relapse


perseveranceIt’s important that we understand recovery from drug and alcohol addiction as a complex and challenging journey, one that takes dedication and time.  For many people who struggle with addiction or who love someone who struggles with addiction, the promise of a month spent in concentrated, residential rehabilitation seems like adequate treatment.  And yet, when we consider those who have successfully recovered from addiction, it’s clear that the process of recovery must continue long after such rehabilitation is over.

Unfortunately, a recent study found that 56% of the people who received treatment at a residential facility did not engage in recovery practices after their discharge.  A majority of those individuals relapsed within a few months.  And so we have to acknowledge that without an ongoing set of practices and tools, most people are simply unable to break free from addiction—hardly a surprise, considering how profoundly substance abuse alters the body and mind.

Such mind/body alterations aren’t easily erased, and their vestiges can last a lifetime.  But recovery is possible, and those who do meet their recovery goals do so consciously, with an awareness of their journey as one that requires attention, planning, and care.  In working within the recovery community, I’ve witnessed many processes and tools that can make that journey a successful one; in particular, lasting sobriety usually involves adherence to what I call The Five P’s of Successful Recovery:

  1. Purpose. True change requires not only that we acknowledge where we’ve been, but that we see and understand where we want to go. When we have a sense of purpose—the desire to achieve a deeply-held goal, to pursue a dream, or to accomplish something which holds meaning for us—we find new sources of energy and strength.  With new strength, we’re more able to persevere when challenges arise.  One of the most devastating aspects of addiction is that it fosters a sense of purposelessness. Conversely when someone who struggles with addiction identifies a meaningful direction or a dream, it can be much easier to leave drugs and alcohol behind.  The search for a sense of purpose can be challenging, exciting, and rewarding; it’s also an integral part of the process of recovery.
  2. Practice. The kinds of change that recovery requires—changing the mind’s patterns, shifting the way one acts under stress, and transforming responses to everyday events—do not happen quickly. Such deep-reaching changes call for practice; much like learning to play an instrument or developing skill at a new craft. Recovery asks us to repeat the behaviors we want to develop over and over again. And, in fact, those behaviors could include playing an instrument, singing, or learning to paint—recovery usually involves an ongoing commitment to stress-relieving activities and support systems.  Whether it’s meeting with a support group such as AA or talking with a counselor, meditating or exercising, some kind of continued practice—one that becomes part of daily life—helps to manage addiction-related urges and thoughts and brings clarity, focus, and sense of grounding to the recovery journey.
  3. Perseverance. While I’ve said this before, it’s worth repeating: successful recovery doesn’t happen in 30, 60, or even 90 days. Rather than a sprint, recovery is a marathon—a process that happens slowly, over the course of a lifetime. For many people who live with addiction or who want to help those who do, this can be the most difficult lesson—accepting that recovery, like any worthwhile process, is never fully complete.  Just as an artist never reaches “the end” of their creative journey, a person in recovery never totally sets aside their work.  Each day requires a recommitment to recovery, each day requires the management of stressors and emotions.  No life is absent this kind of humbling cycle: walking on a spiral, we move up, but we pass by the places we’ve been again and again.  Recovery requires one to acknowledge that inevitable cycle, to seek the support of those who can help in difficult times, and to develop the perseverance that, even as we move in circles, keeps us moving up.
  4. Pray. For many people, overcoming addiction requires a sense of something greater than one’s own strength and vision. Whereas feelings of loneliness and isolation can contribute to the damaging effects of addiction, the experiences of connection, care, and love that many find in reaching out to a “higher power” can be a fundamental part of leaving addiction behind. It’s normal for someone who struggles with addiction to feel weak and powerless. As millions of people in recovery have found, acknowledging such feelings of weakness and welcoming the presence of an able, loving God can be one of the most important steps in this sometimes difficult process of change and growth.
  5. Praise. Those who live with addiction often experience great difficulties, and it’s easy to see why addiction can foster negativity. Focused on problems and wrongs, those struggling with addiction are sometimes unable to see that which is good and beautiful in their lives.  As we work to undo those negative patterns, it’s important to make gratitude, positivity, and praise the foundations of recovery.  Simple daily mantras of gratitude—I am fully alive; I am loved and loving; God cares for me and my journey; I have deep value as a person—can keep us alight. If we remember to see our lives, our communities, and the world around us through eyes of praise, addiction loses much of its power.

Purpose, Practice, Perseverance, Pray, and Praise—these Five P’s, along with other tools you may develop and discover throughout your own journey, can provide a powerful framework for recovery.  As you implement them, observe how you change and grow.  Let others know about your commitment to these principles, and ask trusted friends to support your path.  Be kind, careful, and honest with yourself—addiction isn’t a death sentence, but rather a difficult illness that requires attention and ongoing treatment.  Seeking your purpose, developing a regular practice, cultivating perseverance, making time to pray, and remembering to praise—no small tasks, but, applied one day at a time, each of these endeavors can become an integral part of recovery, health, and a bright and balanced future.

 

The Long Road

Recovery requires hard work and tough choices.

To truly recover from addiction is a process, one that requires deeper and more lasting changes than simply acknowledging the errors of a life controlled by alcohol or drugs.  The process of real recovery involves more than an apology for hurtful behaviors and faulty judgment, more than a moment or a day of clarity, and more than a cry for help, no matter how sincere.  Recovery is a long journey that requires profound and difficult changes, changes both in how the brain works and in how a person responds to life’s events.

Addiction re-programs the brain in ways that make harmful choices seem like appropriate responses to day-to-day experiences.  For a person living with addiction, drug use is neurologically connected to escape, relaxation, and reward; at an unconscious level, part of the brain has learned to define “using” as a valid reaction to challenges.

The ongoing work of recovery is a process of re-training that takes time, practice, and discipline.  Consider similar processes that we experience as we grow up: whether we are learning to ride a bicycle, to swim, or to multiply and divide, we spend time repeating the tasks involved over and over until they become second nature.  Once learned, these skills are hard to forget–years can go by without riding a bicycle, and yet we relearn to ride within a few minutes.  Lessons that are well-established in our memory can be easily recalled.

Now, consider addiction.  Over time, an individual has repeatedly used drugs or alcohol to respond to stress, anger, frustration, boredom, pain, trauma, and many other emotions.  The brain has become programmed, and the individual has developed patterns that encompass addicted behavior.  Knowing what we know about how easily well-learned lessons are recalled, how can we possibly expect change overnight, or in thirty days, or in even a year?  And yet, more than 50% of the people who enter into treatment for addiction have no aftercare.  They have no framework within which to keep their recovery moving forward, and are often unable to continue the serious work of learning to live differently.  It should come as no surprise that relapse rates are high for these individuals.

We hear stories of people who suffer severe physical injuries and we admire their tenacity in regaining the use of their arms and legs.  We know that this type of rehabilitation can take months, or even years. Yet all too often we assume that rehabilitation of the brain can happen in an instant.  We assume that a moment of clear thinking indicates total recovery.  What we forget is that the addicted person’s brain, just like the muscles of a soldier recovering from a battlefield injury, must learn new patterns and new ways to respond.

During the process of recovery, the addicted person must learn to think and respond in intensely different ways; when the brain says, “Go right,” the person must force themselves to go left.  When the voice of their disease is triggered and cries out for alcohol or drugs, when well-worn pathways present themselves, the mind must be led in a new direction.  Finding better responses and more appropriate solutions takes time, retraining, and sustained effort.

Many people struggle to acknowledge the time and practice required for true recovery to take place.  But it is vitally important that those who live with addiction, as well as their families, spouses, and friends, understand just how unrealistic is the notion of the shortcut or the quick fix.  Seeking a quick cure, one is unable to truly walk on the road of recovery.  Addiction is a deadly disease, and the solutions that lead away from its destructive power all require hard work.  It is only when we embrace the reality of recovery’s continuous journey that lasting results will be realized.

ShortcutIt is part of our culture, our daily practices, perhaps even our DNA: the desire to do things faster, easier, and with minimal sacrifice. Let’s face it. We want shortcuts.

While finding a quicker route to the grocery store can help us save time and even gas money, when we try to take shortcuts to self-improvement, we often end up spending more and gaining less. One sad example of this is in addiction. The desire to find the quick fix is the prime reason why addicts too frequently find themselves in relapse. They believe they can overcome their addiction in 7, 30 or 120 days. In other words, they want a shortcut.

A recent study found that 56% of people who went to a treatment program for addiction did not engage in any type of aftercare or on-going support program. Other studies have shown that addicts who do not seek support relapse very quickly – perhaps as many as 90% within the first 90 days after treatment. Even those most willing to give up their addiction have a hard time accepting that addiction has no “cure.”

In my experience, families often suffer the same misconception. When addicts undergo positive changes during the early weeks of treatment, families rejoice to see a “return of the person they loved.” Too often, they assume the changes will be permanent and thus fail to provide strong support for the on-going work required of recovery. Consequently, they are devastated when relapse occurs and addiction again raises its ugly head.

The harsh reality is that recovery from addiction takes hard work and a lifelong commitment. It is a process, not a destination. The addict or alcoholic must keep striving to manage or overcome the emotions, tendencies, and triggers that invite relapse. Recovery is like trying to walk up the down escalator. If you stop, even for a short time, you are quickly in the basement again.

St. Joseph Institute makes every effort to help addicts find and join a good post-treatment recovery program, whether in the form of support groups, counseling, a sponsor, or sober fun. The only post-treatment choice that does not work is the one in which nothing changes, in which the addict picks up life where he or she left off, hoping that permanent recovery has been achieved. The addicted person and his or her family and friends will all be in a better place when they accept that addiction is a chronic disease – and that recovery does not come with shortcuts.

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