Why do addicts relapse? The ups and downs of the recovery process

“Life is not linear; you have ups and downs. It’s how you deal with the troughs that defines you.” –Michael Lee-Chin

After years of counseling people in addiction and their families, the question I hear most often from loved ones is ‘why don’t they just stop using?’  Addiction is complex and although it seems like the answer is easy, it is anything but simple for the person dealing with addiction to stop.  While there are no cures for addiction, research has shown that counseling, inpatient treatment and support groups are beneficial for many people.  One of the ways I have found to explain addiction and recovery to my clients and their families is to envision a ‘Chutes and Ladders’ game board.  The work of recovery is like going up the ladder.  Along the way though, there are many opportunities to go right back down the chute of relapse.  In order to keep them moving up the ladder, I discuss the importance of having a vision or goal they are working towards.  Climbing the ladder day after day is hard work.  It would be much easier to take a break or go down the slide, but knowing why they are doing the work of recovery is critical.  One of the things I reinforce to my clients is that they can’t be doing the work of recovery for anyone except themselves.  Many clients tell me that they are getting clean for their children or significant other.  While I agree that their loved ones are important, the more important thing is to recognize that they are doing the work to be the best mother, father or partner they can be.  It really is for them to be the best they can be and give their best to their loved ones.

So why do some clients seem to climb the ladder relatively quickly and easily, while others struggle and fall down the chutes of relapse time and time again?  One of the things I discuss with my clients is how there are sticking points along the way.  Many clients seem to do well for a time and then begin to backslide or self-sabotage.   I believe that these sticking points are places where limiting beliefs reside.  Many clients begin doing well and then the voice of doubt or fear arises.  The voice reminds them that they don’t deserve to be happy because of all the pain they caused or because of what they did to their child or any other variation of doubt and fear.  The louder this voice becomes, the closer to the downward slide they get.  When the voice is all they hear, it only takes a little push to go right down.  Challenging the voice of doubt and fear, forgiving themselves and learning to love themselves despite the past, dissolves the sticking points and allows the client to continue the climb of recovery.   Helping a loved one in recovery is never easy.  Reminding the person that they are worthy and deserving of love is one of the best ways to help them move through the sticking points and continue the lifelong journey of recovery.

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