Mistakes and Do-Overs in Recovery

“You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.” – Unknown Recall the first time you picked up your drug or engaged in your behavior of choice. Perhaps it was when you snuck a sip from a glass or swig from a bottle at a family party when you were 12 and you liked the lightheaded, giddy feeling it gave you. It might have been the rush you experienced when a friend invited you to take a hit of whatever it was they were enjoying when you were 20. It could have happened when you hit the jackpot at the casino with the bells and whistles reinforcing your big win that had you wanting more as you celebrated your 40th birthday. Each of these experiences had a chemical and neurobiological impact; the end result was pleasure. What accounts for this is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Its function is transmitting signals in between the neurons of the brain. Imagine a party in which confetti and streamers are tossed wildly about, the sound of cheers and noisemakers can be heard by the neighbors up the block and the festivities go on for hours. The downside is that someone is on the cleanup crew the next morning. You are not alone. According to Harvard Health Publications, there are “nearly 2 million heroin and cocaine addicts, perhaps 15 million alcoholics, and tens of millions of cigarette smokers in the United States alone. No simple solution is in sight, but we know much more than we did 20 or even five years ago about how the brain responds to addictive drugs, and that knowledge is beginning to affect treatment and prevention.” Perhaps you have chosen a different path and are ready to find a rewarding life that doesn’t involve addictive substances or behaviors. It might have involved entering outpatient or inpatient treatment, 12-step or another self-help group, or being part of a faith community and surrounding yourself with sober supports. Proud of your clean time, you might keep track on an app. Recovery becomes as much a part of your life as addiction once did. You tell yourself that you have this behavior under control.

Addiction Can Be Like a Wrestling Opponent

In a recovery skills group at an outpatient drug and alcohol rehab, a client admitted to the group that he had the aforementioned belief, that he had “this drug-thing licked.” That was until he picked up again. The therapist reminded him that when he became overconfident about never using again, he should evoke the image of a wrestling match. The moment one believes that they have their opponent in a headlock, it is possible for that nemesis to get out of it, flip them over and pin them to the mat. The others in the room smiled and nodded knowingly.

What Is the Difference Between a Slip and a Full-Blown Relapse?

Picture a scenario as you are walking down a street and don’t notice a rock in the middle of the sidewalk. Your foot connects and you find yourself airborne and then you hit the deck. You check to be sure you aren’t injured. Perhaps the only thing wounded is your pride. You might even laugh as you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and continue on your way. The second scene begins in the same manner. It ends quite differently, as you complain about the conditions, including the rock, the sidewalk, the fact that no one was around to pick you up and that you were at the wrong place at the wrong time. You stay down.

How to Avoid Staying Down

  • Know that memories of using can act as triggers to relapse.
  • Avoid glorifying use while forgetting the less-than-glamorous aspects.
  • Recall that when using, you may have found yourself needing more and enjoying it less.
  • Be aware of your personal relapse triggers: could be family, friends, stressors, locations where you used, seeing movie or TV scenes of people indulging, or being at gatherings where substances are present.
  • Remember that dreaming about relapse is not the same as actually using.
  • Surround yourself with people who uplift you and support your sustained recovery, rather than wanting you to stay on the pavement with them.
  • Know that your brain is always on the lookout for the next adventure, high or adrenalin rush.
  • Find healthy ways of altering your mood, such as yoga, meditation, exercise, time in nature, with animals, digging in the dirt when gardening and walking barefoot on the ground.
  • Attend meetings whether in person or online.
  • Seek treatment.
  • Listen to inspiring sober supportive music.
  • Read books that offer ideas for healing.

Consider the image of an archer holding a bow, loaded with an arrow, aiming toward a target. She focuses, pulls back the bow, takes a deep breath and lets it fly. Instead of hitting the bullseye, it bounces off and onto the grass. She has two choices at that point. The first is that she can give up in frustration, telling herself what a waste of time and energy it was to take up archery. She can stomp the ground, blame the bow, the arrow, the target, the wind, the sun in her eyes, the people around her. She can drown in negative self-talk, berating herself for being a loser and questioning what in the world made her think she could do this. The second option is to laugh it off, pick another arrow from the quiver, place it in the bow and imagine it landing smack dab in the center of the bullseye. Perhaps she will accomplish her goal this next go around, or it may take several more attempts. Either way, she is more likely to do so if the focus is on success and not failure. Just like in the production of a film, the director allows for several “takes” to get the scene just right, know that when “mis-takes” occur, do-overs are allowed. Don’t let a slip become a stumble and a tumble. There is always a choice. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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