Success as a Risk Factor for Relapse

The assumption for most people is that a person who is recovering from drug or alcohol problems will run a higher risk of relapse when sad, disappointed or having encountered a difficult obstacle or perceived failure. Most people in recovery know the opposite is true. Success leads to a higher risk of relapse than failure.

Readers may recall that one of the lead characters of the famous cop show, Hill Street Blues, was a recovering alcoholic – as was the actor who played him (a well-known and often publicized fact at that time). At one point in the series the writers were contemplating having “something really bad” happen to the character to throw him into relapse (I cannot now recall the proposed story line). The actor told writers something to the effect of, “I would not relapse over that. I would more likely relapse over something really good.” While his comment baffled the writers, this story was often repeated in recovery circles in the 1980’s because it rang so true for those of us in recovery.

In recovery we learn early on to separate “ourselves” from “the disease” and “thoughts” from “actions.” When we first arrive at the doors of recovery, there is no separation – these are all completely intertwined. We have a thought to drink or use, and we do it. It is a huge step forward when we start to clearly identify and separate the disease thoughts from who we really are. We learn we are not our thoughts. We learn that a craving thought can arise (at any time without warning, hence the need for the admission in Step 1 that we cannot control that process), yet arise as it might, we need not act on it. It can feel a bit like pulling the curtain back on the once-terrifying Wizard of Oz and seeing it from a totally different perspective.

For those in long-term recovery, the thought of drinking or using is an anomaly that happens very rarely – usually only in “trigger” situations. Those triggers are different for everyone. For those who have had successful long-term recovery, triggers become fewer and further apart as new emotional and spiritual tools are implemented in various life situations and as old wounds become healed through the recovery process.

Years before I ever contemplated going to law school, I was at an AA meeting conversing with a highly prominent litigator who was sober about 14 years at that time. I wondered if losing a big trial might be a trigger for him. So I asked, “Do you ever think about taking a drink when you lose a big trial?” He was very thoughtful for just a moment as if realizing a correlation for the very first time and replied, “No. But I always think about it when I win a really big one.” We then began speculating about why that might be. We concluded that the ego-self “feels invincible” like “nothing can touch me.” And as we often say in recovery circles, the disease of alcoholism is cunning, baffling, powerful (…and patient). It waits for just the right moment to surface – a moment like when we feel invincible and like nothing can touch us.

If we do not have a recovery foundation firmly in place and lots of practice separating ourselves from our thoughts and our thoughts from our actions, we are particularly vulnerable to the risk of relapse when something awesome happens. The irony being, of course, that a life of recovery lends itself to more and more great events occurring in our lives. But with those wonderful events and victories, our ego wants to muscle in, take all the credit, and bask in the limelight. Don’t let it. Your very life as a recovering person depends on it.

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