relapse

Wake Up Calls: The Reality of Relapse in Recovery

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Thirty-four years ago I was a neophyte in the recovery world. Determined to overcome my addiction, I did everything my sponsor told me to do. I read every book I could get my hands on and listened to audio tapes that would help me stay sober. I did everything my therapist would suggest. I was all in. On one occasion, I engaged in regressive therapy to resolve painful past events. The therapist was a specialist in uncovering unresolved painful events in life.

The session itself was very emotionally charged and plunged into significant past emotional trauma. When the session was over, I recall leaving the therapeutic setting feeling pretty raw emotionally. I was experiencing a lot of vulnerability. Even though I had established a significant length of time in sober living, I found myself in a kind of trance cruising and searching for a way to act out in my addiction. What I learned was that uncovering pain from past traumatic experiences creates increased vulnerability and a high risk toward relapse unless sufficient self-care is administered before and after trauma work. I learned to practice bookending my therapy sessions with connection and accountability with support people before and after therapy sessions. 

For sure, relapse is not necessary for addicts in recovery. Yet, learning to address lapse or relapse behaviors is imperative toward building long-term recovery. There are high-risk zones and pitfalls in recovery that addicts must be alert to avoid the backsliding into old destructive behaviors that are common for many. 

Wake-up calls are life experiences that take addicts by the nap of the neck and shake them with the reality that they are facing major relapse unless something dramatically changes quickly. I hear wake-up stories all the time. It may be a sex addict in recovery who shared that he was on his way to acting out with an escort when his car broke down on the way. He decided to call his sponsor instead of following through with his destructive act out. As a result, he determined to re-engage his program. He was saved from the slippery slide of relapse by way of a wake-up call in a random mechanical failure. I have listened to alcoholics and drug addicts share similar near misses around relapse. For one getting lost trying to find the location of a dealer and the other who drove to her old neighborhood bar only to learn that it had closed because of a COVID outbreak, represented indelible near-miss wake up calls that are often shared in recovery circles.

For sure, cravings for the dopamine hit that comes from addictive urges is an everyday possibility for addicts in recovery. Engaging in addictive act out can be like turning on a fire hose of dopamine to the brain of an addict, triggering euphoric response. The level of dopamine rises with anticipation and spikes when addicts act on their addictive urge. Living without the hit is tough. Usually, an addict will feel worse before he feels better. As a result, many addicts will live on the edge of their recovery program and bash boundaries around their addiction behavior. There is a certain rush just being near an addictive environment. Thus, the old adage “if you hang around the barbershop, you’re gonna get a haircut”. Inevitably, unattended high-risk behaviors will cascade you over the falls of addictive behavior. 

Wake-up call experiences in life can be utilized to help get your attention before relapse.

Here are a few considerations:

1. Roll up the welcome mat to addictive behavior. If you don’t want to slip stay away from slippery places. Often I listen to sex addicts share that they are hit on constantly. One will tell me that I was minding my own business and she came up to me and began flirting and throwing herself at me. What was I to do? Or I have heard complaints like I was sitting alone and he just came to me with warmth and a smile so I had no choice but to be nice to him. It’s almost as if helplessly they are unable to prevent these high-risk people and situations from happening. It’s not as if sex addicts are the most drop-dead gorgeous people who have to tolerate being hit on. Most people don’t live a life where they are constantly badgered by sexual invites from others. Substance addicts complain the same way. Everywhere I go I am being offered a drink or asked if I want to score, some will say. The answer to these challenges can be unraveled by taking an attitude inventory. First, am I serious and committed to ending the addictive behavior? If so, then eliminate the high-risk behavior by rolling up the welcome mat. Stop communicating availability in terms of the environment you hang out, the conversations you have with others, and the energy about the addictive behavior that you communicate. Simply put, shut down the energy that you are available for sexual intrigue if you are a sex addict and turn away from addictive environments while spurning the encouragement of those who would invite you to use or sit in high-risk scenarios. When you eliminate slippery places you likely will not slip. 

2. Decide you are going to be all in with recovery. Seriously embrace the AA saying “Half measure avail us nothing. We ask for his care with complete abandon”. Many addicts who attend 12-step meetings enjoy the community and gain from the insights shared. Fewer take the insights seriously toward life transformation. There is a difference between attending 12-step meetings and being all-in. Following through with boundaries, commitments, and program work requires an addict to abandon half-hearted attempts at recovery tasks. All in is a plunge experience. It is like cliff jumping. You put yourself into a position so that when you take the first step there is no turning back because of your complete abandonment to whatever it takes. When you compromise, make excuses, make commitments, and don’t follow through, you exemplify half-measures that never work. It’s like getting a prescription from your doctor and drinking the water while leaving the pills for treatment on the table. If you are blaming others for your downfall, keeping secrets about your thought and behavior life, and giving negative voices free rent in your head, this is the evidence that you are not willing to go to any lengths to create the sober life you want. In the presence of many new approaches and technology for healing, the only way to emotionally grow yourself up and address addiction will be through complete abandonment in your recovery program. 

3. Wake-up calls are never heard when you are stubbornly stuck in refusing to accept life as it is in the present moment. Denying the reality of what is in your life is a setup for relapse even when there are wake-up calls ringing all around you. There are many experiences about recovery that are not pleasant. The discomfort of real consequences from addictive behavior can be an intrusive reality that is shoved in your face with no reprieve. Loss of job, family, and esteem can be repressive. The whirlwind of addictive behavior always includes unfair treatment and unfair judgment. Consequences and restrictions can seem overwhelming. Yet, you will not find peace and sobriety until you can accept the limitations and implications of your addiction behavior. “This too will pass” will only be true for you through surrender when you can concentrate less on what needs to be changed in the world around you, and more about what needs to be changed within you and your attitudes. Acceptance is an age-old process that paves the way toward long-term sobriety. Without it, the phone will ring off the wall and you will never answer the wake-up call in recovery.

4. Wake-up calls are a reminder to understand the underlying conditions that come from unresolved family-of-origin issues that have been incompletely addressed. Questions like “After so much time in recovery sobriety, why did I so quickly reach for my addictive behavior”? “Why do I struggle so much with behavior and attitudes that sabotage closeness to people I love”? “Why do I procrastinate facing the fear of my childhood or addressing Step 4 work”?are all about the underlying conditions of unresolved family of origin issues. Relapse is about losing who you are and forfeiting your potential for who you are meant to be. Relapse gives you the opportunity to claim lessons from the past and to reclaim your truth. If those underlying conditions aren’t treated, the return of those symptoms may cause you intense discomfort that can trigger you to go back to using. That’s the primary reason there is such a high rate of relapse among people who have become dependent on addictive behavior. It has less to do with the addiction and more to do with the original causes that created the dependency. There is a wake-up call for each of us who are tempted to walk only to the first oasis in the desert and camp out for the rest of our days. The wake-up call is to go the distance all the way through the desert to the other side. That other side is the peace that comes to those courageous enough to address the unresolved family of origin issues that trigger the addiction.

5. Wake-up calls require that you learn to bushwhack with accountability. Bushwhacking is a term that applies to a way of hiking in the wilderness. There is no trail. You just go—through thickets, over boulders, aimlessly moving into the adventure of the woods and great outdoors. It is a very uncomfortable way to travel. It may be a shortcut or may not be. What is involved is an adventure and exploration of the forest. Recovery growth engages a form of bushwhacking. Going deep always includes an uncharted course to follow that embraces getting out of your comfort zone. It calls for you to acknowledge your inconsistency. It requires that you own your incongruence. It demands that you admit your hypocrisy. It summons you to submit to the accountability of community to draw you back from these human frailties to be true to your heart. This is the wake-up call that curates relapse prevention and cultivates the character of long-term sobriety.  

Chronic Relapse

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Over time I have observed addicts who have miraculously transformed and changed their lives. The changes have been like night and day. They are the ones who make 12-step meetings seem powerful and therapists look good. When you listen to their recovery program and see their results, you walk away wondering why doesn’t every addict do their program like that. 

Then you find some who do a similar program but don’t have the same results. Many times it is obvious that those who fail in their program do not “go to any length” to maintain sobriety and cultivate recovery growth. For those, the issue is whether or not they are willing to up the ante in their program to make it work, do more meetings, do a deep dive with 12-step work, increase therapy to resolve underlying issues of trauma and emotional pain, etc. In this mix, there are those in recovery who mean well and do well, but somehow don’t get the necessary traction to establish long-term sobriety. Essentially, they engage chronic relapse. 

Some “chronic relapsers” struggle to maintain 24 hours without their addiction. Others can go a week, month, or several months and not relapse. Some get to the outer limits of time in their sobriety and almost as if an alarm goes off and they tell themselves “It’s time to act out” and relapse occurs. Others can establish long-term sobriety in one addiction, like drugs or alcohol, but experience chronic relapse in other areas like sexual addiction. 

In discussing this pattern of relapse in recovery with a pioneer researcher and therapist around sexual addiction, the seasoned veteran stated that while partners of sex addicts demand absolute sobriety from their sexually-addicted partner, seldom does this prove the reality for the addict. 

There have been many attempts to address chronic relapse in 12-step programs such as moving the chronic behavioral failure from a bottom-line category of acting out to middle-circle behavior. However, there is no hiding from the problematic behavior, regardless of category placement. The behavior that is against values continues to progress and linger. People who truly shift their value system to include the behavior that was once considered relapse and is now considered high risk, usually are at peace with themselves regarding the behavior. However, if the experience of chronic failure is addiction behavior, it doesn’t matter what category you put the behavior, relapse and destructive behavior will continue to progress and intensify emotional pain. It’s a lot like trying to get a new look in your house by taking the old furniture and rearranging it but in the end, you still have old furniture with a different look.

Coming to terms with failure is an age-old problem for the addicted and non-addicted as well. I don’t have an answer as to why some addicts struggle more than others in establishing long-term sobriety. For sure there are many factors to consider. A key to addressing chronic failure in relapse is to focus on the task of self-care. For an addict, self-care is counterintuitive in the presence of relapse. When you have just acted out and screwed yourself in so many ways, the first thing you need to do is the last thing you are prone to do. Treating yourself with gentleness and being your own best friend seems preposterous when you simply want to scream and beat yourself up. Why? Because you failed. It’s common for some to scream and self-destruct in a cloud of smoke while others more subtly self-sabotage. 

In life, people work so hard to avoid facing failure. Yet failure is a part of every aspect of being human. We fear the judgment, the perceived ridicule, and the alienation that happens when we fail. In addiction, what is more important than a continued day count is the capacity to employ resilience when you fail to maintain sobriety. It’s the capacity to bring yourself back to the center of your values when you drift or act out. Knowing your resources and how to bring yourself back to your values is most important. Being able to stem self-criticism and re-focus on the next right thing is invaluable. Many addicts who work a strong program and some who white knuckle their way through the day, hang on without a protocol to bring themselves back to center when they act out. When this happens, they free fall toward oblivion in addiction. It’s been shown that those who free fall in this way have a much greater struggle with re-centering. Repeated failure with sobriety is the result.

Here is a suggested protocol for chronic relapse.

1. Admit your failure, do the next right thing which is always to take yourself out of harm’s way. Simply get away from your addiction. Destroy the substance, get away from the relationship, turn off the computer, etc. If you are sitting in the middle of a busy intersection and you just got run over by a bus, the first thing you need to do is to get out of the intersection.  Most likely you will need to reach out to a support person to get this done. 

2. As the Buddhists say “put yourself in the cradle of loving kindness.” Addicts live in self-deprivation even when they are sober. It is by grit and determination that many addicts stay sober. So when there is a failure, the energy of grit and determination is funneled into beating the hell out of yourself. Simply, it doesn’t work. It’s like dumping kerosene onto a fire. Yet, somehow addicts and other people who fail who are not addicts, think they have to continue eating the poison. So they abuse themselves with hurtful remarks and treat themselves with ongoing deprivation. They deprive themselves of gentleness, and support from others and covertly become mean to themselves embracing mistaken beliefs that spiral into repeated addictive or other destructive behavior. The slippery slope of relapse becomes black ice when an addict eats the poison and tells themselves they are a failure, a piece of shit who cannot do what others do to maintain sobriety. Depriving yourself of care and kindness leads to entitlement toward acting out in addiction. Sometimes you must take yourself by the nap of your neck and be kind to yourself even while kicking and screaming against it.

3. Affirm yourself. You say well “If I just shit all over myself, it’s pretty hard to tell myself to feel clean.” In 12-step work, there is talk about “fake it till you make it”. Overcoming chronic relapse means that I must treat myself in the way in which I aspire to be. I must act the way in the present that I hope to be in the future. To do this I must not allow feelings to dominate my actions. I affirm myself even when I feel like shit. I act my way into a new way of being. I cannot feel my way into this experience in recovery. When I am discouraged, I can afford the time to feel it but not when I am lying in the middle the intersection of addictive act out. I have to pick myself up, drag myself out of the intersection, and affirm myself when all I feel like doing is giving up. Affirmations are beliefs that must be practiced and conditioned regularly in my life, particularly when faced with failure. They are intended acts of self-care that are conditioned in unspectacular moments, often in the presence of despair and discouragement of chronic relapse.

4. Separate your sense of self from the relapse behavior. When you introduce yourself as an addict to a 12-step group, you are describing your behavior, not your sense of self. In truth, the behavior represents a small part of your life, albeit, a most destructive piece.  Relapse is always about behavior and never about who you are. Yet, shame says that relapse is about who you are. Your behavior and your sense of self are the same. Separating behavior from personhood is an art form that can only be curated through conditioning.  Experiential therapies can help create breakthrough experiences of release and relief, but you must do the unspectacular conditioning of separating behavior from self. This will require a lifetime commitment and a willingness to fail forward. It demands that you practice affirmations as a regular lifestyle. In all my years of recovery, I don’t know any other way. The benefit is self-acceptance in the presence of human failure. There’s a deep satisfaction of living in your own skin. There is an abiding awareness that I can go down and face failure and come back up. Some identify this experience as unconditional confidence. No matter what the result may be, I can accept and love myself. This requires daily practice not perfection. 

Chronic relapse can become a great teacher of spirituality in life. Some have suggested that spirituality is discovered by embracing the wounds in life. Wounds reveal vulnerability, weakness, and the capacity to recognize limitations. Chronic relapse is a wound that deepens authenticity when you accept that the wound contains the same common shared brokenness that everyone else in the world experiences. Self-acceptance in the presence of chronic relapse is the essence of human brilliance.

Hangovers

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Fred has been a recovering sex addict for 5 years. Sexual acting out used to be an organizing principle in his life. He woke up everyday thinking of numbing out with porn and hooking up with whoever he could find on the internet. It nearly cost him his family, his job, and even his life. One day an escort and her pimp robbed him of everything he had. At gunpoint, they forced him to go to his bank and withdraw $10,000 from his account. He was told that there was a gun pointed at his head throughout the entire bank transaction and would be killed if he did not bring them the exact amount. This was hitting bottom for Fred. He promised that if he escaped this predicament, he would seek help and change his lifestyle. And he did. He sought out a certified sex addiction therapist. He began going to 12-step meetings, worked the steps, changed his life, and experienced healing within and in his marriage and family. That was 5 years ago! 

Moving forward he managed sexual addiction cravings with the tools that he had learned in therapy and 12-step groups. Things were headed in the right direction. Then COVID hit. He was laid off from his work and had to scramble, doing anything to pay the bills. There was a lot of stress and anxiety that persisted throughout the 2 years since the COVID lockdown. Eventually fatigue, stress, and anxiety wore him down. One night while driving home he pulled into the parking lot of a strip club, drank, and paid for several lap dances. The next morning he woke up with a hangover not only from the alcohol but from the reality that he surrendered all the vestiges of meaningful sobriety and serenity that he had accumulated in his recovery program the 5 years before. He was sick to his stomach, dulled with brain fog, and profound loneliness and emptiness. The emotional pain was indescribable. Alone, he screamed in despair. He was suffering from the hangover of relapse behavior. 
Hangovers suck! Hangovers always deliver what they promise—headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, irritability, and other symptoms. Most people associate hangovers with drinking too much or other drug abuse. But, hangovers are the result of many behaviors. Other than its relationship to chemical abuse, the dictionary defines a hangover as something that remains from what is past. Its the letdown that follows great effort and excitement. Hangovers follow every act out and trigger further use of a substance or process.

Every addict knows the pain of a hangover that follows an addictive behavior. Addicts who succumb to relapse are highly susceptible to repeating the destructive behavior until the old addictive lifestyle is once again in place. It happens amazingly fast! Hangovers play a significant role in the reconstitution of addiction. Surprised by the relapse, addicts fall victim to the power of shame and the staggering emotional pain that is part of the hangover aftermath. 

Most addicts relapse in their attempts to gain control of their addiction. Listed below are suggestions to consider in working through the hangover that accompanies relapse behavior.

1. Get out of harm’s way. You may have to drag yourself away but don’t let the bus of addiction run over you repeatedly with added relapse behavior. Call someone in recovery. The risk of further addictive behavior increases exponentially on the heels of a hangover. Loneliness, shame, depression, failure, etc are intense feelings that overwhelm and tempt you to medicate with addictive behavior. You must take the power away from the junkie worm with a radical behavioral pattern interruption. Examples include going to a 12-step meeting, calling a recovery friend (even in the middle of the night), throwing your keys down a storm sewer to keep you from driving under the influence, or whatever you need to do to remove yourself from harm’s way.

2. Surround yourself with support. When you relapse, shame wants to force you into isolation. Rather than isolate, you must insulate yourself with people who you know love you, understand, and will support you no matter what. Addicts in recovery who engage in a 12-step meeting with openness and vulnerability create connections that are helpful during a time of crisis in their recovery. It is critical to reach out to other addicts in recovery when you face relapse. You will falter. Create a community that will be there and help you restore yourself to sanity and centered living.

3. Practice sitting with the pain that accompanies relapse failure. No matter what you do after a relapse, you cannot escape the pain of the hangover. You can mitigate its effects with self-care and reconnecting with your program. That said, relapse always produces intense emotional pain and disappointment. Rather than try to escape, which might increase the possibility of relapse, practice accepting and leaning into the emotional pain. Leaning into the pain of relapse differs from choosing to wallow in the failure of relapse which quickly becomes a way to escape and avoid doing the next right thing in self-care. It hampers a mature response to failure. Leaning into the pain is accepting what happened and moving forward with the next right recovery steps toward re-centering yourself in a healthy life balance. The good news is that the hangover does wear off in time.

4. Divorce yourself from the behavior. You are not your behavior. You will have to condition yourself during this moment of discouragement and shame. Put the shame on the behavior and not your sense of self. Separating the behavior from your personhood will help you nurture compassion for yourself and those you hurt with your destructive behavior. There is no greater prevention for further relapse than compassion and empathy.

5. Learn from every relapse failure. While you are not a failure, you can learn something about yourself that can cement future sobriety in every failed experience. The lessons you glean from your failed experience are the gold you create to fulfill your recovery destiny. Allow yourself to be a mistake-making person. Take away the treasure of wisdom from each mistake before you throw away the rind of failed behavior.

The loneliness and emptiness that is core to the experience of relapse hangover paralyze many addicts who have relapsed. The way through the hangover is to fix your eyes on re-centering your vision of recovery. Move through relapse behavior by anchoring your heart with actions of recovery practice. The hangover will wear off provided you do the necessary self-care. 

What Can Be Learned From Those Who Do Not Make It

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Every blog post I have ever written addresses tools to help addicts avoid relapse, rebuild their lives, and deepen intimacy with themselves and others. I have worked in the field of addiction recovery for 28 years. There have been many inspirational success stories. There were some I thought would maintain long-term sobriety for years but left the program and went dark. There were others who I swore didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to maintain sobriety, who became a source of inspiration for healing in the world they live. It’s impossible to know who will stick to a recovery program and who will not. 

Today’s post is about those who didn’t make it.  If you work in the field of addiction recovery you become conditioned to know that some addicts seeking recovery will respond and others won’t. It is tough when someone does respond and makes solid progress, then tragically goes back to old destructive behaviors. They disappear from group attendance and you don’t hear from them again.  It’s disappointing! Once you were close in communication and knew more about their life than anyone else on the planet. Then suddenly they’re gone, never to be heard from again. The situations that are most difficult are those who lost their lives in the fight against their demons.  It is difficult to let go of these tragedies. Over time there have been many in my professional life I never forget those whom I have worked with who lost their lives to their drug of choice.  I want to dedicate this blog to those who lost their battle with addiction and their lives. Part of me left this world with them when they lost the fight. I would like to share a few stories about those who tragically lost their battle against addiction. Of course, I have changed the names to protect their anonymity. 

Max was a truck driver. He was tough, burly, and an all-or-nothing type of thinker. He meant what he said and with determination would follow through with his recovery commitments. His weakness was gin and tonic. His wife Martha loved him and codependently tried to please him. When Max wasn’t drinking he was great. When he drank he was mean, unpredictable, and volatile. He was also bipolar and when he drank gin and tonic he would stop taking his medication.  Max routinely worked a 12-step program and credited a new-found faith in God for deepening his commitment to program work. All went well for Max during the many months I worked with him to overcome his addiction. However, throughout the course of time tension grew between Max and his wife. He began to struggle with the long over-the-road hours that his job demanded. He shut down communication with his wife and pulled away from others who had been helpful. 

He complained that the trucking company he worked for cheated him of his earnings.  He was resentful and angry that they reprimanded him for inaccurately documenting driving hours while on the road. His backslide was shockingly rampant. He became sporadic with his program. My contact with him became more crisis-focused around fights with his wife and less focused on vulnerability toward addictive cravings.  He stopped taking his meds and became more combative in our conversations. Then, one night his wife called me and said that Max had gone off the deep end. She said he holed himself up in a hotel with a couple of bottles of gin and tonic and a gun. She wanted me to call him so I did. Though Max was glad I called, he was very reactive and agitated. Someone had called the police because of erratic behavior witnessed by others at the hotel. When the police arrived they knocked on his door and he panicked.  He began screaming obscenities with irrational thoughts about his wife and the world around him. The police entered the room with a management key. Instantly Max picked up his gun pulled the trigger and shot himself in the head. I will never forget walking down the concrete corridor of the morgue at the hospital with his wife to identify his body. When they pulled the curtain back from the window in the room where his body lay, screams from his wife echoed throughout the concrete corridor of that hospital. Max was a dear man. Without the meds, he lost his reasoning. Without the support community, he lost his way, his self, and his life. I often wonder how many like Max remain in the bubble of self-destruction unable to tame their demons of addiction.

Steve was a medical professional, a family man, and a sex addict. He struggled with perfectionism trying to please his wife Wendy. When he failed to do so, which was often, he responded by shutting down with denial, half-truths, and lies by omission. Shame dogged him like a pack of wolves chasing him relentlessly through the woods. He just couldn’t handle the failure. He tried to beat himself up to a better place, and that never works.   His public persona was quiet and even keel. However, inwardly he was deeply troubled with visceral turmoil. His inner struggle began to explode at home. I worked with him and his wife for a season of time. There were many hours that I walked alongside while Steve languished in turbulence and unrest about his defensiveness and deceit. During that time he made good progress but would chronically relapse. He sought support through a 12-step recovery and made a few connections. He worked hard and demonstrated hope for healing. However, over time his gains faded into failure and he wallowed in shame and guilt. He began to isolate himself with bitter disappointment. Slowly, he began to cut out most of his therapy and 12-step support. The relationship with his wife that he prized and hoped would heal ended in divorce. He spiraled into uncontrollable depression and defeat. Shame ate away at his core self till nothing was left to build on. He lost sight of hope and help. He made one last effort in treatment with failed results. Steve wallowed in immense emotional pain.  In desperation to escape the pain and emotional struggle, he took his life while in close proximity to others who were trying to help him fan the flame of hope and resilience.  Overwhelmed with shame, misery, and mental illness that accompanied his compulsive sexual behavior, hope was snuffed out once and for all. Steve was a sensitive soul. He was not a hardened playboy with a long resume of sexual infidelity. He simply was unable to stop masturbating to porn and find a way to forgive himself. The hounds of shame had cornered him, and suicide was his only way out. 

Why is it that some people face the adversity of addiction and seem to transform their lives while others are unable to get back on their feet and even perish from the same challenge? Here are a few considerations gleaned from the stories of Max and Steve.

1. Shame dominated both men.  A rigid embrace of sobriety is not sustainable. Both men were clear about their bottom-line behaviors that indicated acting out. Neither knew how to bring themselves back to the center when lapse or relapse behavior occurred. They struggled with being stuck in the mud of shame and self-criticism. Staying stuck in shame without knowing how to crawl out of the muck and mire of failure distorts perspective and increases the mistaken belief that you can never recover right. Both men were perfectionists which is like throwing gasoline onto a fire of dry tinder. Many addicts in recovery never learn to stalk their shame in order to separate their behavior from their sense of self. So, if they do shitty behavior it means they are a piece of shit. Ultimately, if an addict stays stuck in a mistaken belief, h/she will produce results to support the distorted belief. Max always contended that he was not normal and would not be able to measure up to others. Steve was mired in perfectionism from day one. The harder they tried to get out of their own way, the deeper the hole they dug striving to do recovery perfectly. It was a major force that influenced their demise.

2. Both ignored developing self-parenting skills.  Recovery is about successfully learning to do self-care. The term “self-parenting” fits because subconsciously addicts try to fulfill parental needs, that were not met in childhood, through significant relationships in the present. Yet, what happens is that when you try to fulfill individual wholeness from a partner, the opposite occurs. It’s the old adage that 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/4 when you thought it would make a whole. To fulfill your quest for happiness and safety, it is required that you take responsibility for making yourself whole by addressing your own childhood neediness. The only way to become whole is to practice being your own parent. When Max came home physically and mentally exhausted because of his cross-country truck run, he expected Martha to fill his empty cup with attention and care. Martha ran around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to make Max comfortable and glad to be home. But, Max was a perfectionist and when he was needy no one on this side of heaven would possibly be able to fulfill his needs in the way he wanted. Steve was determined to do things just right to get the smile of approval from his wife. But in his mind, he always screwed up. To cover his shortcomings, he thought he needed to minimize hurt or lie about what seemed unsatisfactory. Both men’s attempts to rely on their partners for approval and self-care had a short shelf life. They were destined to fail and they did.

3. Both men wanted their partners to be emotionally close and then pulled away in isolation. Both Max and Steve were intimacy-disabled which is the essence of addiction. Each had plans to approach their partner with open hearts. We talk about different strategies to make it happen. Yet, mired in perfectionism, each was stymied. when the results did not turn out exactly as they had hoped. Max was disappointed after surprising Martha with dinner at a favorite restaurant. Martha was exhausted from cleaning and preparing the house for his return home from the road  She was too tired to be sexual after dinner. Max pouted and thought he screwed up and withdrew. The next day they fought about something small and silly cementing isolation between the two. Steve was under pressure the entire week with numerous surgeries in succession every day. His wife engaged a ladies’ night out on Thursday. By then Steve was totally exhausted, functioning on fumes. He decided to go to bed early. While checking his email, he gave in to the urge to look at porn and ended up masturbating. The next day when his wife asked how he did with his sobriety he lied and denied any challenges. Locked with shame he left for work isolated and lonely. He began to think he could not stop the porn, the masturbation, and the lies. Both shrunk from open-hearted confession with their 12-step groups. In the end, both were alone, isolated from themselves, their partners, their support, and their world. It drove both men to the edge and over. 

It is uncommon for most addicts who relapse to become so profoundly stuck that their only choice is to take themselves out. That said, it occurs more frequently than most realize. For sure, every addict who is stuck in the muck and mire of shame, who fails to practice healthy self-care and is isolated from support is destined to relapse. Without addressing these key areas of recovery you will not create long-term sobriety. It is important to learn from the pitfalls and failures of those who have hurt themselves and did not make it.

Red Alerts to Relapse

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Terry was clearly stuck in his recovery program. He had been doing weekly therapy for 5+ years. In the beginning, his sessions were life-saving. He clung to every word his therapist uttered. He would often tell his recovery buddies that his therapist saved his life and that he wouldn’t be able to remain sober without his counselor’s guidance. 

Over time the newness and glitz of insight began to fade. Terry noticed that he lacked enthusiasm to employ interventions suggested by his therapist. He began to isolate and not talk much about his feelings to anyone, including his therapist.  Fantasies about masturbating to old images of internet nudity popped up with intense euphoric recall. At first, he allowed the inappropriate thoughts to linger. He would try to distract himself to avoid further dwelling on them. However, without consultation and accountability, he began to fuel the behavior by surfing “eye candy” on the internet, described as women wearing scantily clad clothing. It wasn’t frontal nudity but the images did trigger uncontested sexual arousal. From there was a short slide to masturbating to full-blown pornography. Terry had identified that this behavior was clearly against his values, and historically he had been powerless to stop his compulsive engagement with porn. Of course, he kept it all secret from his recovery peers and his therapist. He was stuck!

Relapse is predictable and probable in recovery from addiction. Preparing to manage relapse is an essential modus vivendi for every addict in recovery. Those without a plan to address relapse are individuals who are inevitably vulnerable to a long-term slide into old and familiar destructive addictive behavior. 

In recovery, building lengthy sobriety is a worthy admirable goal. However, I have learned that what is more important than never having left the center of recovery is having skills to return to the center. Bringing yourself back to center is a skill set that requires discipline and conditioning. 

You will need to learn to manage your inner critic whose intent is to discredit and undermine who you are and every effort you have ever made to achieve sobriety or fulfill a worthy goal in life.  

Here is a list of desirable skills that will help you tame your inner critic and return to center whether you are an addict in relapse or simply out of balance and need help getting centered.

#1: Condition yourself with focused breathwork. It is important to slow things down when you drift from center. We often don’t because it is uncomfortable to reign in your energies when your mind is racing, your heartbeat is pumping fast and your breathing is short. The good news is that breathwork is simple, not complicated. When you concentrate on the breath it is difficult to fail. 

You may not be an accomplished Wim Hof or other noted breathwork gurus, but you don’t have to be them in order to achieve benefit. Simply close your eyes and inhale and exhale to the beat of every second— one thousand one—one thousand two, etc. As you breathe, notice the rise and fall of your stomach as you inhale and exhale. When you are distracted in thought, simply bring yourself back to focusing on your breath without criticizing yourself for the distracted thought. It will calm you. 

There are many gurus to help you. I suggest that you utilize Apple Music, Spotify, etc, and download Jason Campbell’s music which is a musical arrangement designed to help you breathe. Just exhale and inhale each time you hear the bells or chimes. When the arrangement is over, notice how your breathwork helped you to slow your mind and heart.  This is a simple exercise that requires regular daily discipline.

#2: Focus on what you love in life. When your inner critic is activated, you magnify everything you ever did wrong, including all the flaws about your life. For many this experience is paralyzing and accelerates anxiety. Rather, practice focusing on things in life you love. It can be a sunset or sunrise, the beauty of trees, and all forms of plant life. It might be the energy of a small child playing on swings at a public park. It might be a kind act that you witnessed as it unfolded toward an elderly person. Practice being grateful for all the things you love about the life that exists around you. It will take your mind off the mistakes you made and serve to help you return to center. 

#3: Simply, do the next right thing. As I write this I sit on a plane, that I barely made, from Nashville to home in Phoenix. It was an early flight and we had spent time with my sister during the weekend. We got up extra early to make the flight. All was well until my sister noticed that she had locked her car keys in the condo and that she did not have keys to get in to get them. We were stuck. She apologized prolifically but we were stuck. Doing the next right thing meant calling an Uber which took an eternity to arrive. We made the flight albeit I was the last person to board the plane. I had to adjust my attitude and accept the reality that I could not do anything about the predicament except focus on doing the next right thing. Cursing the predicament, victim posturing about life, or running around like a chicken with my head cut off would not resolve my dilemma. When your inner critic tries to have its way with you, simply focus on doing the next right thing. 

#4: Practice acceptance without dwelling on feelings of inferiority. Whether you want to admit it or not you are no less valuable after a relapse than before. You gave up your sobriety, not your value. You are an unrepeatable miracle of God whether you have relapsed or not. The challenge is that your inner critic is persuasive. It will convince you otherwise by beating you up over mistakes you made. 

You must understand that you will never beat yourself up to a better place. So, why not practice acceptance? Accept that you are a mistake-making person. Accept that relapse happens. Accept that when you make a mistake that hurts someone else, repeated apologies are not necessary and tend to bury you in the hole of shame. Simply accept the circumstance as is and let go. Surrender promotes acceptance which provides peace that will lead you back to the center of your life. 

#5: Practice forgiveness. Forgive those around you who have hurt you by first forgiving yourself. When you have relapsed there is a tendency to lash out toward others and the universe with anger. Anchor yourself in your predicament. Realize that you have done to others what they have done to you, not necessarily in like kind but in principle. Therefore focus on forgiving yourself first. Forgiveness means that you have embraced the pain that you have caused when you wanted what you wanted when you wanted it, and you have consciously chosen to not hold your egregious behavior against yourself. Seldom is this one and done. It is a discipline that you must invoke on a regular basis and walk in the opposite direction that your inner critic would suggest. Rather than beat yourself up for flawed behavior, practice self-acceptance and treat yourself with love. Forgiveness requires training. When you do the daily work of self-forgiveness, you can forgive those who have hurt you. Essentially, you will let yourself out of your own emotional prison. 

#6: Cultivate the art of reframing life experience. The art of mental reframe is powerful. Rather than wallowing in the shame of failure, relapse, or forgetful mistake, reframe your thoughts so that you can participate in the best part of the party of life for you. Lamenting and shaming won’t change anything! Look for the meaningfulness in your mistake, failure or relapse. Concentrate your focus on that! Initiate a pattern-interrupt by reframing your experience that empowers you to climb out of the mud hole of relapse. Don’t let your critical voice dominate. Rather reframe your struggle into precious lessons that promote self-acceptance and personal peace. In this way, you can make real meaning out of every red flag experience in your life. 

Managing Zone Outs and Destructive Hits

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Ever since the measure of time, moving through the Industrial Age and beyond, we have quantified life by the clock. We have burgeoned into a culture that has become obsessed with filling up time with endless busyness. In his book, Space, Time and Medicine, Larry Dossey coined the term “time sickness” to describe the obsessive belief that time is getting away, there is not enough of it, and you must pedal faster and faster in order to keep up with it.  It has germinated the disease of “more”, which rivets the mind with incessant thoughts that we have to do more to keep from being less.

In our culture, there is a race to be the best. The rush to be the best lessens quality control. Accidents all over the world like Chernobyl and the space shuttle Challenger demonstrate that driven rush and fatigue negatively affect quality control. Yet, our culture remains obsessed with doing more and more in less time. At some point, this frenzy demands a sedative for all. The human condition is not capable of living with a tightening scrutiny that squeezes more productivity from every waking second. We’re now seeing an uptick in stress-related diseases such as insomnia, hypertension, asthma, and gastrointestinal diseases.

Job stress contributes to untold numbers of Americans missing work. City life increases the pace by ramping up pressure to perform. All this pressure causes people to mistakenly believe that somehow doing more means being more. It is no wonder there is an uptick in zoning out from all the turmoil and stress. Zoning out while driving is a real problem. One out of every four car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving, mounting to 1.6 million crashes each year, and nearly 390,000 injuries according to the National Safety Council. Online porn during working hours is another zone out that threatens productivity during working hours. Some surveys suggest that more than 60% of men have looked at porn during work hours in the past 3 months at the risk of it being career-ending.  

To survive this rush of activity, booster drugs have become popular, even necessary for some. Through the years, I have seen a growing number of professionals who rely upon uppers and downers to get through their fast-paced day. Nursing and pharmaceutical students often fall prey to amphetamines such as Adderall, Ritalin, or Concerta in order to ignore the fatigue and get through their day. Then, they rely upon benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium or alcohol to come down from the high. Opioid use in our country is even more widespread.

This perfect rendezvous fits most addicts like a glove. You can never do enough to keep from being less. This crazed thought pattern becomes the necessary fuel to numb out with the various cocktail of addictions that our mind creates . . . and we create many! Addicts who do not pay attention to hits and situations that trigger fantasy are vulnerable to engaging in their drug of choice. Relapse prevention requires conscious awareness in situations that trigger the temptation to zone out. Here are a few suggestions to manage destructive hits and zone outs every addict faces.

#1: Become aware of your mistaken beliefs that activate your zone out. Mistaken belief will trigger your desire to zone out in a destructive way. Addicts must know their mistaken beliefs like the back of their hand. Not if, but when triggered they must recognize what is happening around them that triggers the hit. Financial pressure, shame engaged because of relationship problems, loneliness, etc. are examples of issues that activate mistaken beliefs that lead to zoning out through addictive behavior. You will need to practice addressing those triggers with life-affirming positive beliefs that propel you toward connection and intimacy-abling behaviors.  

#2: Pay attention to the way in which you mask anticipating rejection and victim posturing. It is easy to mask unwanted feelings and thoughts with compensating behaviors. You may be a great parent, professional, and person in a hundred different ways. This is great! That said, it is important that you don’t use these strengths to avoid addressing ways that you are dominated by mistaken beliefs that fuel anticipation of rejection from those you want approval from and times when you are stuck with “woe is me, I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” Victim posture is a dynamic that ultimately leads to zoning out in destructive ways. Avoid your victim stance by reframing your experience so that you empower yourself with possibility rather than remaining stuck without power and with vulnerability to addictive urge. 

#3: Be alert to ways that you isolate and fantasize. It can be a good thing to step back and think of something pleasant after a particularly demanding and exhausting day. However, addicts must be on the alert to cravings and urges to escape discomfort and desires to medicate. Telling on yourself to another addict is a way to avoid isolation. Utilizing a 3-second rule, that requires interruption of addictive fantasy after 3 seconds, is a pattern interrupt that will help you ground yourself into reality in the moment.

#4: Be accountable and live in consultation toward your tendency to cruise and groom your thinking toward acting out. Cruising is putting yourself in harm’s way with your addiction. People, places, and mind-states trigger hits toward acting out. If you are sitting in the middle of a busy intersection and a bus is barreling toward you, first get your ass out of the road! No time to review How did I get here, and other questions. The same is true for managing an urge to addictively act out. Engage whatever pattern interrupt you must do to remove yourself from harm’s way. Have a list of support people you can call. Consult with another addict in recovery.  Once done, you can trace back to ways in which you groomed yourself with addictive rationale to place yourself in harm’s way.

Addicts must be alert to what disconnects them from feelings and relationship to self and others. Zoning out can be helpful but often is harmful for addicts who do not practice recovery awareness. It is important that addicts don’t forget the old adage “If you hang around the barbershop long enough, you will get a haircut!”

The Sweet Spot of Centered Living

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Every day presents a new set of circumstances and issues in addict recovery. Some days go smoothly without major conflict while other days are challenged with triggers, cravings, and stress that create feelings of insecurity, impatience, and overall struggle. There is no necessary rhyme or reason. It is the common thread of issues that addicts in recovery grapple with in order to remain sober. For sure, staying sober is a battle of resistance with the forces of life that tug and pull to numb out with a cocktail of addictive processes. 

Addicts in recovery learn to create a sweet spot which represents a center of balance in life to respond to life’s provocations. In racquetball, the sweet spot on the court is the space maintained that gives the best vantage to respond to the opponent’s shot. The sweet spot in recovery is the space that an addict creates that offers the best possibility to engage tests and temptations from an empowered position and with poise. Trauma professionals sometimes refer to this space as a window of tolerance. This is a place you are able to self-soothe. You are able to maintain emotional self-regulation. It’s the position that you are best able to access resilience and flexibility. In the midst of everyday fray, you are capable of being connected to your mind, body, and emotions anchored in the window of tolerance. 

Some days just don’t play out in the sweet spot. You scramble to keep up with a busy schedule. People criticize you for shortcomings. Life throws you one curve ball after another. The harder you try, the “behinder” you get. It’s just one of those days or one of those seasons in life. The build-up of stress with physical and emotional fatigue triggers cravings that push you to the precipice of relapse. It’s amazing how quickly you can be right on the edge of disaster.

This experience is what trauma professionals refer to as flooding which can be hyperarousal (fight or flight) or hypo-arousal (freeze). Addicts must pay attention to the warning signs to avoid the pitfalls of relapse. 

Triggers are the memories, core beliefs, feelings, and body sensations which are connected to past traumatic experiences that have the potential to move you out of your sweet spot in recovery. Addicts benefit when they do the homework of identifying mistaken beliefs that block intimacy and monitor those beliefs daily. Rather than going all out to eliminate the belief, simply paying attention with a skillset to shift out of the mistaken belief that enervates and empowers addictive response, and shift into an intimacy-abling belief is all that is needed. It is important to become aware of life situations, relationship challenges, and mental states that fuel mistaken beliefs and address them daily. 

Flashback memories of old experiences are just that! They are not reality in the present moment no matter how powerful they seem. They trigger maladaptive responses and require the grounding skill of “acting as if”, meaning that in spite of the felt struggle, you commit to act doing the next right thing regardless of feeling. It may require ritual breathing, keeping your eyes open, and grounded conversation. It doesn’t mean I must act out in old destructive behaviors. 

Triggers can activate hyper arousal response including building anxiety, impulsivity, reactivity, anger, rage, nightmare, rigidity, and hyper-vigilance. You may notice difficulty in concentrating, obsessive-compulsive thoughts or behaviors or panic, and becoming easily irritated.  Many addicts do program work without ever paying attention to these critical signs of hyper arousal that take them out of their sweet spot.

A hypo arousal response is also a sign of flooding which pulls you from your window of tolerance. This response includes depression, fatigue, not being present, dissociation, feeling numb, going on autopilot, and disconnecting from feelings. You may experience increased aches and pains and not be able to think very clearly. 

It will be important for you to evaluate your typical response to the trials and tribulations of recovery living that pull you from your sweet spot. Managing your ability to return to the sweet spot in recovery requires that you discipline your awareness to recognize the warning signs of flooding. 

Do you most likely respond with freeze or fight/flight given the description of both responses? Many clients have told me that their body experiences periodic aches and pains without ever considering that the source of this discomfort might trace back to a hypo-aroused response to the stressors of life that pull them away from their window of tolerance. Others think medication is needed to quell the anxiety and panic that dominates them every day. Still others are stupefied wondering why they are having nightmares, being so reactive with anger and rage. One reason you may find yourself emotionally eating is because of the fight or flight response to the stress and tension that exists within your life. You may need a prescription to alleviate the intense edge of anxiety that triggers a rageful response. It can be helpful to attend an Overeaters Anonymous group to stop destructive out-of-control eating. Yet, for sure, it will be critical to recognize the warning sign that triggers the emotional flooding. You will need to address the stressful situation and recognize the flood in your life which pulls you out of your sweet spot in recovery. Consider these steps:

1. What expectations do you have in your life and your recovery? Be clear and specific. Are your expectations realistic? We all begin with enthusiasm and a lot of fire in recovery. It will flame out if your recovery goals are not realistic. Be clear and accountable for your bottom lines. A contract without accountability has no bite to it. 

2. Examine the Data. Project out a few weeks. When you get to a certain point in your recovery journey, evaluate if the results are what you intended. Like plays drawn up on the chalkboard at halftime in a football game, the way it works out on the field of recovery may be quite different than what you planned. Look at what you intended when you made your commitment to improve your behavior with your sponsor or in a recovery room. Are your results what you meant to be reality? Be honest, practical, and realistic in your assessment.

3. Make adjustments. This is key. Returning to your sweet spot will require that you work out of your rigidity and become flexible. Things never work out just the way you plan. What you thought would be easy will sometimes be hard. This is the way it is in life, not just recovery. Your working recovery from the sweet spot will require that you be flexible and make adjustments.  Embrace a sweet reasonableness about your expectations. Know when to apply the strict letter of the law to your recovery life and when to be gentle with what you expect from yourself and others. This is a practiced art form. 

The sweet spot for recovery growth requires gardening. Utilize your quiet time each day to recenter your focus. Know your tools for regulation and how to use them. I encourage addicts to create a plethora of recovery tools that are placed on the shelf for resources like a woodworker puts her tools on the shelf of her garage. Practice what you know. It will help you to return to your window of tolerance. It is the sweet spot that propels long-term growth and serenity.

I Can’t Believe What I Just Did!—Relapse

“Slowly I began to recognize that many of the boxes I found myself in were boxes of my own making.”— Melodie Beattie

Relapse isn’t a reality for every addict. Yet, for most, it has happened. Once sober you tell yourself ‘never again’ and you mean it. You’ve tasted the sweetness of sobriety and you shake your head wondering how did you ever think acting out was a better life? Yet, it happened! At first, it seemed like it was out of the blue. You had been doing so good. Then it felt like someone pulled the rug out from under you. Cravings hit you like a big Mac truck. It didn’t come out of the blue but it just as well had. You were not prepared nor paying attention to the details of your recovery life and there you were—acting out again!

The taste of acting out is bitter. There are times it makes your mouth dry as cotton. There is a sick feeling in your stomach. Sometimes you wonder how it could possibly have happened. Yet it did. There are cascading self-accusations that rattle in your brain like a machine gun. You feel overwhelmingly down and discouraged. The hangover from acting out leaves you feeling dull with brain fog. You walk through life activities hollow inside feeling dreamlike about the experience. You know you have to tell on yourself but you want to lie and keep it all a secret. How do I ever rebound from such an awful place?

Here are steps back to center that you must consider:

1. Admit the obvious. Addicts learn from their family of origin to embrace the improbable and ignore the obvious. They are great at pretending. When you relapse you must tell on yourself and be accountable to your support group including your partner. This is where you wobble. You can tell people in your 12-step group but my partner?! Are you kidding me? Secrets and dishonesty are breeding grounds for addiction behavior to flourish. Best to tell support people in 12-step recovery before you disclose to your partner so that you don’t minimize what you did in relapse. To do otherwise risks creating a disclosure disaster. Hold your feet to the fire and tell on yourself.

2. Do the next right thing. This is obvious but bears underscoring. The next right thing is to get yourself out of harm’s way. Address vulnerability to continue acting out by reaching out in a 12-step meeting and/or recovery friend. Lay it out in living color exactly what happen. Don’t piecemeal your truth. Let the love and acceptance of the group or support person become a shroud you wear. You have hurt yourself and are wounded. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to face consequences. It is important that you surround yourself with love, support, and genuine care in the presence of white hot truth-telling.

3. Do an autopsy on your relapse behavior. Once you’re out of harm’s way and surrounded by support, figure out how relapse happened. If you don’t, be prepared to do it again. Examine program neglect: (1) stopped going to meetings: (2) isolated—not telling on yourself to group/sponsor or support; (3) stopped doing the steps because of busyness; (4) procrastinated facing a truth that you don’t want to face; (5) wallowed in shame, resentment, loneliness, anger, hate; (6) marinated in mistaken beliefs that block intimacy and sabotage recovery. Do the work of unpacking how you put yourself in the box that led to your relapse. If you can figure out how you got into the relapse box, you can figure out how to get out.

4. Fortify your commitment to recovery: Once clear about why you acted out, fortify taking the next healing steps. Create filters that will keep you from porn and acting out. Don’t just put a cork in the bottle, get rid of all alcohol in the house. These are examples of next right steps. How many times have I heard addicts confess to relapse with no plan for next right steps. When you fortify your commitment to recovery, next right steps become obvious.

5. Act on positive self-affirmation regardless of how you feel. When you relapse and feel like all hell has broke loose, it’s hard to take yourself by the nape of the neck and pull yourself from the mud hole you created. You can only do this with determination to act on treating yourself as you hope to be. It is painful but you must forgive yourself and let go of the negative feelings that accompany relapse behavior. These steps are always painful. As you act in the way your destiny beckons, the painful shameful messages will fall away in time. You will become congruent merging your behavior to positive beliefs about self.

6. Don’t let the little boy/little girl run your inner life. You cannot expect a small child to figure out addiction. Shame dominates in relapse behavior because we empower the little boy/girl to make adult decisions about recovery. Put in charge, the inner child will conclude that you are a piece of shit who is destined to never get it right so why try. This is because a little child is unable to navigate the narrows of addiction recovery. However, when you take the reins of responsibility and place them in the hands of the powerful adult in you, the results are dramatically different. As an adult, you can face consequences of destructive choices, choose to care for self, and hold your feet to the fire of bringing yourself back to center. It will require the adult-you to fend off the negative shameful messages and to embrace and act on positive affirmations that will fulfill the destiny of sobriety.

Relapse is always found in the box of your own making. Hopefully, these steps will help you step out of the box and take steps toward solid sobriety and deepened serenity.

Entitlement and the Special Worm

There is a story about the subtle snag of grandiosity in The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum: A past president of the Hazledon Foundation, a leading treatment resource for alcohol and drug addiction, was approached by a young researcher asking, “Why is it that even intelligent alcoholics can get so trapped in denial of their alcoholism? Is it because of grandiosity—they think that they can do anything to their bodies and survive, they think that they are ‘too smart’ to be alcoholic? Or is it because of self-loathing—they despise themselves and feel they deserve to die, if they are alcoholics?” The past president sighed and replied, “The alcoholic’s problem is not that he thinks he is very special. Nor is the alcoholic’s problem that he thinks he is a worm. The alcoholic’s problem is that he is convinced “I am a very special worm!”

Entitlement is an overlooked component in the life of a recovering addict. Clearly, it is a major contribution to the demise and derail of many addicts dominated by their narcissistic wound. It can show up in recovery like a blind spot undetected or can be as obvious as a swollen black eye. It is fueled by deprivation, usually a deficit from emotional needs not being met. Most addicts have never learned how to meet their emotional needs in a healthy way.

Too impatient to learn, many addicts ignore deprivation and try to will their way into stopping the acting out. It is common for an addict to vacillate between feeling like a piece of shit for their behavior to overconfidence that they have this thing called recovery down! Whenever I do an autopsy on relapse, I always discover grandiose entitlement that traces back to underestimated deprivation. Twelve step shares around relapse are replete with addicts who share the mentality of thinking of themselves as a “special worm”. It’s a dynamic that all too often destroys sobriety and defeats attempts toward recovery.

The following recovery interventions should be understood in managing the “special worm” syndrome:

1. Condition yourself to recognize unmet emotional needs. Craving is a conditioned response to a legitimate emotional or physical need. The rut of response that leads to acting out must be redirected. It is helpful to slow things down and reflect about the emotional/physical need that can be met in a healthy way without acting out. As an addict, you can figure that you can blow right past your emotional needs and focus on whatever pursuit that is in front of you in the moment. That’s usually a fatal mistake and a contribution to chronic relapse. Recognition of emotional needs requires that you pay attention to what you feel. Sounds simple and it is. Yet, simple in recovery is difficult. Sitting with your feelings can be unbelievably uncomfortable. Yet, the secret is to recognize what you feel and to determine what need the emotion is identifying that must be met in a healthy way. Then it requires that you creatively brainstorm how you might meet that need in a non-destructive self-affirming way. This represents self-parenting. With addiction, the goal like so many other aspects in life is to emotionally grow yourself up. This strategy can all sound good and clear. Yet, these actions toward sobriety require step by step conditioning and daily practice. One day at a time is never more true than learning this skill set in recovery. In the presence of intense impatience and the temptation to yield to an “I don’t get it mentality”, slow your thoughts down in order to recognize unmet emotional needs and work toward meeting them in a healthy way. Don’t be harsh with yourself if you botch it up or find this strategy difficult and awkward.

2. Go the distance in recovery. I recall reading in M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled a metaphor described by Peck that the journey in life for many is likened to traveling through the desert. In their journey, many people make it to the first or second oasis and then stop rather than using the oasis for renewal of strength for the travel to the other side of the desert to lush green terrain of personal and relational intimacy. This can be true in recovery. For many addicts, the goal of achieved sobriety is enough. The remainder of life hovers around appreciation and celebration of overcoming being dominated by addiction. Twelve step meetings can become a kind of oasis in the desert where recovering addicts appreciate one another for their recovery. Many times their intimacy and recovery becomes confined to group members and experiences with other addicts who understand and walked through the desert with them to find the oasis of 12-step recovery. Yet, for many the journey stops at a 12-step meeting. Personal growth in relationship intimacy with partners, family, and other relationships is stymied because of the temptation to hover around the oasis at a 12-step meeting. Some addicts are more emotionally intimate with fellow addicts than they are with their romantic partners. It can be tempting to rest on the laurels of sobriety in the secure confines of a 12-step fellowship. It has been my experience that this dynamic is a subtle lure to a “special worm” mentality. The need to push forward and deepen relational intimacy in everyday relationships can be substituted by the acceptance and comfort of the cocoon found in 12-step fellowship. Yet, those who utilize the support from a 12-step fellowship as a launching pad to dive into the vulnerability of opening their heart and becoming emotionally naked in their relationship journey with their world will avoid the perils of becoming a “special worm”. In recovery, sobriety is establishing a ground zero for personal growth. Living with an open heart and pushing for relational intimacy will require moving beyond the oasis into the depths of vulnerability in order to make it through the desert to the other side.

3. Don’t forget C.S. Lewis who said “A good egg stays ripe for so long—it will either hatch or become rotten.” Life is brief. The opportunity for personal growth in any relationship presents itself with finite time constraints. Relationship recovery is a blend of highs and lows, bitter and sweet. Recovery life is a tapestry that presents opportunities for connection with self and others that you cherish. It doesn’t last forever. The opportunity is a dynamic that will hatch into the richness of relational intimacy or become rotten in neglect and missed chances for closeness. Being seduced into complacency in the present will fuel a “special worm” mentality. Seductively, you can adopt an “I’ve been there, done that, no need to do more” mentality about your recovery work. This is a subtle form of “stinking thinking”. You tell yourself “I’ve done enough time to rest on the laurels of recovery work”. You begin to feel entitled that you now deserve to avoid the “hot seat” of recovery scrutiny now that you are sober. Soon you become the good egg that becomes rotten. It is crucial that you embrace the relational growth opportunities in front of you. To do this you must become hungry for personal growth around the next challenge in relationship and life dynamic. “Rotten eggs” are discarded relationship opportunities that carry wistful thoughts about what might have been had we only overcome the “special worm” syndrome.