[h2]Relapse: the thinking man’s problem (Part 1)[/h2]
Relapse is commonly held to be that point where an addict recommences drug use. Well, that’s one understanding of it.
Personally, I don’t see it like that at all. For me, relapse is a process. It is a process of increasing mental and spiritual discomfort, which (if not arrested) will inevitably lead to using again. That process may last any amount of time, or hardly any time at all.
It may be characterised by “dry-drunk syndrome” (or the drug equivalent) and will usually be accompanied by a return to old attitudes, old haunts…. and a general decline into what is quaintly described by Christians as “worldliness”.
And as the defining factor of the addict’s previous worldliness was drug use, that won’t be far behind. Relapse is the erosion of the addict’s defences against temptation, of which using is merely the logical outcome.
There is plenty of advice on relapse prevention, even if much of it is only directed at preventing the final stage of relapse – picking up a drink, or calling “Drugs-R-us.” Mostly, it majors on the kind of common-sense ideas you might get in AA, NA or rehab.
I remember those little cards, much favoured at AA meetings: stuff like “H.A.L.T.”, and “If you want to stay dry, keep out of wet places”. I was especially fond of one that simply said, “Don’t drink – even if your arse falls off”. As excuses go, I’m sure that would be one of the better ones… I’ll let you know if it ever happens to me.
One of the more common (and less inspired) excuses, is marital disharmony. The guy will pick a quarrel with the wife over nothing in particular, and then utter those immortal words: “If that’s your attitude, I’m going to the pub”.
It can backfire: a lady I knew many years ago had a husband who was fond of that line. On paper, they were both trying to stay off the drink, but actually both were trying to find reasons to go back on it.
One night, he made some unpleasant remark about her cooking – as a prelude to the, “If that’s your attitude….” gambit. Her response was interesting – she disembowelled him with a kitchen knife. Naturally, an impending murder charge gave her all the excuse she needed to go to the pub.
The problem with most relapse prevention is that it focuses on how to avoid the final stage of relapse (the actual drinking or using). It doesn’t often address the process of relapse, where addicts are becoming increasingly vulnerable to reactivating their addictions.
So, for example, keeping out of “wet places” is sound advice (while one is still able to take it), but it doesn’t tackle the reason why alcoholics feel drawn back into such an environment…. and it won’t ultimately stop them drinking.
Successful prevention requires some understanding about the nature of temptation, and how to deal with it effectively. Many people have offered their thoughts about this issue – one of my favourites was Oscar Wilde, who declared, “I can resist anything except temptation”. Good fun, but not hugely helpful.
The bible, of course, has much to say on the subject: I can remember being infuriated by something I read there, when I’d just become a Christian. I was struggling to overcome my alcoholism, and I dug out this immensely irritating snippet: “No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man, and God is faithful: he will provide a way out.”
I can’t tell you how annoying that was. I repeatedly called out to God, and he never provided a way out – I’d always end up drinking. Worse still, I had to wonder just how omniscient God really was – he clearly didn’t have a clue if he thought the temptation that seized me was the common variety. I was being tempted beyond any man’s ability to endure.
Or was I? Sometime after I’d calmed down, a thought occurred to me. It was this: Just supposing the temptation was no big deal after all – that it actually was the common variety. What if the real problem didn’t lie with the temptation at all – what if it lay with how I handled it?
It was something of a watershed for me. The temptation was no worse and no stronger than any other temptation, when it first entered my mind. The problem was what I did with it. I gave it houseroom, I entertained it…. I dwelt on it. And then it overcame me.
Temptation works on the same principle as resentment: It takes no effort to maintain, and only a little thought to make it flourish and grow.
I became quite interested in the subject of temptation – not least, because my response to it was ruining my life. I arrived at what I consider to be almost a spiritual law: “The power of temptation increases in direct proportion to one’s willingness to entertain it”.
I might pray to God for many hours that I wouldn’t drink, but would still end up doing it. The reason for that was, I was already in relapse. Specifically, drinking was still a live possibility for me – and while that mindset persisted, I was still a slave to alcohol. I’d think about it, and then I would have to do it.
I remember reading about a guy who lost all his money playing poker. Distraught, he promised his wife he would never play poker again. Then he modified this promise, “Unless we have guests who insist on a game, of course – or if I’m a guest of someone who wants to play”. Then he thought a little more, and added something else, – “Or whatever other circumstances might arise”.
That was exactly my attitude to drinking. I was never going to do it again – unless, of course, something came up. It always would.
I would subconsciously (or otherwise) manufacture situations in which drinking would seem appropriate (I could never get my arse to fall off, though). Then I’d pray to God, and then I’d go ahead and drink….secure in the knowledge that God hadn’t lifted a finger to help me, and that it was hardly my fault.
And so I learned – painfully – that the problem was that I still thought drink was an option. When temptation came, I would consider it – making it far more powerful. I might then try to struggle against it, but that itself is futile – temptation needs to strangled at birth, not struggled with. I needed to come to a place where drinking was not an option under any circumstances: otherwise, I’d be doing it the rest of my life.
[h2]Relapse: the thinking man’s problem (Part 2)[/h2]
A couple of years ago, I presented a talk on addiction to a Christian conference. About half-way into it, I suddenly threw in the remark, “I bet you look at me and wonder why I’m not wearing a pair of pink tights, and strutting my stuff at Covent Garden with Darcy Bussell.”
There was some amusement – I’m sure they could think of several reasons I wasn’t pursuing a career in ballet…my advancing years and waistline, to name but two. Then I told them the real reason that I never put on the implausibly large codpiece and prance around: I’m not a ballet-dancer, because I wouldn’t consider doing it for a moment. You cannot be tempted to do something you wouldn’t even consider.
It is demonstrably true that, “The power of temptation increases in direct proportion to one’s willingness to entertain it.” When that temptation is to indulge an addiction, it rarely has to be entertained for very long.
It is equally true that you can’t be tempted to do something you wouldn’t even consider. So, is it possible to come to a place where engaging an addiction becomes something we would genuinely never give a moment’s thought to?
I believe it is. Personally, I don’t get tempted to drink from one year to the next – even momentarily – and I know others who are the same. I’m sure they could tell you how they came to that happy situation – I can only tell you how I did.
In Part 1, I mentioned that bible verse I struggled with: “No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man, and God is faithful: he will provide a way out.” After reluctantly coming to the understanding that my temptation was no big deal (until I gave it houseroom), I set about testing the second statement – that God would provide a way out.
I found that way out in an obscure one-liner from the book of Job. Job was doing what he did best – bleating. But suddenly, he throws this into the mix, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look on a young woman.” What has that got to do with chemical dependency? Absolutely everything!
Job isn’t going to wait for the next time temptation is upon him – he’s going to rule it out in advance. He’s not going to consider it for a moment. Temptation can’t overcome him, because he will not entertain it for an instant. He refuses to even think about it, even briefly, under any circumstances. And then he is truly free.
Job said he, “Made a covenant with his eyes.” A covenant is a binding agreement. He is making a binding, solemn agreement that he won’t even think about it. He’s promising himself that he won’t ever give a young lady so much as a fleeting glance.
Of course, as a Christian, I made a similar binding promise about alcohol. I made my covenant with God, that I would never give drinking alcohol a moment’s thought again. I didn’t say I wouldn’t drink, because I didn’t need to – if I wasn’t going to think about it, I wouldn’t be doing it… simple as that.
I had absolutely no idea how this was going to work in practice, but I assumed I would spend the rest of my life having to reject temptation minute by minute. It never happened like that.
I had prepared my defence in advance – I had utterly rejected the option of even thinking about booze, and so I found myself free of temptation. After all, you cannot be tempted to do something you wouldn’t even consider…. whether that’s wearing pink tights, or drinking pink gin.
Effective relapse prevention may begin with an understanding about the nature of temptation – leading to a genuine and on-going covenant/commitment never to allow it houseroom again. Comfortable, sustainable sobriety and freedom from drugs is the natural product of this.
Far too many people struggle on a daily basis to maintain their sobriety against temptation, and the quality of that sobriety is sometimes so poor that one wonders where they find the will to continue. It’s ruthless self-discipline, rather than true freedom.
I sometimes talk to such people. They generally have no difficulty in understanding the principles on which temptation works, nor how it needs to be dealt with. Then they might say something to the effect that a covenant is OK for a Christian like me, but where does it leave others?
It leaves others exactly where it left Job! Job might have been in a relationship with God, but that played no role in his covenant.
He built a solid defence against temptation by making a covenant with his eyes – he effectively agreed with himself that he would never even think about it again. He freed himself from the possibility of enslavement to lust and temptation, merely by refusing to give it a single thought.
Temptation always has to have something to work on. I suspect somewhere deep in each person who relapses (or even each person who is routinely tempted) there is still the notion that there are some circumstances in which they would use again…. and that is all the invitation temptation needs.
Personally, I have a great deal of respect for anyone who stops using, however they do it, and irrespective of the quality of the freedom they enjoy. As a matter of fact, I’m especially impressed with those who struggle to maintain sobriety when the temptation is seemingly endless – I don’t think I could do that. But though I admire their courage and persistence, I would still like to see them truly overcome.
It’s a quality of life issue. The difference between those who struggle – and those who enjoy their sobriety – often comes down to nothing more than how they have understood temptation….and what they have done about it.
( sorry about the unfortunately christian stance but some of the info is helpful )