by Hon. K. Michael Mayes
Editors's Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Addiction in Court. If you missed the first installment, go here.
Relapse Occurs Before the Addict Uses
Truth #3: The mere non-use of drugs and alcohol does not mean the addict is in a successful recovery. Drug or alcohol abuse does not just occur out of thin air or at some singular point in time when the addict says, “Well, I guess I will use some cocaine right now.” The abuse is always preceded by defective or distorted thinking that spiral the addict downward. As a consequence, a solid recovery is dependent on a recovering addict staying a “healthy thinking” course in an upward and positive way even when things are going well and in fact especially when things are going well. To let one’s guard down is deadly. Most addicts never reach a totally successful recovery because of a failure to control their “addictive thinking.” This is not a bad thing, it is reality. This does not mean they are bad people, it is their disease. This does not mean they are failures, only that they must continue to learn and grow in their recovery, onward and upward.1
Virtually every addict lives with addictive thinking every day and as a result their success at recovery must be viewed on a continuum that measures where they are at any given moment in their recovery. As a result, if we only measure an addict’s success at recovery by whether they have “used” or not we are missing the point. An addict may be totally clean of all chemicals but be obsessed with addictive thoughts that are only a day away from causing the addict to use.
You will meet Tracy below. He graduated from one of our Recovery Court Programs, proving that he could sustain a recovery where he was sober, clean, working, happy and healthy. Following his graduation, he had for some time avoided several opportunities to relapse when confronted with the triggers of old friends. Enter his brother, an addict not in recovery, who Tracy had not seen in years. Despite Tracy’s knowledge of addiction, his desire to stay clean and his proven ability to stave off temptation, he relapsed. Tracy’s relapse started in his thinking when his brother returned to the scene. Tracy had been clean and sober over a year and he even remained so for the first few days of his brother’s return. During those few days, however, Tracy’s thinking deteriorated such that he ultimately was unable to fend off the desire to abuse. During those first few days, his recovery began to slide down a relapse slope until he ultimately abused cocaine. If I had tested Tracy on the third day after his brother returned, he would have tested negative for drugs or alcohol, but his relapse mode was in full throttle downward.
Dysfunction in the form of addictive thinking can occur due to changes in the addict’s life, such as (1) a reduction in eating, quiet time, sleep, spirituality, trust, spending time with others or exercise, or (2) an increase in stress, sensitivity, anger, paranoia, edginess or blaming others.2 Interestingly, the propensity for addictive thinking to occur is probably most prevalent during the first few months of an addict’s new-found sobriety since he will be feeling emotions and stressors that he previously handled by numbing himself with drugs or alcohol.3 When dysfunction does occur, the addict is in a relapse mode. At this point, not after the abuse of some drug or alcohol, she must be able to stop the tendency toward further relapse before she descends to the bottom of the incline and starts using again. If the addict fails in reversing this “stink’n thinking”4 and returns to using, her relapse is complete.
Asking an addict to be totally free of addictive thoughts is like asking a love-struck teenager to stop thinking of her boyfriend. This is simply not going to happen in most cases. Consider the teenager who is obsessed with the young man of her dreams and who continuously communicates with him through myspace.com.5 Even if her grades have suffered and she has been grounded, it is likely that her thoughts will trigger her to use the computer even knowing that punishment is sure to follow when she is caught. She is not having evil thoughts, she does not want to hurt anyone, she simply wants to use myspace to feed her obsession.
Addictive thoughts trigger the addict’s relapse back into an “immediate gratification” kind of thinking that, left unchecked, leads inevitably to the abuse of drugs or alcohol. We are misleading ourselves if we conclude an individual is thinking clearly and without obsession just because the teenager has not yet turned on her computer or the addict has not yet tested dirty. Truth #4: The real truth about the addict whose recovery is weakening is that he is moving down the recovery continuum, toward the bottom of the recovery incline, in a “relapse mode” that is overtaking him. Something must stop him or he will crash. The question is whether he is in a position to stop the relapse before drugs or alcohol overtake him, or must some other intervention take place to help prevent the fall.6 If he previously has been educated about addictive thinking his chances of avoiding a complete relapse are extremely high. If he never has been taught healthy thinking skills that can guide his recovery effort, nor internalized the rehabilitation tools that can defend against his insidious disease, then the likelihood of total relapse is very high.