Addiction and Recovery: 8 Lessons from a Relapse

When an addict in recovery relapses, the return to sobriety offers important lessons.

Posted in , Jan 23, 2018

Smiling woman looking with hope into horizon during sunset at beach

In the 1978 film, “Ice Castles” (remade in 2010), a talented figure skater (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is close to accomplishing her dream of becoming a champion skater when a tragic accident renders her blind. She has to learn how to skate all over again. Especially poignant is the scene of her first competition as a blind skater. The crowd throws roses into the rink, and she needs the help of her boyfriend to pick them up.

The experience of relapse is like that.

I remember the day I stood up in a room of recovering alcoholics and collected my 24-hour chip of sobriety after years of staying clean and sober. It was humbling. But I emerged from that relapse a much wiser and resilient person.

“Fall seven times, stand up eight,” says a Japanese proverb. So it is with recovery from addiction, depression, or any ailment. We fall and, with the help of others, get up and start skating again. As painful as they are, relapses bear hidden gifts and teach us invaluable lessons. Here are just a few.

1. Relapse teaches us to befriend our imperfections.

A curious thing happens when we get comfortable with failure. We end up stronger, sturdier, and more at peace with who we are. As a stage-four perfectionist who is often crippled by the fear of messing up, I live by the words of Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Tucked away in our vulnerabilities and weaknesses is the good stuff – a life force that makes us persevere through disorder, confusion, and despair. When we learn how to be gentle with ourselves and practice self-compassion, we succeed in things big and small. When we stop keeping score and join the human race of flawed people, we access our humanity and become more alive.

2. Relapse teaches us that it is always possible to begin again.

There is something beautiful in a beginning. We get a blank canvas on which we can write our life story and design our path to healing. We can assemble and use the pieces that helped us in the past or we can chart an entirely fresh course of recovery. Relapse teaches us that it is always possible to begin again—that recovery isn’t a race to the finish line, but a series of starting points in which we pause and view the forest through the trees. Much like the intuitive skills of riding a bike, our progress is not lost. We simply press pause and take a moment to breathe, benefiting from a perspective of recovery that can help guide us in the future. Then we begin again.

3. Relapse teaches us how to focus on the moment.

Attend any 12-step meeting and you’ll hear a gentle reminder to live one day at a time. That’s how you stay sober. You don’t think about all the booze that will be offered at your office cocktail hour next week or about your family get together in a month. You need only concern yourself with staying sober for the next 24 hours. And if that’s too long, you can break it down into 15-minute intervals. Relapse reminds us of this critical lesson. Nothing good happens when we live in the past or the future. Peace and serenity are found in the present moment.

4. Relapse teaches us how to love the questions.

In school I always preferred math to English because, unlike the abstruse classics we had to read, math problems always had a concrete, clear answer. However, life is more like a confusing novel than an algebra equation. The gift of relapse is that it makes us appreciate ambiguity and how to sit with the questions, as the late poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke advised his young protege: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Relapse is messy, complicated, and puzzling. In its disorder, most of us come to realize that life is much more circular than linear--that not everything makes sense. If we pay close attention, we can also begin to see beauty and meaning in the confusion.

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5. Relapse teaches us how to ask for help.

The young ice-skater in “Ice Castles” couldn’t learn how to skate again by herself. Her boyfriend held her hand on the ice as she regained her balance. He picked up the roses in the rink so that she didn’t trip.

A life of recovery is not a solitary endeavor. It requires asking for help from others. Relapse teaches us that lesson very clearly. We come to the rooms of sobriety or other support programs via a trust fall, where we put our faith in our fellow mates—knowing that they will be there to catch us. We are all in this together--sharing our experience, strength, and hope—keeping each other accountable. There is strength in numbers. One plus one doesn’t equal two. It equals 15 or 25 or 200.

6. Relapse teaches us how to celebrate the fight.

Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

Relapse reminds us that we are fighters, striving for a life of recovery. Our efforts are worthy of praise and celebration. We are not sitting on the sidelines of life. We are in the arena, duking it out with our addictions and illnesses and behaviors. We may stumble. We may err. We may come up short again and again. But we are fully engaged. We are the courageous ones. We are daring greatly.

7. Relapse teaches us how to nurture our sense of humor.

“There is a line between tragedy and comedy, and it’s thin,” writes former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens in his book “Resilience.” Consider Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. Both suffered from depression but were known for their sharp wit. Most of the funniest people we know are individuals who have known great hardship or heartbreak. They have fallen and failed. Relapse, in all its awkwardness, teaches us how to keep our sense of humor, how to take ourselves less seriously, and how to laugh at life’s curiosities and entanglements.

8. Relapse teaches us the importance of faith.

There is a saying in recovery rooms: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” The second step (of the twelve steps) is about believing in a higher power. The third is about turning your will and life over to that higher power. The message is clear: We need God to stay sober and healthy and free of destructive behavior. Faith is the foundation of sanity and recovery.

There is no better reminder of that than relapse. Many of our setbacks happen because we take the helm as the manager of our lives, thinking that we don’t need any help from above. We may do fine for awhile, but then life throws one too many detours our way and before long we are back to our destructive behavior. Relapse teaches us that faith is critical to recovery, and that with God’s help anything is possible.

Editor’s Note: For more stories about addiction and recovery, check out our new series “Overcoming Addiction” in Guideposts magazine. The first story in the series features a pastor whose life was nearly destroyed by opioid addiction. Read what lead him to recovery.

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