Chapter 7: Recovery and Relapse

Chapter 7 Page 74
Recovery and Relapse

Many people think that recovery is simply a matter of not using drugs. They consider a relapse a sign of complete failure, and long periods of abstinence a sign of complete success. We in the recovery program of Narcotics Anonymous have found that this perception is too simplistic. After a member has had some involvement in our Fellowship, a relapse may be the jarring experience that brings about a more rigorous application of the program. By the same token we have observed some members who remain abstinent for long periods of time whose dishonesty and self-deceit still prevent them from enjoying complete recovery and acceptance within society. Complete and continuous abstinence, however, in close association and identification with others in N.A. groups, is still the best ground for growth.

Although all addicts are basically the same in kind, we do, as individuals, differ in degree of sickness and rate of recovery. There may be times when a relapse lays the groundwork for complete freedom. At other times that freedom can only be achieved by a grim and obstinate willfulness to hang on to abstinence come hell or high water until a crisis passes. An addict, who by any means can lose, even for a time, the need or desire to use, and has free choice over impulsive thinking and compulsive action, has reached a turning point that may be the decisive factor in his recovery. The feeling of true independence and freedom hangs here at times in the balance. To step out alone and run our own lives again draws us, yet we seem to know that what we have has come from dependence on a Power greater than ourselves

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and from the giving and receiving of help from others in acts of empathy. Many times in our recovery the old bugaboos will haunt us. Life may again become meaningless, monotonous and boring. We may tire mentally in repeating our new ideas and tire physically in our new activities, yet we know that if we fail to repeat them we will surely take up our old practices. We suspect that if we do not use what we have, we will lose what we have. These times are often the periods of our greatest growth. Our minds and bodies seem tired of it all, yet the dynamic forces of change or true conversion, deep within, may be working to give us the answers that alter our inner motivations and change our lives.

Recovery as experienced through our Twelve Steps is our goal, not mere physical abstinence. To improve ourselves takes effort, and since there is no way in the world to graft a new idea on a closed mind, an opening must be made somehow. Since we can do this only for ourselves, we need to recognize two of our seemingly inherent enemies, apathy and procrastination. Our resistance to change seems built in, and only a nuclear blast of some kind will bring about any alteration or initiate another course of action. A relapse, if we survive it, may provide the charge for the demolition process. A relapse and sometimes subsequent death of someone close to us can do the job of awakening us to the necessity for vigorous personal action.

We have seen addicts come to our fellowship, try our Program and stay clean for a period of time. They lost contact with other recovering addicts and eventually returned to active addiction. They forgot that it is really the first fix, pill, drink, snort or toke that starts the deadly cycle all over again. They tried to control it, to use in moderation, or to use just certain drugs. None of these worked for them.

Relapse is a reality. It can and does happen. Experience

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shows that those who do not work our Program of recovery on a daily basis may relapse. We see them come back seeking recovery. Maybe they were clean for years before their relapse. If they are lucky enough to make it back, they are shaken badly. They tell us that the relapse was more horrible than before they first found N.A. We have never seen a person relapse who lives the Narcotics Anonymous program.

Relapses are often fatal. We have attended funerals of loved ones who died from a relapse. They died in various ways. Other times we see relapsers lost for years, living in misery. Those who make it to jail or institutions may survive longer and perhaps have a reintroduction to N.A.

In our daily lives we are subject to emotional and spiritual lapses, causing us to become defenseless against the physical relapse of drug use. As an incurable disease, drug addiction is subject to relapse.

We are never forced into relapse. We are given a choice. Relapse is never an accident. Relapse is a sign that we have had a reservation in our program. We slighted our program and left loopholes in our daily lives. Unaware of the pitfalls ahead, we stumbled blindly on in the belief we could make it on our own. Sooner or later we fell back into the illusions that drugs would make life easier. We believed that drugs would change us, and we forgot that these changes are lethal. When we believe that drugs will solve our problems and forget what they can do to us, we are in real trouble. Unless the illusions are shattered that we, in any way can continue to use or stop using on our own, we most certainly sign our own death warrant. For some reason, not taking care of our personal affairs lowers our self-esteem and that sets up a pattern that repeats itself in all areas of our lives. If we begin to avoid our new responsibilities by missing meetings, neglecting Twelve Step work, or not getting involved, our Program stops. These are the kinds of things that lead to relapse. We may sense a change coming over us. Our ability to remain open-minded disappears. We may become angry and resentful toward anyone or anything.

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We may begin to reject those who were close to us. We isolate ourselves. We become sick of ourselves in a short time. We revert back to our sickest behavior patterns without even having to use drugs.

When a resentment or any other emotional upheaval occurs, failure to practice the steps can result in a relapse. Obsessive behavior is a common denominator for addictive people.

We have times when we try to fill ourselves up until we are satisfied, only to discover that there is no way to satisfy us. Part of our addictive pattern is that we can never get enough of whatever we think we want. Sometimes we forget and we think that if we can just get enough food or enough sex or enough money we’ll be satisfied and everything will be all right. Self-will still leads us to make decisions based on manipulation, ego, lust or false pride. We don’t like to be wrong. Our egos tell us that we can do it on our own, but loneliness and paranoia quickly return. We find that we cannot really do it alone; when we try things get worse. We need to be reminded of where we came from and that it will get progressively worse if we use. This is when we need the fellowship the most.

We don’t recover overnight. When we realize that we have made a bad decision or bad judgment, our inclination is to make an attempt to rationalize it. We often become extreme in our self-obsessive attempt to cover our tracks. We forget we have a choice today. We get sicker.

There is something in our self-destructive personalities that cries for failure. Most of us feel that we do not deserve to succeed. This is a common theme with addicts. Self-pity is one of the most destructive of defects. It will drain us of all positive energy. We focus on anything that isn’t going our way and ignore all the beauty in our lives. With no real desire to improve our lives, or even to live, we just keep going further and further down. Some of us never make it back.

We must relearn many things that we have forgotten and develop a new approach to life if we are to survive. This is what Narcotics Anonymous is all about. It is about people who care

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about desperate, dying addicts and who can, in time, teach them how to live without drugs. Many of us had difficulty coming into the fellowship because we did not understand that we have the disease of addiction. We sometimes see our past behavior as part of ourselves and not part of our disease.

We take the First Step. We admit we are powerless over our addiction, that our lives have become unmanageable. Slowly things get better and we start getting our confidence back. Our ego tells us we can do it on our own. Things are getting better and we think we really don’t need this program. Cockiness is a red light indicator. The loneliness and paranoia will come back. We find out we can’t do it on our own and things get worse. We really take the First Step, this time internally. There will be times, however, when we really feel like using. We want to run, and we feel lousy; we need to be reminded of where we came from and that it will be worse this time. This is when we need the program the most. We realize we must do something.

When we forget the effort and work it took us to get a period of freedom in our lives, lack of gratitude sinks in and self- destruction begins again. Unless action is taken immediately we run the risk of a relapse, which threatens our very existence. Keeping our illusion of reality, rather than using the tools of the program, will return us to isolation. Loneliness will kill us inside and the drugs, which almost always come next, may do the job completely. The symptoms and the feelings we experienced at the end of our using will come back even stronger than before. This impact is sure to destroy us if we don’t surrender ourselves to the N.A. program.

Relapse can be the destructive force that kills us or leads us to the realization of who and what we really are. The eventual misery of using is not worth the temporary escape it might give us. For us, to use is to die, often in more ways than one.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks seems to be in placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves or others. Relationships can be a terribly painful area. We tend to fantasize and project what will happen. We get angry and resentful if our

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fantasies are not fulfilled. We forget that we are powerless over other people. The old thinking and feelings of loneliness, despair, helplessness and self-pity creep in. Thoughts of sponsors, meetings, literature and all other positive input leave our consciousness. We have to keep our recovery first and our priorities in order.

Writing about what we want, what we are asking for, and what we get and sharing this with our sponsor or another trusted person helps us to work through negative feelings. Letting others share with us about their experience gives us hope that it does get better. It seems that being powerless is a huge stumbling block. When a need arises for us to admit our powerlessness, we may first look for ways to exert power against it. Exhausting these ways, we begin sharing with others and find hope. Attending meetings daily, living a day at a time, and reading literature seems to send our mental attitude back toward the positive. Willingness to try what has worked for others is vital. Even when we feel that we don’t want to attend, meetings are a source of strength and hope for us.

It is important to share our feelings of wanting to use drugs. It is amazing how often newcomers think that it is really abnormal for a drug addict to want to use. When we feel the old urges come over us, we think there must be something wrong with us, and that other people in Narcotics Anonymous couldn’t possibly understand.

It is important to remember that the desire to use will pass. We never have to use again, no matter how we feel. All feelings will eventually pass.

The progression of recovery is a continuous uphill journey. Without effort we start the downhill run again. The progression of the disease is an ongoing process, even during abstinence.

We come here powerless, and the power we seek comes to us through other people in Narcotics Anonymous, but we must reach out for it. Now clean and in the fellowship, we need to keep ourselves surrounded by others who know us well. We need

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each other. Narcotics Anonymous is a fellowship of survival, and one of its advantages is that it places us in intimate, regular contact with the very people who can best understand and help us in our recovery. Good ideas and good intentions do not help if we fail to put them into action. Reaching out is the beginning of the struggle that will set us free. It will break down the walls that imprison us. A symptom of our disease is alienation, and honest sharing will free us to recover.

We are grateful that we were made so welcome at meetings that we felt comfortable. Without staying clean and coming to those meetings, we would surely have had a rougher time with the steps. Just one fix, pill, drink, snort, or toke will interrupt the process of recovery.

We all find that the feeling we get from helping others motivates us to do better in our own lives. If we are hurting, and most of us do from time to time, we learn to ask for help. We find that pain shared is pain lessened. Members of the Fellowship are willing to help a relapser recover and have insight and useful suggestions to offer when asked. Recovery found in Narcotics Anonymous must come from within, and no one stays clean for anyone but themselves.

In our disease, we are dealing with a destructive, at times violent, power greater than ourselves that can lead to relapse. If we have relapsed, it is important to keep in mind that we must get back to meetings as soon as possible. Otherwise, we may have only months, days, or hours before we reach a threshold where we are gone beyond recall. Our disease is so cunning that it can get us into impossible situations. When it does, we come back to the program if we can, while we can. Once we use, we are under the control of our disease.

We never fully recover, no matter how long we’ve been clean. Complacency is the enemy of members with substantial clean time. If we remain complacent for long, the recovery process ceases. The disease will manifest apparent symptoms in us. Denial returns, along with obsession and compulsion. Guilt, remorse, fear and pride may become unbearable. Soon we reach

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a place where our backs are against the wall. Denial and the First Step conflict in our minds. If we let the obsession of using overcome us, we are doomed. Only a complete and total acceptance of the First Step can save us. We must totally surrender ourselves to the Program.

The first thing to do is to get clean. This makes the other stages of recovery possible. As long as we stay clean, no matter what, we have the greatest possible advantage over our disease. For this we are grateful.

Many of us get clean in a protected environment, such as a rehabilitation center or recovery house. When reentering the world, we feel lost, confused and vulnerable. Going to meetings as often as available will reduce the shock of change. Meetings provide a safe place to share with others during this time. We begin to live the program; we learn to apply spiritual principles in our lives. We must use what we learn or we will lose it in a relapse.

Many of us would have had nowhere else to go, if we could not have trusted N.A. groups and members. At first, we were both captivated and intimidated by the fellowship. No longer comfortable with our using friends, we were not yet at home in the meetings. We began to lose our fear through the experience of sharing. The more we did this, the more our fears slipped away. We shared for this reason. Growth means change. Spiritual maintenance means ongoing recovery, and isolation is dangerous to spiritual growth.

Those of us who find the fellowship and begin to live the steps develop some kind of relationship with others. As we grow, we learn to overcome the tendency to run and hide from ourselves and our feelings. Being honest about our feelings helps others to identify with us. We find that when we communicate honestly we reach others better. Honesty takes practice and none of us claims to be perfect. When we feel trapped or pressured, it takes great spiritual and emotional strength to be honest. Sharing with others keeps us from feeling isolated and alone. This process is a creative action of the spirit.

When we work the program we are living the steps daily. This

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gives us experience in applying spiritual principles. The experience we gain with time helps our ongoing recovery. We must use what we learn or we will lose it, no matter how long we have been clean. Eventually we are shown that we must get honest or we will use again. We pray for willingness and humility and finally get honest about our mistaken judgements or bad decisions. We tell those who we hurt that we were to blame and make whatever amends are necessary. Now we are in the solution again. We are working the program. It becomes easier to work the program now. We know that the steps help prevent relapse.

Relapsers may also fall into another trap. We may doubt that we can stop using and stay clean. We can never stay clean on our own. Frustrated, we cry, “I cannot do it!” We beat ourselves as we come back into the program. We imagine that our fellow members will not respect the courage it takes to come back. We have learned the utmost respect for that type of courage. We applaud heartily. It is not shameful to relapse- the shame is in not coming back. We must smash the illusion that we can do it alone.

Another type of relapser does not keep being clean as top priority. Staying clean must always come first. At times, we all experience difficulty in our recovery. Emotional lapses result from not putting into practice what we have learned. Those who make it through these times show a courage not their own. After coming through one of these periods, we can readily agree that it is always darkest before the dawn. Once we get through a difficult time clean, we are given a tool of recovery that we can use again and again.

If we relapse, we may feel guilt and embarrassment. Our relapse is embarrassing, but we cannot save our face and our ass at the same time. We find it best to get back on the program as soon as possible. It is better to swallow our pride than to die or go permanently insane.

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As long as we maintain an attitude of being thankful for being clean, we find it is easier to remain clean. The best way to express gratitude is by carrying the message of our experience, strength and hope to the still-suffering addict. We are ready to work with any suffering addict.

Living the program on a daily basis provides many valuable experiences. If we are plagued by an obsession to use, experience has taught us to call a fellow recovering addict and get to a meeting.

Using addicts are self-centered, angry, frightened and lonely people. In recovery we experience spiritual growth. While using we were dishonest, self-seeking and often institutionalized. The program allows us to become responsible and productive members of society.

As we begin to function in society, our creative freedom helps us sort our priorities and do the basic things first. Daily practice of our Twelve Step program enables us to change from what we were to what our Higher Power would have us become. With the help of our sponsor or spiritual advisor, gradually we learn to trust and depend on our Higher Power as we understand it.