Recovery from alcohol addiction can be a long and difficult process; with relapse into old drinking habits common for many. In this blog Andy Ryan, Head of Recovery and Addiction Services at addiction charity Changing Lives, shares his top tips for how to avoid alcohol relapse.
In Gestalt therapy, there is a term called creative adjustment. This term is used to describe the wonderful process we all have in which we are able to adapt to the circumstances of our lives, in the best way that we can manage, with the resources we have at the time. With this in mind, we must recognise that for many people, the unhealthy relationship with alcohol is this creative adjustment. If we use this as a framework, we must then think about how to best equip ourselves or people we know with the right resources should there be acute moments of difficulty that trigger the relief seeking, familiar and/ or dissociation the can be attained from certain levels of alcohol use.
I found this process difficult, especially in the early days of my own personal recovery. Looking with hindsight from a behavioural perspective, I was more inclined to repeat familiar behaviour (drinking) than new behaviour (not drinking) and also did not have the resilience, self-esteem or awareness which meant I would often be blindsided to my own process. This was due to years of habitual routine, dissociation and detached living.
Therefore I would offer caution, as change in the relationship with alcohol can be a bumpy journey with a mixture of progress and impasse. The key is to remain in transition and not give up hope.
Over the years I have worked in the addiction sector I have often heard people talk about this process by saying the key to successfully changing their dependence on alcohol was their capacity to dust themselves of and get back up again amidst the difficult times in their recovery, with support from others. This resonates with me: alongside my own internal desire to live, the people around me did not give up or concede to the repetitive compulsion I was trapped in. I cannot thank these people enough.
I believe self-awareness and contact are key in any sustainable change and I think it would be great to share some ideas and practical examples of how we can potentially avoid moving back towards unhealthy and costly relationship with substances.
Know yourself! Most programmes, therapeutic interventions and support across the world all encourage some form of reflective process. The relationship with alcohol can be deeply embedded over many years of repetition. Some of the reasons why this happened is deeply hidden and elusive. To expose this at a pace that is therapeutic and not traumatic it may be best to find a way to be personally reflective. You can keep a journal, write a letter to yourself, create a reward process, attend meditation / art / mindfulness classes and much more. The idea behind this is to create a space where you take specific time to reflect on yourself, your relationships, hopes, blocks etc. to understand your own process and from this place of awareness make healthier decisions.
Self-reflection can be an insular experience, so it is important you also connect with others. There is plenty written about the power of social connection and how this is a basic human need. It is crucial when thinking about the subject of relapse. Through years of repetition, both in drinking alcohol but also in telling ourselves why we do this it can be easy to subscribe to this behavioural and scripted pattern we hold. Sometimes the greatest intervention is the caring, compassion, awareness and insight of another in helping us see that we may be on a trajectory towards dependency again. A more crucial element to the social connection is that the people around us and communities we live in are intrinsic in helping us all self-actuate, fulfil our potential and feel secure. If someone feels more content and satisfied with themselves, their life and life chances, then there is less chance that relief-seeking or sabotaging thoughts/ behaviours will emerge.
The importance of being out and staying active is well documented. This also helps in the relapse awareness process, not only do you benefit from the exercise, fresh air and scenery but sometimes at a more crucial level the change of environment, stimulus and focus can help both behaviourally and emotionally.
I always remember listening to someone talk about the pattern of their relapse. What they described was how they used to stay in when they were stressed, cut off social contact, and switched on the TV. Then, once their stress reached an intolerable level, the only thing missing from that equation was the accompanying drink of choice. The idea of being active, going for a walk, volunteering or taking up a hobby breaks the familiar patterns that can often be pathways back to creating the space to permit dependency to thrive again.
There can be a lot of shame and guilt attached when alcohol use increases to levels of unhealthy dependence and begins to erode and compromise your self-esteem, personal integrity, beliefs and ways of being in the world. If I could offer any insight, especially with the above creative adjustment concept in mind, is that if you have found yourself and the lives of those you care about compromised by alcohol use, know that you were only adapting to survive, and this adaptation came with a cost you could have not envisaged.
Whilst there is reparation for all affected by alcohol use, if you stay honest with yourself and others, tell people when your struggling, express how you are feeling, and put words to some of the things happening, you can feel better. This also means that you could be less likely to isolate yourself, helping you to maintain social connections. In turn this hopefully makes you less likely to reach out to old coping strategies like alcohol. The only addition to this would be to share with compassion for others and yourself so it is not a traumatic experience. On my travels, I have met thousands of people on their own recovery journeys. They often talk about responsibility being a key ingredient to their changes, developing their emotional awareness and learning how to express themselves more authentically and honestly.
I hope that there is something in here which has been of help and as a reflective process it has certainly helped me reflect on some elements, beliefs and thinking I have around relapse. I have always found writing a crucial part of my own reflective practice – perhaps it might be a useful part of your own.
Written by Andy Ryan
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, there is help available to you. Speak with your GP about what support might be available to you or someone you are concerned about. This is a great first step in finding help.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Calls are free and confidential. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9.00am to 8.00pm, weekends 11.00am to 4.00pm).
More information about organisations which offer help and support can be found on our support page.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.