“Relapse is part of recovery,” goes the saying. Not that we welcome relapse … but shit happens.  For myself, and for many of my clients, a relapse after three years of sobriety, or five years of sobriety, is a vastly different affair from our initial climb out of the world of substances. At this point, the call to use or drink is about something altogether more deep and psychological than the biochemical call-and-response of brain cells and alcohol, crystal meth, or nicotine.

Of course, in the throes of our relapse, it’s hard to keep appointments, let alone come to therapy or meetings. But if we can, hopefully together with our therapists, sponsors, higher powers, and/or the concern of friends and family, we will find our way back to quitting again, or rather, calling a halt to the relapse and returning to the sober way of life of our past few years. Here is where the psychotherapist goes to work: If we assume the cellular addiction in our body and brain chemistry has been extinguished by now, what was it that called us back to using that substance again after years of doing without? What was it about that experience that we wanted to relive?

Typical responses to this prompt include, to get high, to feel a rush, to feel relaxed, to bond with friends and lovers, to lose inhibitions, to feel sexy, to deaden painful or uncomfortable feelings, to turn off the thinking head for a while, to alleviate boredom, to enhance pleasure, and so on. You can come up with many more, I’m sure. As we explore these motives for drinking and using, old patterns can now emerge that were possibly not so apparent at an earlier stage of our struggle to quit. Now is the time to ask yourself, are there certain feelings and situations that trigger a desire for escape? Did someone once teach me that by ingesting a substance—be it food, drink, smoke, or chemical—I could fix the situation and make myself feel better? This can be a very old lesson indeed.

Even if none of these seem to apply to you, think about the simple fact that since prehistoric times, humans have always needed to escape reality for a while. Whether they made beer and wine, ingested herbs, danced around a campfire until they fell into a trance, found love and sex with others, created artwork, sang or made music, or just meditated in nature, these were all ways of escaping reality for a time. While the urge to escape is perhaps built into our psyches, the decision for a healthy escape versus a self-destructive escape is another thing. In fact, I’m convinced that for many sober people, the three-year or five-year relapse is due to this very reason: while we have paid attention to getting the substance out of our lives, we have not paid attention to the needs of the prehistoric human inside.

Remember that we can stay sober from our drug of choice and still find ways to get high. So sing, dance, make art, work out, run, meditate, recite poetry, do yoga—whatever is needed to keep your sanity without having to fall back into the trap of dangerous substances again.

If you are ready to explore these or any other issues with a caring, experienced therapist, please call or email David Bowman to arrange for a free, 30-minute phone consultation. Your mental health is worth it. Call (323) 561-2361.

Photo credit: Xan Griffin UNSPLASH