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Rates of relapse in early recovery from drug and alcohol addiction are quite high nationwide: 40-60 percent, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has said. (That percentage is similar to those for other chronic diseases.) But why?
For answers, we turned to Art Jacob, who is the director of our Sober Skills program. Jacob has lots of experience—both personal and professional—with the most common struggles that can contribute to relapse and ways to address these core issues of addiction. For more than 20 years, he has been helping people in early recovery achieve long-term sobriety.
Those efforts are working. Eight out of ten clients in Sober Skills is successfully sober at any time, meaning that clients in the program are achieving much lower rates of relapse (closer to 20 percent) than the national average of 40-60 percent.
Which begs a question: If high relapse rates are an indication of the challenges people face in early recoverty, what’s the working solution for a vast majority of Sober Skills clients? With Jacob as our guide, we took a closer look….
Biggest Challenges in Early Recovery from Addiction
On the subject of the biggest challenges in early recovery from addiction, Jacob pointed to a number of things:
“The biggest obstacle is getting distracted with life,” Jacob said. “The new job becomes more important than going to meetings; the wife and the kids become more important than meeting with your sponsor; the client has been away to treatment for 40 days and he has kids and responsibilities and the wife misses him.”
An Inability “to Make Recovery the Priority”
While this challenge can often be a function of distraction, it can also be its own problem. When life’s many commitments and other priorities pile up, it can be tough logistically and psychologically to prioritize recovery.
The acronym that Jacob uses to describe this phenomenon is “SLIP,” for “Sobriety Lost Its Priority.” While this challenge can occur for anyone in early recovery, Jacob said he sees it most commonly affect young adult clients who haven’t yet had to be independent in life. Those most vulnerable to SLIP are often those who have not had to “have a job … Mom and Dad have been covering everything, so the client has been relying on them to clean and cook and provide shelter.”
Jacob went on to share that “a lot of times we have these younger clients who are recommended for sober living and are like a deer in the headlights … They don’t know what it’s like to pay their own rent, and if they go home [after treatment] there’s a tendency to revert to old ways and the parents taking care of everything … But that’s not healthy or good for sobriety.”
“It’s a huge contributor to relapse: the inability to handle stress—we self-medicate,” Jacob said. In these instances, alcohol “is not the problem; it’s the addict’s solution.” Jacob explained:
The client goes home. He’s got the family, the kids, the job, and no defense against the first drink because he’s powerless. Life becomes very stressful and we come apart.
Stress can dredge up painful and difficult emotions. “I’m restless and full of discontent, fear, depression, anxiety, boredom, etc.,” Jacob said. “Alcohol or drugs is the solution to these problems.”
And because “the mind is where the disease centers,” it’s the mind that “gives us permission after 40 days in treatment to think, ‘This is stressful. I’m uncomfortable. I can have a drink just to take away the stress.’”
A common example is the person who gets into a relationship early on in their recovery. When they break up, those resentments in the form of anger and hurt feelings boil over, triggering relapse.
Untreated Co-Occurring/Substitute Addictions
Jacob said sometimes people in early recovery will develop substitute addictions (food, shopping, workaholism, etc.) that essentially allow them to avoid dealing with the root issues of addiction.
The Biggest Reason People Relapse in Response to These Challenges
While many people relapse in response to these common challenges, there are those who manage not to. The defining difference that makes or breaks sobriety is whether the person in recovery knows what their real problem is and has an effective solution for it.
Only with a clear-eyed understanding of the problem and its solution can a person stay on the path of recovery, a process that Jacob likened to walking up a downward-moving escalator. He said he had probably talked to 1000 people in early recovery, many of whom had been to rehab multiple times, and had asked them to define their problem. Rarely, though, did he hear the right answer—and yet, “if they don’t know what their problem is, how are they going to fix it?,” he reasoned.
What, then, is the problem that explains why many people relapse when confronted by challenges in early recovery? The problem is a spiritual one, Jacob said, and it’s an addicted person’s “powerlessness” over alcohol or drugs, as the first step of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous puts it.
Step 1 entails admitting you’re powerless over drugs and alcohol. Jacob explained it as a surrender and acceptance about one’s powerlessness that has to occur for recovery to stick.
“It’s the only step you have to get perfect.” In starker terms, as the further definition of what it means to be “powerless”: “The first step means you’ll use until the day you die.”
The Solution to the Problem of Powerlessness Over Drugs/Alcohol
Like the problem, the solution is spiritual in nature, according to Jacob. He said, “I’m powerless until I’m in relationship with my Higher Power.” The 12 Steps pave the way to getting there and experiencing true spiritual transformation from the inside out. Long-term sobriety is a byproduct of this transformative process that starts and ends with humble acceptance of one’s powerlessness.
12-step support groups can also offer a critical lifeline in times of stress. Jacob said that a “fellowship helps me deal with whatever life throws at me; if I’m going through a divorce, maybe someone in the room has gone through it; if I need new tires, somebody has gone through it.”
The wealth of support and resources in the room is a powerful reminder that you’re not alone in your struggles.
How FHE Can Help
Even so, it’s not uncommon for people who have just completed a program of treatment to quickly get overwhelmed by the demands of life in the real world. The temptation can then be to give up on recovery and believe it’s too hard. Jacob offered the following advice for people who find themselves in this place of discouragement: Consider joining a program like Sober Skills.
Jacob explained that people coming out of treatment actually “need more structure rather than less,” (so if you’re struggling after rehab in the absence of a daily structure, it just means you’re like a lot of people). Sober Skills “bridges the gap between treatment and a halfway house or your home.” In the meantime, the program:
- introduces clients to what their problem is (powerlessness)
- gives them a spiritual solution, by taking them through the 12-step process
- teaches them important life skills to help them navigate life challenges
- provides them with a daily structure and routine to help them stay sober—that they can replicate after finishing the program
Programs like Sober Skills are “Ideal for chronic relapse or the client who feels overwhelmed and needs more structure.” And, when eight out of 10 former Sober Skills clients is now in successful long-term recovery, the odds of succeeding in recovery are better than the odds of failing.
Are you struggling in recovery and tempted to drink or use again? Call us first. Our Sober Skills program has helped many people in the same shoes. We can also help you.