Overcoming the stigma of relapse


One of the many sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous is “AA will ruin your drinking.” For the alcoholic, what this means is once someone admits to being an alcoholic and begins attending meetings, that person can never again drink with a clear conscience. It also means AA causes the scales to fall from one’s eyes and he or she sees for the first time how destructive drinking addiction is.

The will to abandon will

Four out of five alcoholics will relapse at some point in their recovery. In fact, relapse is so prevalent, some treatment programs simply treat it as part of the recovery process. But this is of small comfort to someone grappling with the guilt of relapse who hears in a meeting, “You never have to drink again if you don’t want to.” To an aching and demoralized soul, this is tantamount to saying, “You just have to have the willpower to overcome taking that first drink.” But the Third Step tells the alcoholic he must turn his will and life over to the care of a Higher Power.

Don’t argue with success

AA is a remarkably successful organization which claims no real organization. Statistics are scant on how many people have gotten sober over the years by following AA’s program of 12 Steps. AA’s credo of anonymity prevents it from publishing these numbers. But courts routinely require drunk drivers to attend meetings. Most residential and outpatient treatment programs use the 12-Steps as their basis. The model has been adopted for other addictions, such as gambling, overeating and sex. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, the founders, lit on the idea that one alcoholic talking to another provides more therapeutic salve than psychiatry or religion. This belief has remained unchanged for 75 years.

Tallying a lifetime of days

Some argue AA and other 12 Step-based recovery programs have one serious flaw. These programs tell the newcomer he only has to stay sober one day at a time; yet, they celebrate longevity. Most old-timers, as long-term sober individuals are known, explain their success by saying they approached sobriety one day at a time. These individuals are held in high esteem by other alcoholics, as they should be. Sobriety is difficult in a world of alcohol and drugs. The problem has to do with how the recovery community reacts to relapse, particularly an old-timer’s relapse: it is nothing short of a Greek tragedy. The community roils. “What happened?” “What did he do wrong?” “What was the reason? There has to be a reason.” For an old-timer to relapse simply confounds the group logic and no one rests until that reason is ferreted out.

Assigning guilt when none is due

Relapse cannot go unexplained. If someone follows AA’s Steps and adheres to the tenets of the program, relapse simply should not occur — according to the Big Book. It is only when someone goes astray that he runs the risk of falling off the wagon. But what this pragmatic diagnosis fails to take into account is human beings are infinitely complex. Alcoholics are complex, damaged people. They have a physical addiction to alcohol. Studies have shown that an alcoholic’s pleasure center in the brain responds to alcohol the same way it responds to sex or other stimuli. Most alcoholics stop maturing emotionally at the age they begin drinking alcoholically. A 45-year-old alcoholic who began drinking at age 15, responds to the world with the emotions of a 15-year-old. It is remarkable that any alcoholic maintains long-term sobriety.

AA, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and other recovery programs reward longevity. This is to be expected. An addict or alcoholic who stays sober is cause for celebration. But it is just as important for the addict or alcoholic who relapses to understand that they are just as important as someone who picks up a 20-year chip. It is always progress, not perfection.

Tossed out of Eden

The most important person at any sobriety support group meeting is arguably the newcomer. One who has relapsed may feel tainted, while the freshly detoxed newcomer has a slate wiped clean. The backslid group member is still part of the community, but perhaps feels outcast. He or she may avoid returning, insecure his or her Scarlet Letter burns too bright.

Forgive and prevent

Sobriety support groups utilize the animal kingdom pack mentality. The group typically encourage newcomers to stick with the winners and stay within the middle of the pack. The unspoken implication here seems to be, those who relapse are losers. The reality however, is if you relapse, forgive yourself. Life is hard enough as is. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over.

Here are some warning signs that an alcoholic might be heading for a relapse:

  • Stinking thinking — the alcoholic no longer believes he is an alcoholic.
  • Indications of mounting stress could signal relapse; these include mood swings.
  • Recurrence of Post-acute Withdrawal Symptoms — PAWS:  Anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and memory loss can continue long after a person stops drinking or doing drugs.
  • Social breakdown, as alcoholics often find it’s difficult to socialize because they no longer have alcohol as a crutch.
  • An out-of-control alcoholic is teetering on the brink of relapse.

White River Academy is a residential boarding school located at the edge of the majestic Great Basin in Delta, Utah. White River focuses on treating young men with addiction and mental health disorders. If your teen is embattled on both fronts: trying to grow up and fighting addiction; a healthy hub for fellowship an education can be found here at White River Academy. Our holistic treatment modalities and adventurous outings can keep your teen sound, above the detrimental stigma of relapse.

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