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How Can We Respond More Positively To A Relapse?

Sitting alone by myself something within begged me to stop what I was doing and evaluate the situation I was in. Even though I wasn’t completely coherent, I was able to take a step back and observe my environment for a minute. It wasn’t pretty.

I was sitting alone with a cup in one hand and a 750 mL, now half-empty, bottle of vodka sneering down on me from its spot on the counter, almost as if it was relishing in my defeat, “Gotcha! You thought you could handle me. Muahahahahaha!”

It had conquered me and quickly too. I glanced at my phone to see the time. It had only been between thirty minutes and an hour since I had began drinking. “Half of a bottle in thirty minutes! What am I doing? Stop drinking. This is not who I am. Remember?”

Whether I liked it or not, after three years of sobriety, I had now relapsed—a fact that I could not change.

My initial thoughts were more constructive than I remember them being in the past, “I can’t change what happened but I can choose how to move forward. God is aware of me and still loves me. He wants me to succeed and will continue to help me progress. Change takes time. Be patient with myself. I’m on the right path. ”

The advice of one of my favorite religious mentors kept playing in my head, “Ben, I don’t care how many times you fall off the horse. I only care about how fast you get back in the saddle.”

I was going to get back in the saddle quickly; I could get back to being productive. I felt empowered by this realization. The work I had done over the past three years wasn’t completely lost in one moment.

Now, I knew this moment of clarity would soon be met by heightened feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and by my favorite disorder, OCD (OCD is probably the devil disguised as a mental health disorder). I mentally prepared myself for the blow. I knew that life could get rough for the next little while as the dust settled—this wasn’t my first rodeo, after all.

Though I momentarily debated keeping this experience to myself, I knew I couldn’t. I would need some guidance and support.

I contacted a few of my greatest supporters and made an appointment with my therapist.

With a positive plan of action in place, my anxiety decreased.

Here are 25 lessons I am learning/relearning since emerging from this recent relapse.

  1. Seek positive and safe environments that will continue to sustain good changes in behavior. I believe more of us would be open if we felt safe from unnecessary judgment.
  2. Addiction thrives in isolated environments. Whatever mechanisms drive us to addictions will try to isolate, so they can take over.
  3. Form healthy connections with other people where mutual acceptance exists. This provides tremendous strength and confidence and helps prevent isolation.
  4. Make yourself the number one priority. If we don’t start with ourselves, we can’t really help anyone else.
  5. Set realistic expectations for self and for others. We may let ourselves or others down.  Some people may let us down. When we relapse, others may see us as a bad examples. Most people want to help but some may not know how. That’s okay. There are plenty of people who do.
  6. Fight to get the needed help. Be humble and open when receiving it. Years ago I begged to go to inpatient rehab but was told my problems weren’t severe enough. Those with “real” addictions would laugh at me. That was hard to hear when I have a history of being suicidal. Most of my efforts to get help have been to prevent going back to such a dark place. Lesson learned: Not all advice is good advice. Not all help is good help. Sometimes we have to filter through the bad in order to get to the good.
  7. Be aware that addictions and harmful behaviors can take on many forms. Addictions are shifty shapeshifters. Even though we may get one under control, a bad habit may resurface as something else. These have been some of my struggles over the years (this is just a short list): substances, binge eating, not eating, not taking care of myself, a lot sexual acting out, pornography, caffeine, binge TV watching, self-harming, exercising excessively, anger, lying, cussing and on and on. Whenever I try to change all at once, I fail. One step at a time.
  8. Focus energy and attention on productive behaviors instead of negative ones. The best thing we can do is replace the troublesome behavior with a positive one quickly. It helps us not dwell on mistakes.
  9. Believe in self. We are worth it. We are strong. As long as we want to keep trying, we have to believe in ourselves.
  10. Change takes time. We learn through a lot of trial and error. There’s a lot of fine-tuning, tweaking and patience involved in the change process.
  11. Relapse is not the end of the world. It has little to do with who we truly are and who we can become. We may always be at risk of a relapse even though we don’t plan on it or desire to. (I’m not encouraging others to relapse but am aware of how common it is. I only hope we can get help and move forward as soon as possible if we do.)
  12. Relapse is not an overnight process. Anxiety and stressors can build up for a while before it actually happens. Sometimes we don’t realize we needed to ask for help until after the fact. So, don’t blame us if we don’t.
  13. Never give up. A setback is a setback. It’s never too late to try as long as we have more time, right?
  14. Be proud of how far we’ve come. For me, 1 relapse is less significant than 3 years of positive change.
  15. Guilt is not always bad. Guilt can encourage change because it helps us recognize our behavior wasn’t good.
  16. Turn away from shame. It can cause us to remain stuck in the harmful behavior. Sometimes we have to remove ourselves from shameful environments.
  17. Religion/Spirituality may help. I believe in and am grateful for repentance. The first place I turn to for help in a relapse situation is God. Prayer is my number one go to, even when I question whether or not God is really there because nothing seems to be changing for the better. (I know not everyone believes in God or is religious. That’s okay with me.)
  18. We’re not alone. Even though it feels that way sometimes. There’s something powerful about knowing we’re not alone in our struggles. We’re individually never the only alcoholic, drug addict, mentally-ill person or victim in the world.
  19. Asking for help is a sign of strength. We often can’t change on our own. We may need therapy, spiritual guidance and support from family and friends. Acknowledging this is powerful.
  20. Shift our views. I hate the saying “love the sinner but hate the sin”.  The general interpretation of it seems to promote condescending treatment of those of us who struggle. Will hating a “sin” ever help us love ourselves and each other more?
  21. Judge others less.
  22. Positive self talk makes a world of difference.
  23. Live in the present. Sometimes worrying about the past or the future makes it too difficult to focus on what we can be doing in the present. The worrying causes anxiety. Sometimes I run or exercise just so I can practice living in the moment. I try to tell myself over and over again, “I’m running. I’m running. I’m running. Don’t worry about anything else for the moment. I’m running.” Sounds funny, but it helps.
  24. Anxiety drives a lot of harmful behaviors.
  25. Address the root cause. This isn’t the same as dwelling on the past, but it helps us equip ourselves with the knowledge we need to change. If we keep having diarrhea, we could take pills over and over again to treat it. But at some point we would probably benefit from trying to understand why we have diarrhea in the first place (watch the video below).

The way we talk about addiction is often really negative, even the words used to discuss it are depressing. We say words or phrases like sinner, liar, relapse, selfish, shame, bad example, hot mess, train wreck, unreliable, lost cause, never change, manipulative, hopeless, that’s just the way they are, it’s their fault/they chose to be this way when they took their first drink, rock bottom—we seem to think “hitting rock bottom” is a necessary part of addiction recovery. Maybe it is, but only if, the “addict” gets another chance.

Some seem to want to shame people into recovery. I disagree with this approach. I wonder if this impacts the way we respond to addiction. It seems like society says fix yourself, and then we will accept you again, rather than being a part of the recovery process.

Most of us suffer from some sort of addiction or behavior that impacts our lives and how we relate to others. There are some that are more obvious than others like substances, gambling or pornography. But there are less obvious behaviors like overworking, neglecting those we love, condemning others or self-shaming. I think we’re actually more similar than we think and can be more empathetic towards those with different issues than our own. Everyone knows what it’s like to struggle in life.

What I am believing in more and more each day, which was greatly reinforced by my recent setback, is how much we treat symptoms instead of addressing root causes. Abuse, neglect and trauma from childhood impact adult behavior and health. There’s a growing body of evidence that supports helping children who have faced adverse experiences. If addressed, the child can lead a healthier life and maybe avoid things like addiction and certain diseases altogether.

Here’s an incredible TedMed Talk video that explains the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and adult health and what can be done to reverse the effects. I highly recommend watching it.



  1. Ben I admire your courage to share in this blog. God is merciful and loves His children unconditionally. I know He knows you personally and will answer your prayers. Just keep going and face each day with courage and faith! Be patient in affliction and keep trying. You are amazing and are helping a lot of people as you share. Love, Aunt Sue

  2. What a thoughtful and insightful post. I want to be the kind of person that loves, welcomes, and supports those I come in contact with. Thanks for being so open and brave.

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