A step along the recovery pathway

bike

This guest post on relapse comes from treasured community member @daveh. He shares his wisdom often here on this site, and has also written three books on the subject of alcoholism which he generously offers for free on his website here.

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The biggest thing with relapse is trying to overcome the crushing sense of complete and utter failure and getting back to what has to be done.

In my early days of sobriety I could see people falling all around me. I had to prepare myself in case that happened to me too. I needed to build the case that would get me back on the wagon instead of hitting the bottle even harder to make up for lost time.

Relapse isn’t failure, it is education. It's not the end of a recovery effort; rather it is an essential step on the path to recovery. It is only through successive failures that we finally learn how to overcome the addiction and then how to remain alcohol-free.

Learning to be alcohol-free is very much like learning to ride a bicycle. The first challenge is to manage staying upright while making forward progress. How many times did I fall before achieving that? But once I’d learned how to maintain balance and move in the direction I wanted there were still many occasions when I fell… because the problem had changed. Yes, I knew how to keep my balance, but sometimes I grew over-confident, and sometimes something unforeseen happened and I’d be down on the tar seal again.

We don’t just get one chance at learning to ride a bike. If we did, then nobody would ever succeed. When we fell it wasn’t because we chose to, it was because we lacked the expertise not to. We had to fall in order to learn; we learn by our mistakes.

Stopping drinking requires similar learning. Relapse isn’t failure; it is the growth that allows us to succeed. Even though it feels like it at the time, we don’t have to go right back to the beginning and start the process all over again.

When I fell off the bike I wasn’t put back at the start of learning how to ride, I was exactly as far advanced along that path as I was when I fell. Nothing was lost other than a bit of pride and skin. Everything that had been learned was still learned and because of this I would achieve more at my next attempt. Relapse while trying to stop drinking is precisely like this.

Nothing is lost. 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. In fact, as long as we learn the lesson of the event, it advances us.

If you have just relapsed then you should remember that the problem hasn’t got worse because of it, it is exactly the same. 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 of despair. It has to stop. You have to stop drinking if your life is going to improve. The problem is unchanged. What IS changed though is your ability to beat it. Recovery is built on the experience of relapse. It is these failures and near misses that allow us to progress into a life without alcohol; but only if we learn from them.

Nothing is lost in a relapse, but much is gained. Picking up a drink may set our “sober days” counter back to the start, but not our recovery. Our recovery is progressed by it.

@daveh

12 Comments
  1. belle 2 months ago

    I love this post, I’m new to AA and I have already seen 2 people I have gotten close to in the past month relapse. It has broken my heart. I’m praying to my higher power that I don’t relapse, but I’m trying to put everything I can into investing in my sobriety.

  2. Trijntje 5 months ago

    Thank you @daveh for the books!!! Understanding process going on in my brain will help surely to get on top. In my teenage years I was given for 8 years amphetamines based slimming pills. This has started a confusion in my brain. Basically stuffed up my life. I only started drinking at 25 to cope with life. I will read the books again and recommend to my gp if he has more unfortunate souls like me!
    I feel that I have a tool know to stop the eternal cycle of the devastation of alcohol addiction. Thanks again

  3. bob.k 5 months ago

    Hi daveh I don’t believe a relapse “is an essential step on the path to recovery” one of my reasons for saying this that while we all know we have lots of drinking left in us we don’t know for sure that we will get another chance at getting sober. we are all one drink away from being a drunk why normalize a relapes

    • DaveH 5 months ago

      Hi @bob.k I am surprised that after 35 years at AA you haven’t recognised that it is relapse that is normal and that succeeding in stopping drinking at the first attempt is by far the exception. So I am not normalising relapse, it is already the norm, and by presenting it otherwise we deepen the burden of shame and guilt felt by those not achieving 10/10 at their first attempt.I would rather offer someone a hand up rather than deepen their sense of shame and failure.

      • bob.k 5 months ago

        Hi @Daveh I have been watching people for people for very long time , I have heard a lot of story’s and I have read a lot books, you are right most people don’t get it first time around but as I see it “relapse” is about choice- is having that drink an option or is it not, did I leave that door open a little bit or did I slam it shut?- that is the question
        Is it possible that saying “a relapse is an essential step on the path to recovery” could be empower peoples addict ( as per Jack Trimpey) rather than offering a hand up?

  4. deedee444 5 months ago

    Thank you for those wise words. After waking this morning feeling guilty, disgusted with myself, I can see that I just have to climb back on the bike. Excellent advice.

  5. Hunterga 5 months ago

    I too have had a small relapse . not a big deal .just moved on

  6. barnmomma 5 months ago

    Thank you for this. When I relapsed after my longest sober stint almost two years ago, I felt like I had fallen way back to the beginning. I was still feeling that way, all this time later…and still struggling. This gave me great encouragement that I did not go all the way back down the rabbit hole. I can see light up above, and I’m going for it.

  7. Jaxisdry 5 months ago

    Thank you so much @daveh I relapsed a couple of weeks ago after 5 months. I was so down on myself, your words have given me another way to look at the relapse after resetting my counter now at 17 days with the knowledge and experience of 5 months behind me.

  8. safeandsound 5 months ago

    I love the analogy and the understanding and empathy that this post shows. It gives me a lot of encouragement. Thank you.

  9. bird 5 months ago

    Inspirational words thank you ?

  10. SandyB 5 months ago

    Thanks so much for an inspiration. @daveh I lasted af for nearly 6 months before hitting the bottle again harder than ever. It is now 2 years later and I have been struggling but hopefully back on track. My marriage is over, and it is time to face my future with a positive outlook. Reading your wise words are definitely an inspiration.

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