Relapse Prevention: Staying Sober Through Life Setbacks

By John Lavitt 03/27/19

Without recovery tools or a relapse prevention plan, it can be difficult to stay sober while dealing with a significant life setback. The lure of the drink or drug to ease the pain and bring comfort becomes too great to resist.

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Young man with hands on head, at sunset, pondering life setbacks, relapse prevention
Breaking up can hurt so deeply that you feel you can’t bear it; having a drink or taking a drug seems to be the only way to stop the heartache. Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

When people at treatment centers or in 12-step meetings say that relapse is part of recovery, it turns my stomach. Although the door to recovery remains open after a relapse—as long as a person survives such dangerous waters—relapse is not part of recovery. At the same time, however, the slip and slide process that leads to a relapse does happen in recovery.

Whether we are newly clean and sober or have stacked up many years—even decades—of sobriety, the triggers that lead to a relapse happen before we pick up the first drink or drug. But if we have done the work and have recovery tools in place, these triggering events can be processed successfully instead of leading to a relapse. We acquire recovery tools through 12-step programs, SMART Recovery, therapy, or whichever recovery pathway we have chosen, and we use them for relapse prevention.

Without recovery tools, it can be immensely difficult to stay sober while dealing with a significant life setback. The lure of the drink or drug to ease the pain and restore a sense of comfort becomes too great to resist. It reminds me of the mantra of Dr. Gabor Maté: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.”

But we have to know how and when to use the tools properly, which requires practice. We gain this practice by working the 12 steps or taking other constructive actions in our recovery pathway well before a triggering event occurs. Then, when we hit a life setback, we are prepared.

Here are four life setbacks which can lead to relapse if we do not have recovery tools.

1. The loss of a job, a promotion, or a major work opportunity

One of my favorite sayings in 12-step programs is that an expectation is a resentment under construction. When you miss out on a significant work opportunity or you’re let go from your job or passed over for a promotion, it is natural to feel crushed and overwhelmed. Many people in recovery take professional setbacks personally, punishing themselves for a perceived failure. There is a reason alcoholism is called a disease of perception. We will drink or use to escape the pain of a perceived failure, or—in a masochistic fashion—to inflict more damage on themselves as the vicious punishment for such a failure. When you consider the consequences, this outcome can be devastating.

Rather than sinking into depression and self-blame, you can use recovery tools to put the setback into context. Did you know people change jobs an average of 12 times during their career? In January 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median employee tenure was 4.3 years for men and 4.0 years for women. The very nature of employment is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.

Given these statistics, it’s easy to apply the second and third steps to a career setback. If you turn over the disappointment to a higher power and have faith that another opportunity will arise, then relapse is less likely to occur. If you discuss the problem in a group, you will receive support and learn from the similar experiences of other people.

2. Global events like elections, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters

People in recovery tend to take everything personally. We sometimes use big events that may have no direct impact on our lives as reasons to drink or use. After the last presidential election, I heard many people in meetings bitterly joke that they were either moving to Canada or having a drink. Luckily, most of them did neither, regaining their focus on the microcosm of their own lives. They focused on what was right in front of them, remembering to take things one day at a time.

When seemingly apocalyptic moments arise, there is an urge to console ourselves. We feel the pain and horror of terrorist attacks and natural disasters and use those feelings as a justification for a relapse.

An essential recovery tool for sidestepping this kind of relapse is avoiding isolation. When we are alone and in our heads, we are in dangerous neighborhoods. By going out and spending time within a supportive community, the disaster loses some of its power over us. We come to understand that it’s not only our tragedy and can share our pain with others. We do not minimize the horror or sadness of what happened, but we also do not use it as a reason to relapse. We don’t have to make our lives worse in response to disaster.

3. The death of a family member or a close friend, and the pain of mourning

Death can be one of the hardest challenges to face for anyone in any context. The loss of a family member, a loved one, or a close friend can be incredibly painful, both spiritually and emotionally. For someone in recovery, the situations in which we grieve present their own unique difficulties. In circles of mourning, alcohol is a conventional lubricant. It can be easy for someone without recovery tools to pick up a drink during this time.

By talking about your feelings and reaching out for support, you can be guided through the pain. You will learn that by staying sober and clear, you have the opportunity to be present for your family and friends. You can be of service in a time of great need. Moreover, you honor your loved one by maintaining your sobriety. If you feel like you were not able to make amends for a past wrong, then make a living amends by staying sober and honoring their memory.

4. The end of a relationship

Have you ever heard the story of a person in early recovery who started dating and turned their partner into their higher power? Rather than focus on their own recovery and sanity, they focus on the relationship. What they fail to realize is that whenever recovery becomes supported mainly by a human relationship, the recovery (and usually the relationship) are on thin ice.

Sometimes, the end of such a relationship leads to a relapse. When someone in early recovery focuses with such fervor on a partner, they no longer can keep the focus on themselves. This is why you hear the recommendation to stay out of relationships during the first year of recovery, or until you’ve worked all 12 steps.

The end of a healthy relationship in long-term recovery can be dangerous as well. Breaking up can hurt so deeply that you feel you can’t bear it; having a drink or taking a drug seems to be the only way to stop the heartache. However, the pain is so much worse when it’s kept inside and remains unspoken; and while drinking or using may look like a way to find quick relief, you can’t actually escape this hurt. You only postpone the feelings and frequently the relapse brings more misery. By sharing the pain and talking about it with other people, you can obtain perspective. Although applying the principles of recovery to a breakup may help you avoid a relapse, it’s not a cure-all. When love ends, we suffer, and such suffering takes time to heal.

Whatever life setback you might face today or in the future, taking a drink or using a drug will not help resolve the difficulty and in the vast majority of cases, it will make a bad situation much worse. Instead, cut the cord that connects drinking and using with pain relief. It’s a temporary and usually ineffective fix. For people who have lived with addiction or substance use disorders, the most powerful recovery tool is the simple and honest realization that drugs and alcohol are never the solution.


What's in your recovery toolkit? How do you deal with life setbacks without using or drinking?

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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