The stigma attached to addiction pervades our collective consciousness. To casual observers who aren’t touched by addiction either personally or through family, addiction seems like a personal failing. For the recovery community and families of addicts, we know better than that. We understand that the disease of addiction presents as a morally neutral medical condition that requires treatment paired with the will and desire to recover. The recovery community offers a lot of wisdom and compassion toward the ugly side of addiction. But that understanding naturally comes with a constant vigilance toward relapse. All of the warning and constant harping about the danger of relapse can contribute to a lot of shame if it does occur. This shame disheartens us and can make addicts and alcoholics in recovery feel lost.
It is a natural reaction to feel upset and embarrassed that, despite being educated about its psychology, the disease of addiction won anyway. But relapse shame contains the potential to either become a crushing weight or a tool for a happier sobriety moving forward.
Although addiction classifies as a medical disease, its behavioral symptoms put a unique burden on the individuals who suffer with it. It’s the catch-22 of all mental illnesses: diseases require individual agency to treat, but mental illness compromises agency through distorted thinking symptoms. Active addiction rewires the brain to function differently than it did before substances were introduced into the system. It hijacks the brain’s reward circuit into prioritizing the substance over basic necessities like food and personal safety. This dynamic feels incredibly unfair. But addiction is not insurmountable. The potential for recovery exists for those who are, as they say in AA/NA, sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Unfortunately, addiction is not like a light switch. The brain cannot simply let go of its reliance on unnatural floods of dopamine, serotonin, and other chemicals that regulate mood. So it takes time for the brain to settle back to normal patterns of functioning. Getting to that point is where personal responsibility comes in.
Using Relapse Shame as a Tool
Recovery requires a lot of work and personal accountability. The amount of work needed, along with being connected to a fellowship network, is part of why relapse feels so shameful. It feels like an indictment of failure. But it is important to remember that the feeling of indictment is not the same as actually being found guilty of failure–feelings are not facts. Of course, relapse is not a victory in any sense. But it does not have to be a failure either. Relapse shame can be used as a tool to stave off relapse going forward.
One of the most important lessons learned from a relapse is the insidious nature of the disease. “Cunning, baffling, powerful” is how the big book describes the phenomenon. While this is a large issue to take to task, it is far from impossible. It just takes a change in perspective.
Transform Relapse Shame into an Armory of Self-Knowledge
Addicts and alcoholics in recovery see the most success when armed with the facts. Those facts? That you are statistically likely to use again simply because that is what the brain habitually wants to do. But also that recovery works for a large amount of people. Those people are also working against the odds, but they are succeeding. Although the odds feel stacked, you absolutely have the capacity to follow the statistic of sobriety instead of relapse. A few simple (but not easy) pointers for overcoming relapse shame:
Put down the baseball bat.
There is no need to beat yourself up about relapse. It already happened. The only way to move on is forward.
Don’t blame the trigger, own the action.
That relapse happened for a reason. It was not because of an external trigger. It was either a conscious action to engage in a risky situation, giving in to denial, or a reaction to an unexpected trigger. Consider how working a program teaches you how to either avoid or react to triggers in a constructive way. They always occur somewhere in time and space. The only control you have is over yourself to either avoid them entirely or practice contrary action (i.e., going to a meeting instead of picking up).
Always be working a program.
People with the longest periods of sobriety mostly say the same thing. Read the big book, go to meetings, get a sponsor. These are simple enough to do upfront. But the trick is maintenance. Working a program means continuing to do these things even after it doesn’t seem necessary anymore. Most relapses occur after individuals decide that they don’t need to work a program anymore.
Consider help outside of the program.
Addiction recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART recovery, and other modalities are very effective. But sometimes individuals need a step beyond that. Trauma history in particular calls for a higher level of care. For many, the first step in recovery is inpatient detox and residential care. These types of facilities offer both group and individual therapy.
Moving Forward in Recovery
Again, these steps appear simple, but they are not easy. The same holds true for working the 12 steps. Sponsors assist newcomers to work the steps thoroughly. Finding a good sponsor that works for you is the first step. They also help reinforce the message that you are not defined by your relapse shame, but rather your choice to move beyond it.