A client asks, “Is it true that ‘once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict?’”
“Once an addict, always an addict” is hurled around the recovery field and among recovering people with considerable abandon. It’s an easy way of describing a pretty complex situation, but it’s misleading to a degree. A far more accurate way of putting it would be “Once you stop using, you have to change the way you live and the way you look at life. If you fall back into thinking and behaving the way you used to, you will almost certainly relapse, and if you don’t you will still be a miserable s.o.b.” To that extent, the addict is always waiting in the wings.
When we began using alcohol and/or other drugs to change the way we felt, we essentially shut down our emotional and social development. Healthy emotions require not only a foundation that is often missing in addicts, but also a clear mind to deal with the many issues, pleasant and unpleasant, that arise in our personal and interpersonal lives.
Since someone who is under the influence of mood-altering chemicals is, by definition, not operating with a clear mind, nothing much useful is going to happen in our emotional development from that time forward. Trauma, such as child abuse, severe injury, parental separation, poor parenting, loss of a loved one and similar things can create the same sort of obstacle to becoming a functional person. Combine the two, as so many of us did, and we end up a real mess.
We can see that sobriety involves a lot more than just quitting drugs. Abstinence is essential to recovery, but by itself only allows us to begin to think clearly. True recovery involves learning how to live without drugs: cleaning up the issues that separate us from others, learning to deal with our emotions, resolving the shame and guilt that always go along with active addiction, and building living skills. These are the abilities that we develop in our recovery fellowships, therapy and spiritual practice. Without them, we have no reason to remain clean and sober.
So — once an addict, always an addict? To the extent that we practice those skills, and continue to practice them, maintaining an emotional and spiritual condition that will enable us to live a life without drugs, we are insulated from our addictions. However, the other side of the coin is obvious: if we fall back into our old ways of thinking and dealing with life, the addict has returned.