People with relapse problems have their own language. It’s a language that sounds very much like the one people with continuous sobriety speak, but it has subtle differences.
People with relapse problems have a code that even they can’t break.
Let me give you a couple of examples of the relapse code. Relapsers often talk about what they “ought” to do rather than what they are doing. It sounds right until it dawns on you they are subtly saying that even though they know they need to do certain things, they are unable to do them. They say things like, “I know I should be going to more meetings,” or “I know I should get a sponsor,” etc.
Relapsers often talk about how little they drank or used when they were “out there this time,” as if to say, “It wasn’t really that bad.” They say things like, “I knew I shouldn’t be drinking, so I only had two glasses of wine.”
This minimizing usually is followed by a “reason.” You’ll hear a lot of reasons from relapsers. The reasons all sound legitimate, they all sound … well … reasonable: “I lost a job,” “I had surgery and started to use pain medication,” “My wife divorced me,” “I found out my best friend had cancer.”
Relapsers don’t want to talk about the actual act of drinking or specifically how much, and they avoid a set sobriety date. They tend to want to keep the sobriety date – no pun intended – fluid. They tend to minimize the drinking and maximize the reasons, also called justifications.
Relapsers talk about taking responsibility, but if you listen carefully, they rarely actually take it. They tend to give the impression, even to themselves, that they are taking the blame, but there always is a reason. You can tell by the copious use of the word “but.” For example, you might hear something like, “I took a hit off the joint, and I know it was wrong ... but my girlfriend shouldn’t have asked me to go to that party.”
Relapsers focus on being “good boys” or “good girls,” making promises that, in the moment, they intend to keep. They talk about feeling guilty a lot and share their depression and guilt over misdeeds.
They sincerely try hard to be better behaved but are unconsciously confusing the need to address the alcoholism with the misbehavior associated with it. Without knowing it, they are subtly putting the cart before the horse and then, failing to maintain the better behavior, use the failure as a rationalization to drink again.
Essentially, they haven’t figured out constant focus on their misdeeds is self-centered and their guilt is self-indulgent – a safe and familiar place that leads to chronic self-pity and, subsequently, a drink.
Relapsers don’t know they’re doing these things, which is why they continue to do them and have trouble with sobriety. It takes patience and compassion to help a relapser see the reality of their “drain circling” behavior.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.