Although there are countless reasons why someone might relapse, here we cover a few common ones and discuss how to avoid these potential pitfalls.
1. Stop going to meetings
We suspect this might be the top cause of relapse. For an alcoholic or addict who is engaged in a 12-step recovery process, backing away from regular, consistent meeting attendance is the equivalent of a patient who stops taking their medicine. Not everyone who stops going to meetings relapses, but most of us with contented, long-term sobriety find this component vital to our sanity and happiness. Meetings are where we fuel the tank and become re-energized, and learn, develop and practice the tools needed for sober living. They offer a community of like-minded individuals, who give us support, inspiration, and encouragement. Moreover, this regular contact keeps us accountable. If you’re straying from the path, it’s probable that attending a meeting will give you a nudge in the right direction. Regular contact with a sober fellowship can be a crucial way to ensure that one isn’t becoming isolated, and offers us a place to be revitalized by familiar, compassionate faces.
What’s more, the chances are, if we’ve stopped going to meetings, we are no longer being afforded ample opportunities to practice the 12th step: carrying the message to those who are still suffering. As the AA Big Book and other 12 step literature make abundantly clear, helping others is a critical component to stay sober ourselves.
2. Not doing the work
Although meeting attendance is the lifeblood of sobriety for many of us, meetings alone are often insufficient to giving us a deeper sense of ease and peace in our sobriety. While 12-step fellowships can offer community, friendship, and support, those things alone are generally not enough to keep us sober. Although meetings might give us some relief, addressing the causes and conditions of our alcoholism or addiction gives us true freedom. Most people considering going into recovery struggle to imagine a life sober, and especially one that is happy, comfortable and full. The deep work of the 12 steps is what helps us get free of the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that made life so difficult in the first place. Working the 12 steps is where the real transformation happens. And as they say, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
3. Activate your allergy
The central explanation of alcoholism and drug addiction in Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous literature suggests that we have an allergy to alcohol or drugs, and no matter the amount we take, it sets off a crushing craving that is impossible to overcome with willpower alone. Once we trigger this response, we’re as good as gone. So for example, when someone comes into AA to treat their alcoholism, and they begin to take sedatives to manage the anxiety they feel, without knowing it they may be triggering their allergy. This incites a monstrous craving they have no hope of battling, leading them to ultimately relapse on alcohol, or their drug of choice. Of course, taking vital prescription medication under the advice and guidance of a doctor well-versed in addiction and aware of your history generally does not apply in this scenario.
4. Acting out in other areas
So what about people who relapsed despite going to meetings, working the steps, and not taking other substances? Collective experience shows that in these cases, often the person might not have been “practicing the principles in all of their affairs” (part of the 12th step). People who continue to steal, lie, or cheat—or otherwise live in ways that look a lot like the behavior of a practicing alcoholic or addict—seem to often get so uncomfortable in their skin that they need some relief, which eventually takes the form of a drink or drug. In recovery, we don’t practice the principles just because we suddenly got “nice”, but rather because our lives depend on it.
5. Not ready yet
Still others come into treatment or a 12-step fellowship curious and unmanageable, and facing some ugly consequences, but not yet ready to stop. In these cases, relapse often seems imminent. This is generally because the individual is not willing to really surrender their old life, seek help and take the steps necessary to achieve long-term sobriety.
Whatever the situation, relapse does not need to be a part of your story. The literature of 12-step fellowships gives precise directions for how to get sober and stay that way. It actually says things like “precise” and “exact” when referring to the directions for sobering up. They also say, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” The AA big book—and the experience of millions—suggests that if you follow the directions exactly, you don’t have to drink or use anymore.