When I was in early recovery I went to the market to get some cat food and passed down the beer aisle. I stopped to see what was on sale, just out of curiosity, and was surprised to note that looking at all that beer didn’t make me want to drink. I was really proud of that, and told one of my therapists about it. His only remark was, “You stupid ****, they don’t sell cat food in the beer department!” That was a revelation to me, and I had just barely enough sense to realize that he was right. If I’d been in the wrong frame of mind at that moment, there was nothing to stop me from picking up a couple of sixes and heading off to the races.
There’s an old saying — mostly heard around the rooms of AA, but equally applicable to any kind of addiction: “If you don’t want to slip, stay away from slippery places.” Like so many program slogans, it sounds pretty trite. Nonetheless, we hear those things so often because they’re good advice. For alcoholics and other addicts, it’s some of the best advice we’ll ever hear.
Those of us who make our living (or, in my case, part of it) hanging around detox and primary treatment facilities see the same thing, over and over again. Mary Jane comes to detox or treatment, resists suggestions, and leaves against professional advice. She gives herself excuses like “My children need me at home,” “I have to get back to my business,” “My boyfriend will help me stay sober,” yada-yada. A few days, weeks, or months later, Mary Jane comes to detox or treatment, resists suggestions again, and leaves against professional advice. It’s not uncommon for this to happen several times, until MJ gets so beaten down that she finally decides to listen to the experts’ suggestions — or gets dead.
We reach a point in our early recovery, all of us, where one of two things happens, sometimes both. We start feeling cocky and/or we become so frightened of the thoughts and emotions that we’re experiencing, now that our brains are working overtime and we are no longer distracted by our addictive behaviors, that we’ll do practically anything to avoid feeling those feelings, thinking those thoughts, changing that destructive behavior.
Unless we are terrifically motivated at that point, we jump ship, and go back to exactly the conditions where we used to turn our brains off as often and as thoroughly as possible — to the same people, places and things that gave us our excuses for using to begin with. And some of those people, with vested interests in undermining our recovery, will do what they can to make sure we don’t stay clean for long.
Shel and I were talking with another Sunrise person last night, and the phrase “My best thinking got me here” came up. We all heard that in early recovery, and it’s another of those trite but oh-so-true aphorisms. To put it another way, if we’re so sure of what’s good for us, why did we become addicts to begin with?
Relapse happens before we pick up a drink or a drug or a catalog or a Twinkie or a person of the attractive gender. Relapse is a state of mind. It happens because our old ways of thinking and reacting to stress lead us on the path to using. And why not? We didn’t stay in treatment long enough to even begin to learn new ways of behaving. Addiction, in addition to being a disease, is also a habit. When we’re under pressure, we react the way that is most familiar, unless we have enough “training” to behave some other way. That’s why staying out of familiar places, avoiding familiar things (and often familiar people) is so important.
We are wired to behave in certain ways under certain conditions, and until we are thoroughly re-wired, we’re in trouble if those conditions arise. They are far more likely to do so out in the world than in a recovery facility. The slippery places are always going to be there. Until walking carefully is a state of mind, rather than just an idea, they’re still able to put us on our butts — and we might not be able to get up again, this time.