Is Relapse a Part of Recovery?


I met with one of my treatment peers this weekend for lunch.  He recently relapsed after having two years’ sober.  He’s back on track now, and something has definitely shifted for him.  There is a difference in his perspective, and I observed a sort of leveling out of his entire demeanor.  This friend of mine struggles with depression, and has a way of self-sabotaging, like all of us, but it goes a little deeper with him.  He is comfortable in his depression, and it’s difficult for him to see that there is any good in store for his life. 

I was with my friend throughout our treatment together, and witnessed the ongoing ebb and flow of his shifty moods.  It’s difficult enough to live life as an addict/alcoholic without the curse of a mood disorder, yet sadly, this isn’t uncommon.  I regard my friend as a strong, courageous Seeker.  He doesn’t give up, man.  He is on the search for some serious truth and meaning.  I think we tend to look outside ourselves for this, but I believe this relapse brought my friend right into the corner of his own heart.  He’s face to face with himself, for real this time, and the clarity is coming in strong.  What if this relapse was just what he needed?

You know, this recovery thing, is simply part of a life journey that we choose to take when we realize that “our way” is not working out for us.  Recovery is not a separate institution of our life.  It synchronizes with the all encompassing spiritual path.  There is no separation from the path.  In our stubborn self-will, we deliciously take detours, but from the time we are born, until our death, we are all on a unique spiritual journey, regardless of the several roads we travel.  Recovery brings us out of the detour of suffering, onto the path of freedom.  There are no dead ends, not even in death. 

My point is, we build walls around our recovery and institutionalize it, like everything else.  Humans tend to be comfortable creating regulations, rules, and fixating on wrongs and rights.  In actuality, we need merely be guided by intuition, and honoring our boundaries.  My friend relapsed on a urge.  There was no pre-arranged method to his relapse.  He simply decided to use one day because the urge was there, and his guard was down.  He came to the conclusion, during this relapse, that he was tired of hiding behind his depression, and he was going to take the initiative to do the work surrounding his deep-seeded issues.  He felt something he had never felt before; like a sort of cleansing or clearing of his clarity.  He saw himself with new eyes. During the shock of his “failure,” he became willing to face himself.  For him, this took a couple of years in recovery, and perhaps it took a relapse.

There is a lot of judgment that accompanies a relapse.  Mostly, self-judgment.  On top of this, we go to meetings and announce that we are starting our program all over again.  It’s a humbling place to be, and I don’t necessarily believe we are taught the right attitude in the AA and NA tradition when it comes to addressing a relapse.  They say we need to start our program all over again.  Ok, sure, but what about the overall picture and the spiritual growth happening with my friend, and so many others who come out of a relapse stronger than they were prior to the relapse?  I just have a problem with “programs” all together.  I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly follow suggestions of people who have been in recovery longer than I have, but there is something deeper happening with me since I came into recovery.  I actually trust myself today, and I listen to my own intuition.  I follow the path of my heart rather than the self-destructive road of my self-will.  The steps that are listed on the walls of the rooms, unfold for me naturally.  Shouldn’t the AA and NA tradition be a tool we use, as opposed to yet another institution?  Many of us get addicted to the rooms, and the program, which is just another crutch in life.  There is no freedom in this.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, when we fall in our recovery, and dust ourselves off, it shouldn’t feel like a failure; yet it does when we have to announce the amount of days we have sober.  I suppose they do this to keep us accountable for ourselves, and I know it’s a program that has worked for thousands of people over the years, perhaps millions, yet my understanding of my friend’s relapse went beyond the limited perspective of the program.

I’m just really fed up with judgment.  I want to have a heart of compassion and see beyond the physical.  There is no right and wrong here; it’s all simply an experience.  My friend’s growth in all of this was intense, profound and beautiful.  I just want to cheer on his spirit and shout, “KEEP ON GOING!!!!  YES!!! KEEP ON GOING!!!” 

And to answer my own question, “Is relapse a part of recovery?”… Recovery is part of the spiritual journey; and relapse does not fall short of this all-encompassing spiritual journey.

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