but it is still there. When fruit becomes available again then what remains of that trigger still motivates us somewhat to approach and take the fruit, and then it is re-strengthened. But this time it isn’t strengthened a little, it is strengthened a lot. If old triggers become re-activated then they assume their full former strength very quickly, and after only a few cycles of seeing and partaking of the fruit then that trigger is restored to its full prior strength. Triggers may lose their strength through repeated failure but they are never forgotten because they may become helpful again at some time in the future. They regain their former strength very quickly once they start to become successful again and unfortunately for us this is precisely what happens to all of our alcohol-related triggers. Drinking triggers may lose their strength through successive failure but they are never forgotten. We put huge effort into overcoming them and stripping their strength but we never remove them completely. They sit there waiting to be reinvigorated, and when we drink again they recover their former strength alarmingly quickly.
Most people will not manage to remain alcohol-free at their first attempt because the challenge posed by our self-sabotage is unfamiliar, severe and relentless; we don’t know how to deal with it. One of the issues we face after a period of abstinence is that our mind begins to tell us that we have been successful and that we have beaten the problem. This is a deception but it is a seductive one. There are five changes that create this illusion; cravings lose their intensity, the effects of alcohol-tolerance reverse themselves out, the distance from despair means that we are no longer propelled by the need to escape our hopelessness, and Fading Effect Bias and our biased memory tell us that our drinking we a good thing.
After a period without alcohol then we feel better within ourselves and we seem to be coping with the cravings we meet. This creates the illusion that maybe we can control it now, but we can’t. Any attempt to return to drinking in a moderate way is guaranteed to fail sooner or later.
We might try drinking again within certain limits, like only on a Friday after work, but we cannot hold firm to this boundary. We may succeed in limiting our drinking like this for the first few times but on the occasions that we do drink we strongly reinvigorate the triggers relating to the circumstances. We strengthen triggers relating to the time, to the particular location and to certain people, but we also strengthen some universal triggers: the sight of alcohol and the smell of alcohol. We don’t just strengthen the triggers associated with Friday after work we also strengthen them for any time we smell or see (or see in pictures, or imagine) alcohol. Each Friday we strengthen these triggers further and soon we find ourselves justifying drinking on “special occasions” outside the boundary we set. Once this happens then we strengthen more and more triggers and soon our reward system resumes its runaway state. We are no more able to keep our drinking to within certain bounds than we were before and sooner or later the triggers once again overtake our ability to manage them. If we try to return to moderate drinking without holding ourselves to strict boundaries then we bring all our main drinking triggers back up to their former strength very quickly and it takes only a few drinking sessions for our reward system to return to its runaway state.
But reinvigorating our drinking triggers is not the only consequence of relapse, something else happens that is far more serious. While we drank heavily then our brain adapted to regular alcohol impairment by accelerating processing speed and raising readiness to respond to an emergency. These changes kept us safer while we drank but left us anxious and depressed etc. when we were sober, and drinking to relieve the symptoms of alcohol-tolerance trapped us into the vicious cycle of addiction. All of the changes that come with alcohol-tolerance reverse back to normal levels once we are alcohol-free again for a period. But when our brain function is once again impaired by regular and high blood/alcohol levels then our brain recognises that it has met these conditions before and it reinstates all the remedial measures that were previously effective. All of the changes that our brain made when becoming alcohol-tolerant are put back in place. Our mood is lowered, our brain is speeded up, and anxiety and depression return. But this time the change doesn’t happen over the months or years that it took the first time, this time it happens within days.
We can no more control our drinking after a period of abstinence than we could before and this is thoroughly proven to us if we try. Within only a few days of resuming regular drinking we are thrown right back to the same state of fear, anxiety, restlessness and hopelessness that had previously taken years to accumulate. When our brain reinstates the defensive measures of alcohol-tolerance then we once again drink to relieve the symptoms of drinking and this locks our addiction back into place. Once we do this then our descent into hopelessness continues from where it left off. If however we have the presence of mind to stop after only having a few drinks then our brain does not re-implement the changes of alcohol-tolerance. Taking a few drinks and then returning to abstinence re-strengthens a few triggers, but that is all. That is all except for the intense feeling of failure.
The consistent advice given to people that have relapsed is that we should get straight back up and give it another go but the emotional consequences of relapse can be crushing. It feels like complete and total failure. We have failed in front of those close to us, we have failed in front of our peers, and we have failed ourselves. All we had to do was one simple thing, something that everyone else in the world seems able to do quite easily. But somehow we could not do it and the position seems to be more hopeless than ever. Not only have we failed ourselves we have failed everyone else and it seems that we really are the hopeless alcoholic that everyone says we are; it is a complete collapse of self-worth. Under these conditions it is extremely difficult to follow the advice given… to get back up and start again. The monstrous sense of failure makes us want to do one thing, and one thing only… to get drunk. But if we do this then we will quickly recommit ourselves onto a course into destruction. If we pursue this course then we will again have to sink to a terrible low before again reaching that point that point of desperation that powers our need to escape. This could take months and have untold consequences. What we need to do is stand ourselves up again quickly before we make things even worse.
We need to radically change how we perceive relapse so that it does not itself become a barrier to recovery. The way to do this is to abandon the expectation that we should become alcohol-free at our first attempt, and we should do this because it is ridiculous. There is always a progression of steps we go through before we are able to achieve long-term sobriety, and we fail them, some of them many times, before we gain long-lasting freedom. Before we even try to stop we have already failed on many, many occasions to limit the amount we drink. We also drank on occasions we intended not to, we drank on days we said we wouldn’t, and we failed to not drink for set periods of time. Each of these taught us that the challenge is sterner than we think. We gradually improve our ability to become alcohol-free, and we do this on the back of successive failures, some of which may be relapses.
Nobody ever says “Day 1 again, and it was totally worth it!” Relapse feels dreadful, like complete failure, but it shouldn’t because it isn’t even unusual; it is the norm. Stopping drinking isn’t like a test that we pass or fail; it is like a skill that we learn. When we were learning to ride a bike we often fell. It wasn’t what we were trying to achieve, we didn’t do it on purpose, and we didn’t fall because we weren’t trying hard enough. We fell because we lacked the skill not to. But we weren’t thrown into despair when we fell off and we weren’t because there was no expectation that we would be successful at our first attempt. Sure, we got some scrapes, and our pride was a bit hurt, but we didn’t give up and walk away, we got up and tried again. Stopping drinking is also a skill to be learned, but for some perverse reason the expectation is quite different. The expectation is that we should succeed at the first attempt, but this defies reason and it ignores reality. It is so unrealistic it is almost absurd. Very few people get sober at their first attempt and those that do suffered countless failures prior to their even trying. We don’t just get one chance at learning to ride a bike and if we did then nobody would ever succeed. If we were expected to successfully ride a bike at our first attempt then almost everyone would fail and feel dejected. But that is not the assumption. We are told that we will learn to ride a bike if we practise and persist, so we keep trying until we succeed. We should engage that same expectation to stopping drinking. We learn to ride a bike by advancing through successive failures and this also how we learn to stop drinking. At first we are insecure and wobbly on a bike. We fall many times before we will even lift our feet fully to the pedals, and even when we do we may still fall at any moment. But with practice we become more secure and more confident, and eventually we are able to go freely, in any direction we like, and we barely need to think about it at all. We learn to ride a bike through successive failures, but eventually we become able to do so with nearly no effort and this is the also how we stop drinking. We improve our ability with application and practice. Relapse, if it happens, isn’t some heinous failure. It isn’t what we were trying to achieve but we had not yet gained sufficient skill to avoid it. It isn’t failure, it is education, and it is the learning that will allow us to succeed.
Even though it feels like it at the time we are not right back to the beginning and starting all over again. Nothing is lost and we are not back at the start of recovery. We still know everything that we have learned thus far and we just learned something new. A relapse does not put us back at the beginning of our recovery; it is a pause in the journey and no more. In fact, as long as we learn from the event, it advances us. If you have just relapsed then you should remember that the problem hasn’t got worse because of it, the problem has not changed. You are still an alcoholic. You still can’t limit or control your drinking, and continued drinking will drive you further along the downward spiral into despair. It had to stop, and it still has to stop. The problem is unchanged. What is changed though is your ability to succeed. Recovery is built from the experience of near-misses and relapse and it is these that advance us into a life without alcohol.
We had to fall in order to learn to ride a bike, and stopping drinking sometimes requires similar learning. We often count days since we last drank as the measurement of success but it is important to recognise just what this is, or more significantly, what it is not. The number of sober days we have accumulated only means the number of consecutive days of abstinence. But this is not a measure of recovery; it is a measure of sobriety. Recovery is not determined by the number of days since our last drink but by gains to our mental wellness, and the two can be quite independent of each other. If we drink again then our length of continuous sobriety is lost but our recovery isn’t. We don’t have to go right back to the beginning and start the process all over again. When we fell off the bicycle we weren’t put back at the start of learning how to ride, we were exactly as far advanced along that path as we were when we fell. Nothing was lost other that a bit of pride and skin. Everything that had been learned is still learned, and because of this fall we would do better at our next attempt. Relapse while trying to stop drinking is precisely like this; we are not put back at the start of recovery. We still know everything that we have learned thus far and we have just learned something new. If we have just confirmed that we never regain control of our drinking then this is an invaluable lesson that is well worth the cost in hurt pride. A relapse does not put us back at the beginning of our recovery. In fact, as long as we learn from the experience, it advances us.
Stopping drinking is difficult and we don’t fully understand how difficult it is until we try it in earnest. As we start out we are completely unaware of the full ferocity of cravings or all the ways that our minds will try to trick us into drinking again. We only discover this as we go along and sometimes they catch us out and we drink. But relapse isn’t failure, it is education. If we relapse then it is a necessary learning step on the path to recovery. A relapse hasn’t made the problem worse, the problem is unchanged. What has changed though is our ability to overcome it.
Nobody ever said we only get one chance at getting sober; we don’t, we get as many as it takes, and it took many failures before we began to even try. All of these were building a better understanding of the problem, and relapse is learning too. Once we’ve recognised that we can’t control our drinking then we bite the bullet and try to stop completely. But only a few succeed at their first attempt because most still have more learning to do. While we can take some knowledge from books, or from other people in recovery, there are some things that may not fully believe without first-hand experience and the idea that we can never drink again is one of these. So we drink again to find out and when we do so we discover that the books were right, and what people said was right, and we have now confirmed it for ourselves. If relapse is the price we pay for fully learning this then it is worth it.
The experience of relapse is desperately uncomfortable, so try to learn the lesson and move on again. We don’t need to possess some rare talent to stop drinking, what we need is to keep learning so that we can continue to make progress. If we relapsed then we did so because on that occasion the urgency of a craving exceeded our resolve to resist it, so identify the issue. Was the problem failing at a big craving? In that case we need to work more carefully on spacing them out further, removing some completely, or reducing their impact. Or was it a failure of resolve? Did we stop following our recovery routine? Did we stop doing something that was keeping us well? Or did we start doing something we should not have, or weren’t ready for yet? We do not relapse without a cause, so don’t just dismiss it as not having tried hard enough; identify what you could have done that would have prevented it, and include that in your routine.
Regardless of how long we remain sober we are never completely free from the possibility of relapse and recovery from alcoholism should be regarded as bringing the condition into remission rather than achieving a cure. If we ever think that we have beaten addiction and can have “just one” then we will soon discover to our dismay that our drinking is again completely beyond our control. We can stop drinking and alter our condition so that it no longer interferes with our lives but we can’t remove our addiction completely; those drinking triggers are still there and they always will be. So too is the inability to form proper alcohol-avoiding triggers. In this respect we are never completely cured because the roots of alcoholism remain in the reward system forever. If we ever drink again then we will re-invigorate the triggers we acted on, and if we continue to drink then alcohol-tolerance will quickly re-establish itself. We will soon find ourselves exactly back where we were. This is not something that sometimes happens; it is something that always happens. Recovery is not something we do once; it is something we continue to do forever.