What does the title of this article mean to people in recovery from Substance Use Disorder?
If someone has to a personal history of alcoholism, illicit drug addiction, or prescription medication misuse, can that history serve them as they move forward on their sober journey?
The answer is unequivocally “YES”.
In fact, not only CAN the past be an excellent teacher, for someone in recovery, it MUST be. Everything up to this point –the failures, the missteps, the losses, and the regrets -are an invaluable personal resource that can help support a successful and lasting recovery.
Because just as the quote implies, the converse is also true. Anyone who forgets how addiction brought them to their lowest point or who doesn’t learn from their mistakes are bound to repeat them again and again. And that means failed recovery.
But to find out exactly how and what can be learned from a personal history of an active addiction, we must first take a closer look at relapse – the OPPOSITE of learning.
First Things First – What Is Relapse?
A “relapse” is when a person in recovery returns to actively using alcohol and drugs. More than that, they abandon their efforts at sobriety and go back to dysfunctional, addiction-driven behaviors.
A relapse is more serious than a “slip”, which is when the person briefly uses intoxicants again, quickly realizes their mistake, and then almost immediately resumes their recovery program. Usually, a slip has very little lasting impact on the person’s life.
But a relapse lasts longer -weeks, months, years, or even permanently. As a result, the consequences and impact are far worse.
In her book, Trust the Process: How to Enhance Recovery and Prevent Relapse, Linda Free-Gardiner made an excellent point – “One very important fact…you can’t relapse in any disease until you’ve been in recovery from it. This is the truth in any illness. If someone has not yet got into the recovery process, they CANNOT have a relapse.”
If recovery can be understood as learning about the disease of addiction and consciously taking the necessary steps to address the illness, then relapse can be viewed as failing to retain what was learned.
To that end, here are some of the most common mistakes that people in recovery make that can contribute to a slip or relapse, along with the lessons that should be remembered.
Mistake #1 -Thinking That Addiction Is A Choice
Too many people – including struggling alcoholics and addicts -are under the mistaken impression that addiction is somehow a choice. They feel that if a substance abuser really wanted to get better, they would just use their willpower. And when they can’t, it’s because they are selfish or morally weak.
This is a mistake because it causes the person to feel unnecessary guilt and shame at their supposed weaknesses. These painful negative emotions can push a person back to active use.
Lesson -Addiction Is A Disease
Addiction – properly called Substance Use Disorder -is defined as a “chronic and relapsing brain disease ” by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is a medically-diagnosable illness with recognizable symptoms and established treatment protocols.
Chronic substance abuse causes neurochemical changes within the person’s brain, affecting a number of processes:
- Higher reasoning
- Impulse control
While initially, the person chooses to drink or use drugs in order to feel good, once these changes occur, they are compelled by their substance-dependent brain to drink/use to keep from feeling bad.
Choice is no longer an option.
And once the person understands this, they will shed themselves of the burdensome guilt and shame that may be holding them back.
Mistake #2 – Thinking Detox is Enough
Many people who are new to recovery think that all they have to do is stop using and drinking and everything will be all right. They are under the wrong impression that after a few days of detox, the hard part is over.
This is a mistake because it leaves the person unprepared for the hard work ahead.
Lesson -Detox is Not Recovery
But SUD is more complicated than that.
A person whose addiction-driven behaviors led to dysfunctional bad habits doesn’t magically and immediately return to mental and physical health just because they’re currently substance-free. Yes, a person must be free of the physical compulsion to drink/use before they can move forward in recovery, but that is merely a prerequisite to treatment.
The REAL work is just beginning.
Where once the person’s life revolved around chasing the next buzz or high, now they need to learn how to live without intoxicants. And learning healthier habits will take dedicated effort, time, and a commitment to making the lifestyle changes that support sobriety.
Mistake #3 -Trying to Recover Alone
Many people who want to get clean and sober think that their recovery is completely up to them. After all, they think, they got themselves into this mess, so it is their sole responsibility to get themselves out of it.
This is a mistake because SUD is bigger than any one person. Anyone trying to overcome their addiction on their own will find that their personal resources as an individual are almost always inadequate.
Lesson – Recovery Requires Help and Support
Here’s the good news – now, more than ever before, people struggling with addictive disorders have a great deal of resources available to them. Anyone in an evidence-based rehab program will work with counselors, doctors, and addiction recovery specialists who provide numerous treatment services, including:
- Individual psychological counseling
- Peer group therapy
- Behavior modification
- Medication assistance
- Treatment for co-occurring mental illness
- Nutritional guidance
- Stress reduction
- Coping skills
- Improving communication
- Couples and family counseling
- Relapse prevention and response
Mistake #4 – Fighting Cravings and Withdrawal with Willpower
People trying to quit drugs and alcohol on their own usually try to go “cold turkey” – abruptly stopping all use. That’s a mistake for two very important reasons:
FIRST, the extreme drug cravings and painfully uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms can be so severe as to push the person right back into active use.
SECOND, withdrawal from some substances -namely, alcohol or benzodiazepine tranquilizers -can actually be dangerous. In fact, alcohol or benzo withdrawal can be fatal if not medically-supervised.
Lesson – Medication Assistance Works
But there are FDA-approved medications that can reduce or even totally eliminate drug cravings for most addictive substances. Other medications can ease symptoms of withdrawal, allowing the person to focus on the other positive messages presented during recovery.
Right now, the “gold standard” of addiction treatment is the combination education, psychological counseling, and anti-craving medication. Meditation-assisted Treatment allows up to 70% of patients to remain successfully abstinent for at least a year.
Mistake #5 -Thinking that Relapse Happens to Other People
Too often, people began their sober journey with no conception of how to prevent a relapse into active substance use. They erroneously believe that they can handle everything that their disease will throw at them, and that relapses only happens to other “weaker” people.
That’s a mistake, because relapse is a real possibility for EVERYONE in recovery, and underestimating that reality is a recipe for disaster.
Lesson -Relapse Happens to Most People in Recovery
In fact, relapse is more than a possibility—it’s an unfortunate probability.
According to a 2012 article in Psychology Today, up to 90% of people in addiction recovery will suffer “at least one mild to moderate slip.”
The drug of choice matters a great deal, in terms of the relapse rates.
- Hallucinogens – 42%
- Marijuana – 43%
- Methamphetamine – 52%
- Cocaine – 62%
- Alcohol – 68%
- Heroin – 78%
The reality of relapse means that people in recovery should take their illness all the more seriously and work their program as closely as they can.
Mistake #6 -Believing That Relapse is Inevitable
Alternately, some people are nonchalant about relapse, because they believe that relapse ALWAYS happens. They may even ascribe to a misleading slogan – “Relapse is part of recovery.”
But that is a dangerous assumption, because it basically gives tacit approval to use or drink again, almost as if it is to be expected.
Lesson – Relapse is NOT Part of Recovery
Relapse is not permissible, and anyone trying to recover needs to do whatever it takes to avoid resuming substance use. To be clear, relapse is not part of recovery, it is part of the DISEASE.
There are no guarantees that a full-blown relapse won’t be tragically permanent, because overdose rates in America continue to skyrocket. In 2017 alone, overdoses took the lives of over 72,000 people in this country.
Mistake #7 – Failing to Plan
to spell out in detail what steps they are going to take to prevent relapse and successfully regain their sobriety. In other words, they are trying to take a difficult sober journey without a roadmap to their destination.
Lesson -Create A Relapse Prevention Plan
A relapse prevention plan is simply a set of instructions to one’s self, listing the daily and as-needed actions that can be taken to avoid a return to active substance use. It can be simple – just a couple of pages—or it can be a detailed step-by-step guide.
A good relapse prevention plan might include how to:
- Avoid triggers
- Manage cravings and temptation
- Deal with stress
- Improve life affected by addiction
- Practice daily recovery exercises
To use the roadmap analogy again, a sober plan keeps someone on the right path and moving in the right direction.
Mistake #8 – Becoming Stressed Out
Recovery has the potential to quickly become overwhelming. Early on, some newly-sober people try to take on too much too soon—work, family obligations, and social activities—all while juggling tasks directly related to recovery. It is almost as if they want to regain everything that they lost or missed out on all at once.
But vainly trying to meet everyone’s expectations can be exhausting, and whenever those expectations aren’t met, the person can feel as if they have let their loved ones down yet again.
Lesson -Take It Easy
But here is the secret to eliminate doing a great deal of stress during recovery – learn the power of “NO”.
Naturally, it is tempting to try to quickly regain as much of one’s life as possible, it can result in being stretched thin. But it’s not necessary to say yes to every invitation or possible commitment. Instead, prioritize where to spend time and energy.
Mistake #9 – Ignoring Mental Health
More than half of all drug addicts and over a third of all alcoholics have a diagnosable mental illness such as:
But even though each of these illnesses can worsen—and be worsened by—SUD, getting proper treatment is a huge problem. In fact, among those with such a dual diagnosis, just 2% are receiving the specialized care they do desperately need.
And this sabotages successful recovery from addiction, because many people with untreated mental disorders will self-medicate with alcohol or drugs in order to ease their symptoms.
Lesson -Concurrent Treatment Is A Must
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, integrated treatment is the best way to address simultaneous addiction and mental illness.
Integrated treatment means that every service provider works under the umbrella of a shared and cooperative treatment philosophy. Significantly, both the addiction and the mental disorder are each treated as the primary illness.
Successful integrated treatment necessitates both cooperation and communication between all parties involved. This might include a number of services and professions:
- Mental health -therapists, psychologist, psychiatrist
- Addiction -substance abuse specialist
- Medical -neurologist, MD, etc.
- Family Services Counselor
- Vocational or school advisor
- Spouse, family members, and close friends
- Sponsor from 12-Step group
- Social worker
- Drug court or probation officer
- Presiding judge
Mistake #10 – Not Avoiding Triggers
Another big mistake made by some people in recovery is not making the necessary changes to their daily habits. They still go to the same places, do the same things, and hang out with the same people. But if those are the people, places, and things don’t support successful sobriety, then they can lead directly to relapse.
Lesson -Stay Away from ANYTHING and ANYONE that Can Jeopardize Your Recovery
One of the first lessons learned in early recovery is the need to avoid “triggers”—those people, places, things, thoughts, and emotions that are associated with alcohol or drug use. Examples:
- People—drug or drinking buddies, non-sober friends
- Places—bars, nightclubs, liquor stores, places where you used to “party”
- Things—drug paraphernalia, empty liquor bottles, advertisements, tv shows or films featuring substance use
- Thoughts—unworthiness, resentment, minimizing
- Emotions—shame, sadness, jealousy, rage
Successful recovery often means making considerable changes to one’s routine to stay away from triggers. This might be accomplished by:
- Staying away from anyone who drinks or uses drugs in your presence
- Not going to gatherings where liquor is being served
- Altering your driving routes
- Making new friends
- Cleaning your home to get rid of all old evidence of substance use (NOTE: Do this with a sober friend)
- Changing the channel when triggering scenes come on
- Repeating positive mantras
- Reading recovery literature
Mistake #11 – Neglecting Nutrition
Active drinking and drugging is usually characterized by poor eating habits – greasy, fattening fast food, sugary and salty junk food, and overeating—or not eating at all.
During early recovery, it’s far too easy to continue eating the same way, and this slows physical recovery from the damage caused by substance abuse.
Worse, people who are still new to recovery may have a hard time differentiating between hunger pangs and drug/alcohol cravings. This is why they are taught to never to let themselves get “too hungry ”.
Lesson -Eat Right to Live Right
Following a proper diet during recovery can help in multiple ways:
- Correcting vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Promoting physical healing
- Restoring a healthy body weight
- Boosting energy
- Improving concentration
- Alleviating insomnia
Eating better during recovery isn’t as hard as one might think:
- Always eat breakfast
- Drinking plenty of water
- Keep healthy snacks on hand – fruits, granola bars, vegetables, nuts
- Don’t go too long between meals or snacks
- Plan for the day—Early recovery is often a very busy time, and a little thought beforehand can keep you on track
Mistake #12 – Forgetting Self-Care
With recovery activities, work, family obligations, outings with friends, 12-step meetings, counseling sessions, and for some, court-ordered community service, it can seem as if there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything. Something has to give.
But too often, the sacrifice that is made is the wrong one -the person leaves no time for their own personal needs. And recovery burnout can lead to relapse.
Lesson -Take Good Care of Yourself
Self-care is not just a good idea during recovery – it’s absolutely vital. Everyone—especially someone whose sobriety is still fragile—needs time to rest, relax, and recharge.
If this means stepping back from everything that’s going on and putting yourself and your recovery first, then so be it…that’s how it should be.
Mistake #13 – Skipping 12 Step Meetings
When time seems in short supply, it seems as if one of the first casualties is regular attendance at 12-Step meetings like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous. The person mistakenly reasons that because these fellowship meetings are voluntary, it’s okay to go “when it’s convenient”.
Lesson – You Need Your Peers
But 12-Step meetings offer something invaluable – fellowship with one’s peers. These are people who have gone through the same things, suffered the same problems, and felt the same way. These shared experiences have been referred to as the “kinship of common suffering”, and it helps in several ways:
- Lets the person know that they are not alone.
- Shows them examples of peers who have achieved long-lasting sobriety.
- Allows them a safe, non-judgmental place to express themselves.
- Asks accountability—to their Sponsor and to their peers.
- Teaches them the value of service to others.
- Provides a source of strength and inspiration.
Mistake #14 – Lacking a Support System
Because active addiction can drive a wedge between substance abusers and their loved ones, many people think they have to recover completely on their own.
Alternately, they may hesitate to ask for help from their family and friends, because they put hem through so much when they were drinking and drugging.
Both of these mindsets are mistakes, because one of the best resources for someone in recovery is a strong personal support system.
Lesson -Personal Support Makes All the Difference
NO ONE can truly recover without the help of other people. In times of overwhelming stress or temptation they can be the strong, steadying influence that keeps us on the right path.
Normally, support comes from family members and close friends, but when that’s not a current option, there are other sources that can help keep us sober.
- Counselors provide the tools for success.
- Sponsors offer guidance.
- Peers in recovery hold us accountable.
- Employee assistance programs can connect us to other resources.
Mistake #15 – Trying to Use Other Substances
A lot of people erroneously believe that addiction is substance-specific, and they should be able to safely use substances other than their primary drug of choice.
For example, if they are dependent on heroin, they think it’s still OK to drink alcohol during recovery. Or, if they have a drinking or painkiller problem, they want to still be able to smoke weed.
They’ll give excuses to justify their continued substance use:
- “I need something to unwind…”
- “At least it’s not (their drug of choice).”
- “It’s ONLY pot/beer/a few pills.”
Lesson -Addiction is Addiction is Addiction
But that way of thinking ignores the fact that ALL addictive substances affect the brain in similar ways, altering the regions responsible for:
- Moral reasoning
Anyone who has ever been addicted to ANY substance is vulnerable to ALL intoxicants.
Furthermore, they tend to go back to their regular drug of choice.
This is because people tend to make poor choices when they are impaired by any mind-altering substance. When their judgment is clouded, and inhibitions are lowered, any good intentions they might have become irrelevant.
Of special relevance, recent research conducted suggests that smoking marijuana may trigger relapses in alcoholics and drug addicts.
Scientists with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Vrije University in Amsterdam found that blocking the brain’s cannabinoid receptors assists people who are trying to stop smoking, drinking alcohol, or using heroin or cocaine.
Mistake #16 – Thinking They are Cured
After achieving any significant period of sobriety, some people in recovery will start to wrongly believe that they are cured—they think their problem is completely under control and they can now drink and use drugs socially, “just like other people”.
But when they try this, they invariably lose control, relapse, and end up back where they were before – or worse. This is the nature of addiction.
Lesson – There is No Cure for Addiction
Unfortunately, there is currently no proven cure for SUD. People who develop this illness will ALWAYS have it, and successful recovery means careful management for the rest of their life. In this way, addiction is like other chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, or high blood pressure.
For example, a person with diabetes can’t go back to regularly eating a ton of sugary foods, no matter how long their glucose levels have been well-controlled.
It is a complicated disease with many causal and contributing factors. In many ways, scientists are just beginning to understand how addiction works, and there is still so very much to learn.
But again, as with other chronic diseases, there are ways to manage the disease, limit the damage it causes, and live a happy, healthy, and productive life.
And to use the analogy one more time, just as the diabetic stays healthy by watching their carbohydrate intake, taking their medication, losing weight, and exercising more, so must person with SUD take steps to safeguard their sobriety:
- Specialized addiction treatment
- Lifestyle changes
- 12-Step meeting attendance
- Personal support system
- Continuing aftercare
Mistake #17 – Becoming Overconfident
Sometimes, a person has too easy a time on some areas of early recovery—instead of difficult detox, people withdrawal symptoms, and multiple slips, they make it through these early stages with little difficulty. This gives them the mistaken notion that recovery is “easy” and that they don’t have to work as hard as they were led to believe.
Lesson – Addiction is Powerful
But ease of success in one aspect of recovery does not mean there will be difficulties in other areas. At some point, everyone in recovery faces a barrier or a problem that is bigger than they are. And if they are not prepared, this can jeopardize their sobriety.
This goes back to the First Step of Recovery, where the person admits that their addiction has gone beyond their control. And because of that, they will need to work harder than they ever have and accept more outside help than ever before that they are to successfully recover.
Recovery isn’t easy at all. In fact, it may be the hardest thing ever, because it means battling against one’s own brain.
Mistake #18 – Complacency
Alternately, a person who has achieved any significant length of regained sobriety may feel that they can now relax and let their recovery take care of itself, almost on autopilot.
This is a mistake, because addiction has been referred to as a “cunning” disease that can strike at any time. The late actor and comedian Robin Williams infamously relapsed after 20 years of sobriety. About his experience, he said, “It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now. I’m OK.’ Then the next thing you know, it’s not OK.”
Lesson – Recovery Requires Vigilance
For that reason, a person in recovery should ALWAYS keep that first and foremost in their mind. For the rest of their life, they will have to make multiple decisions every day that support their continued sobriety. A person is more likely to be caught off-guard when they are:
These are the times when it becomes far too easy to return to active substance use. Consequently, this is when anyone in recovery needs to be most aware of their emotional state, their thoughts, and their actions.
Mistake #19 – Impatience
Substance abusers are not known for their patience—they want what they want when they want it. When their illness was active, they wanted their alcohol and drugs NOW, before the cravings hit. And now that they are getting sober, they want everything that their recovery promises NOW, as well.
And when there are delays and bumps in the road, they get frustrated. When things aren’t moving at a pace that suits them, they may even begin to doubt the fact that things are ever going to get better at all. That doubt can trigger a relapse.
Lesson – Don’t Rush Things
But here’s the thing—just as the addiction did not develop overnight, neither will recovery. Coming back from SUD is not like walking into a dark room, flipping a switch, and instantly being rewarded with light. Rather, recovery is a process, one where progress happens at different rates. As long as you are on the right path and moving in the right direction, it really doesn’t matter how long it takes you to reach your destination.
Sometimes, current success is measured by not moving backwards.
Mistake #20 – Thinking About Forever
“Forever” is a mind-boggling concept. When someone who hasn’t gone without a drink or some kind of drug for more than a few hours in several years tries to wrap their head around the fact that they can NEVER drink or get high again, the idea is just incomprehensible. It’s too terrible a thought.
This is especially true in early recovery. Someone who has just completed a painful detox program and who is still experiencing lingering withdrawal symptoms cannot possibly have desire to feel that way for the rest of their life. Because they don’t yet have a frame of reference, they don’t know that it WILL get better.
And if they are having a difficult time in early recovery, they may think that they lack the strength to resist a lifetime of cravings and temptation.
Lesson -Take Recovery One Day at a Time
About this, they are exactly right. Expecting someone to promise that they will give up alcohol and drugs forever IS just too much to ask. No one is that strong.
But…with all of the help and support and treatment and medication that they have available to them, they ARE strong enough to stay clean and sober just for today. That’s realistic and achievable. And when you make it through enough todays, tomorrow takes care of itself.
Mistake #21 – Boredom
During active addiction, most of a person’s time revolves around their next drunk or high. They spend their days thinking about, locating, acquiring, using, and recovering from use. The cycle repeats.
And when they enter a recovery program, they are shocked to discover how much time they have on their hands. Even after counseling sessions, 12-Step meetings, and work, there is still so much of the day to fill.
To and alleviate their boredom, too many people in recovery fall back into old patterns.
Find Positive Things to Do
But recovery doesn’t have to be boring or miserable.
It is possible to be productive and genuinely happy during recovery. Those empty hours that be used to be taken up by addiction-driven compulsions and behaviors can be now spent positively in the pursuit of hobbies and interests that have nothing to do with substance use.
Some examples of positive activities:
- Take a class
- Serve at 12-Step meetings
- Go to a local sporting event
- Go on a trip
- Throw a sober party
- Pick up a new hobby
- Learn a new skill
Finally, you are free to CHOOSE, something that wasn’t always an option during active addiction.
Mistake #22 – Loneliness
For most people in recovery, their social life changes drastically when they give up drugs and alcohol. They can’t “party” like they used to, they have to stay away from friends and family members who don’t support their sobriety, they have to watch where they go, and they even have to avoid certain social gatherings – parties, sporting events, barbecues, etc. –if alcohol use is significantly involved.
Interaction with others is a biological need, and when that need is unmet, it interferes with our mental and emotional health. To fill the void, some people will turn to their most-familiar source of comfort — drugs and alcohol.
Lesson -Surround Yourself with Positive People
While adhering to recovery might mean avoiding toxic people who have been regular parts of your life, it doesn’t mean that you have to be lonely. Positivity is contagious, so when you make a point of hanging out with non-drinking, non-drugging people, those friendships help support your continued sobriety.
Traits of positive people:
- Leaders by personal example
- Builders of other’s self-esteem
- Motivated and motivating
- Accepting that your recovery is your highest priority
Mistake # 23 – Resenting Recovery
At some point, everyone in recovery experiences twinges of regret because they miss their former life. They don’t think about the negatives—the instability, the personal problems, the dysfunction, etc.. Instead, they dwell upon everything that they have lost now that they are sober—the camaraderie, the good times, and the freedom from worry or responsibility, even if it was only temporary.
Some people go further than that, however. They start feeling jealous about the fact that other people can go out and drink and get high and have fun while they themselves cannot. They may even feel that they have been cheated somehow.
These feelings turn into a dangerous mistake when the person starts to resent their own sobriety—to the point that they might do something about it, even if that “something” is against their own best interests.
Lesson – Be Grateful
Instead of obsessing over everything that was lost, people new to recovery are taught to appreciate everything that they have gained or regained now that they are sober:
- Personal relationships
- Sense of self
- Real friends
- Physical and mental health
- Prospects for the future
When these things are added up, the total of what is gained far exceeds any “losses”.
And that is something to be grateful for.
The Bottom Line
Addiction is a complicated disease, and this creates potential potholes on the road to recovery. Mistakes WILL be made along the way. There will be missteps, stops and starts, and wrong turns.
The challenge isn’t to be mistake-free during recovery. No, the true test is our response.
We can either stubbornly refuse to change what we are doing and continue making and remaking the same mistakes over and over, or, we can make every small failure an opportunity for growth and eventual successful and long-lasting recovery.
Even better, we can make the road ahead as smooth as possible by learning from the mistakes of others. We know enough to know about the disease of addiction to avoid some of the challenges faced in the past.
If you are ready to move forward on your own sober journey, click here for more information about the steps you can take to get the professional help you need.