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I tend not to use the word “Relapse” anymore because it implies that readdicting is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. In reality, people return to addicting to varying degrees. It is more realistic to speak of a recurrence of addicting, or “readdicting.”
The BUTA process (Building up to Addict) generally starts long before the sufferer actually physically addicts. There is an emotional stage, generally followed by a mental phase, followed finally by actual physical readdiction.
Since addicting is often a misguided attempt to manage pain with pleasure that only makes pain worse, addicting is often triggered by being in pain. This pain can be either emotional or physical. It can be as subtle as a vague feeling of boredom or discomfort, or as blatant at anger, grief, depression, sadness, or anxiety.
Pain is either triggered by stress, or mental or physical illness. It is not being in pain that triggers emotional readdiction so much as not managing that pain skillfully. Remember that it is not our circumstances that determine our happiness so much as our response to those circumstances. A long and happy life is in large part about skillful pain management. People fail to take good care of themselves by not managing their stress, mental illness, or physical illness effectively. They may bottle up their emotions, isolate from others, retreat from their recovery work, stop exercising, stop eating healthy, or stop getting regular sleep. They may lose a healthy balance of work, love, and play. They neglect their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs, forgetting that you have to be good to be good. This causes unnecessary distress.
Negative thinking (stinking thinking) drives negative emotions. Together, negative thoughts and emotions drive negative behavior, such as poor self-care and readdicting. Take care in your recovery to watch your thoughts carefully. Be on the lookout for negative, unrealistic thoughts. Be prepared to counter them with more positive, realistic thoughts. This will help to protect you from the negative emotions that drive readdicting. Examples of negative thoughts that bring on negative emotions and cravings include:
• Blaming your problems on others. Focusing on others and not on taking care of your side of the street.
• Victim thinking—not taking responsibility for your role in your dilemmas.
• All-or-none or black and white thinking—seeing things as all bad or yourself as a total failure.
• Believing that life is unmanageable or that you can’t have fun without addicting.
• Underestimating the severity of your addiction or the severity of the negative consequences of addicting. Believing that you can addict now and then. Believing that you can be dishonest and hide your addicting from others.
• Believing that recovery is impossible for you. That it is too much work, or not work the effort. You may believe that you are uniquely damaged, or that you will turn into someone you don’t like.
• Believing that you cannot change your social network from addicting friends to friends who don’t addict. This can include a mistaken belief that if you renounce addicting, you will be abandoning family members who addict.
• Believing that you cannot manage or cope with your cravings, so you should just give in to them.
• You may give up, believing that you are doomed to failure no matter what. The mistaken belief is that you are a “failure” rather than someone, like everyone else, who has failed in the past. Correct this belief by seeing failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn. I tell my patients, “When you look back, learn back.” Let go of needing to do everything perfect. Embrace mistakes as an essential part of the growth process.
People who think in these unhelpful ways engage in all-or-nothing thinking.
They “catastrophize,” imagining the worst possible outcome. They disqualify their virtues, gifts, and talents, seeing only their faults, weaknesses, and failures. They also label themselves negatively with global condemnations such as, “I’m a hopeless addict loser.” Since negative thinking leads to negative emotions, which lead to negative outcomes, you need to be mindfully vigilant for when these negative thinking patterns arise and counter them in the moment with more positive, reality-based thoughts and beliefs. It helps to keep a thought journal in which you write down the negative belief and then the appropriate positive belief next to the negative belief. In this way, with practice, you can actually catch and correct your negative thoughts as they arise. This will protect you from falling into the emotional phase of readdicting.
Another driver of emotional readdiction is fear. Recovery involves loosening the grip of unrealistic fears and transitioning to a realistic, love-based, fear-informed life. People in early recovery are afraid both of failing at recovery and of succeeding, as that would entail a transformation of identity and experience. They are afraid of change. They fear they will not be able to deal with life on life’s terms without addicting. Counter these fears with reason and faith. See that many other people have recovered with the combination of support and doing the work of recovery. Realize that recovery is not about willpower, but about learning coping skills. See that even the most damaged of people can and do recover every day.
Some distress is inevitable, especially during the early years of recovery. Many people can’t get comfortable with being uncomfortable; they may stop their practice of respecting Reality and letting go of needing things that they cannot change to be different. This is the pain of grasping and avoidance that underlies a need to have things be our way when they just aren’t. Make it a daily practice of having a humble reverence for Reality. Change what you can and humbly accept the rest. This will bring you peace and dissolve suffering in the midst of distress.
Be vigilant and honest about how you feel. Don’t fall into the trap of emotional readdicting by denying your discomfort. Tune into yourself. If you start to feel restless, irritable, or otherwise discontent, talk about it with your supports, change what you can, and accept the rest. This will prevent you from progressing to the next phase of readdicting: thinking about addicting to escape your pain.
Mental readdicting starts with thoughts about readdicting. People experience cravings. They reminisce about past good times while addicting. They romance the addiction, forgetting the disastrous consequences of addicting. They may bargain, thinking of ways to readdict that might be acceptable, such as when on vacation or a business trip, or ways to readdict for short periods so as to avoid negative consequences. They may spend time thinking up schemes for “controlled readdicting.” They may also abandon the principle of renouncing all addicting and switch from their drug or addictive object of choice (e.g. food, sex) to another addiction instead.
As all this readdicting thinking is going on, people start hiding their thoughts from others. They may start lying to cover up what is really going on inside. They give up their authenticity with others. As the mental phase progresses, victims start to look for safe opportunities to readdict where they hope they won’t be caught, and start planning to return to addicting.
Occasional thoughts of addicting and cravings to addict are a normal part of the recovery process. They are nothing to be afraid of our ashamed of. It is not thoughts or cravings that are good or bad; it is our response to them. If we are honest about them, share them, not get lost in them, or indulge them, then they will pass. Always. Cravings and thoughts never last. Just don’t keep them a secret. I tell my patients, “Never crave alone.”
If you find yourself caught in in the mental phase of readdicting, you are in danger. Dial “911” to your recovery network. Get help. Get current with your recovery mentor and other recovery supports. Let your therapist know. Humbly come clean with the world and restore your authenticity. Then do what you need to do to address the underlying negativity, distress, angst, or emptiness inside that is driving your thoughts of readdicting. If you do not, you will almost invariably progress to readdicting just to escape the emotional and mental turmoil.
The physical phase of readdicting starts with the use of a drink, drug, or the engagement in an addictive behavior. The severity of readdicting can vary. People often start with occasional addicting, and some even manage to control their addicting for quite some time. All too often, however, people’s control diminishes as their compulsion to addict grows. People then slide into full-blown readdicting, or what we typically think of as a relapse.
Most people begin readdicting when the opportunity comes along that they think they won’t get caught. It is good to make an inventory of opportunities for addicting. By anticipating them, you can then put together a plan with your recovery mentor or your therapist for what to do when these opportunities for readdicting arise. Perhaps you will plan to leave a trigger situation immediately and call a recovery support. Another coping strategy is to plan to do something fun as a substitute for addicting when the opportunity arises. The possibilities are endless. The trick is to anticipate opportunities for readdicting and to make a plan ahead of time for how you are going to deal with them.
Prevention of the recurrence of addicting starts long before you actually readdict. At that point it is often too late, which is why people readdict so frequently; it is just too difficult to say “No.”
This is why the prevention of recurrences of readdiction starts with self-love and love for others. This protects you from entering the emotional phase of relapse. Make a daily vow to cherish and care for yourself and others. If you live fully by this vow, each day, you will take very good care of yourself and others. You will manage your distress skillfully. You will minimize the unnecessary suffering that drives addicting. With practice, you will cultivate the spiritual intelligence that prevents readdicting: to live with compassion and wisdom, with internal and external peace, under all circumstances. May this be the ultimate fruit of your recovery practice.
Image from: https://www.wichitadrugtreatmentcenters.com/2015/10/wichita-relapse-prevention-treatment/.
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