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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. It’s 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.