Relapse After Substantial Addiction Recovery

If you spend time around recovery circles, one thing becomes evident very quickly. Many, if not most who attempt to get sober, fail. It is a point of great suffering for those concerned about addiction, and one in which friends, families and clinicians throw their hands up in despair. Or, in moments of sorrow and hopelessness, declare: “Well, maybe he just didn’t want it bad enough.” Most of us realize a deeper truth: we as a culture have failed to teach individuals how to stay sober for any significant period of time. Sure, there is a small percentage who weather the storms of life and stay clean, but as mentors of others, we have as yet, failed to teach what we have learned. This is not a criticism, it is simply an observation that needs to be taken seriously. Which means we must make a commitment to the truth, and the first central truth is this: a very small percentage of individuals succeeds in their attempts to remain alcohol, drug, and addiction free.

As I sit here I could begin listing the countless stories, such as this one: Tom, a valued member of the recovery community, thirteen years clean, suddenly picks up his heroin addiction, and one week later is dead. He seemed so happy. He was married. He had a good job. What gives? Everyone is heart broken beyond belief. How could this good and sweet man return to his addiction, where all he could possibly expect to experience is deep and pervasive suffering. How could this happen, after thirteen years of continuous clean time? It makes no sense.

And yet it does happen, time and time again. And then there is this example. A man named Phil (names are changed to protect the innocent) has been sober 20 years. He goes to meetings regularly. And yet, when you hear him speak, you realize that he is angry, furious in fact, and has nothing that remotely relates to peace or serenity. After 20 years, people can barely stand to be around him. He can’t hold a relationship. But he does show up and work a “program” to the best of his ability. What stops him from breaking the trance of his anger?

Or yet another example: Frank, 20 years sober and clean, is a sex addict. He is driven to place himself in situations that are risky for his reputation and his happiness. On one level, he knows better, and yet he can’t seem to resist the dangerous excitement of his behavior. Clearly something is amiss in this man, who by and large is like everyone else. He seeks happiness and peace and inner contentment, yet after 20 years of working a good recovery program, this compulsion has not been touched. He is an accident waiting to happen, in which with one wrong move, his social and economic world could plummet.

And this example, one that is so continuous that even god weeps: Billy, a young 25 year-old heroin addict, get’s clean, feels good, has strong intentions to stay clean, but in a short period of time, one week, two weeks, three weeks, something blinding overcomes him, and he returns to shooting up. He is filled with remorse, and tries and tries again, each time only able to last for two weeks, two months, maybe a year, before he is swallowed by the jaws of his addiction. For him, six months represents substantial recovery. For those mentioned before him, 13, 20 and 25 years of drug free life is substantial, and yet each of them is either in the grip of an emotional relapse that they can’t shake (Phil), a behavioral relapse (Frank), or a drug relapse (Tom and Billy).

So what is missing, and why is relapse so prevalent. There is a primary misunderstanding that sets the tone for all of these occurrences. Most get sober and clean and travel the road of sobriety lacking the precise knowledge they need to understand what they will encounter as they continue to grow. You could liken addiction recovery to traveling a labyrinth in which a Minotaur will appear whenever it is time to transform oneself to a deeper level of understanding. The myth that often prevails, often unspoken in recovery circles, is that after a few short years of working a spiritual program that one’s difficulty with life disappears. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as an individual grows in the direction of becoming more conscious and present, they prepare themselves for encountering more difficult and painful psychological and emotional material. Don Riso and Russ Hudson, in their ground-breaking book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, describe the gauntlet that each individual faces if they are to move in the direction of their freedom and genuine happiness. They describe this in the section called “Excavation and Recovery of the True Self”[1] which is a map for understanding the nature of true and deep change, and the precise cycles of growth one will encounter before arriving at one’s true self, one’s innate essence. The news however, is both good and bad. That is, the author’s clearly show the way, and demonstrate that others have taken this great journey successfully, provided they get support and help. And for a good period of time the journey entails taking on more and more difficult inner material. So, side by side with growth and maturation and accessing deeper states of joy and freedom, arises more difficult inner material. And this material cannot be taken lighter, or under-estimated in its potential to reverse the gains one has made.

And yet in recovery circles, there is often a complete lack of understanding of these cycles, in fact they are rarely addressed. Likewise, in mental health circles this information is nearly nonexistent. So, for example, let’s look at our precious friend Tom who 13 years into his recovery, surrounded by people who love him, picks up the needle and dies in three short days. Gone. The nature of spiritual growth is a mystery, but one thing that isn’t mysterious is that when it is time for an individual to make a leap in their understanding of themselves, or when by virtue of their growth they have enough ego strength to sustain looking at something that has been operating unconsciously and thus stopping their fullest expression, that it is invariably preceded by a feeling of emptiness or confusion. So, a man like Tom might be trucking along feeling really good, and then, slowly, like a fog drifting into his awareness, he finds himself in a mysterious emptiness wherein everything he has been doing to promote his life, and to experience meaning, suddenly but pervasively feels “meaningless.” So, he re-doubles his efforts to re-establish his sense of well-being and self-definition, but it doesn’t work. Now he is entering a spiritual emergency because over time, and in spite of his best efforts, this emptiness visits him more frequently. It greets him in the middle of the night, when he first awakens, and being human, he tries to outrun the anxiety and emotional pain he is feeling. He tells few about this because he’s either afraid they might think he’s crazy, well in fact, he does feel crazy. Or maybe he tells his AA friends and they scold him to “work a better program,” and yet he does this blindfolded. It’s not working. Something inside him is trying to get his attention and won’t take “no” for an answer.

It is at these pivotal moments that many are revisited by their addiction, that great Siren begins to chant and call them to the banks of their self-destruction. But practically speaking, if Tom understood that all great change is preceded by these moments of total confusion, if he understood that many answers lie in his beginning to work on the nuances of his Enneagram Type, then these transitions would assist him in following his souls direction and goal: to reconnect him with what is essential and true within him. If he had the knowledge that these powerful inner states arise before he enters a new level of awareness, he would be less inclined to despair, and he would know from the beginning that he needed help, guides, mentors, people who understand the natural cycles of one’s psychological and soul growth. Instead of freaking out, he would look for help at this level of challenge.

This is the great gift of the Enneagram in that it informs clear direction in these times of inner change. Along with understanding the nuances of one’s Type, and the kinds of emotional and psychological encounters an individual will face, knowledge of the Levels of Development provide another clear map for understanding where one is headed, and how to arrive there. This too can be explored in The Wisdom of the Enneagram and is identified in each of the Type descriptions.

This article is not meant to be exhaustive, but to create a conversation around the emergency that faces the addiction field today. And, it is an emergency. In truth, it is time for a revolution such that we become more skillful at teaching what we have so kindly been given, our freedom from our particular addictions.

[1] Riso, Don and Hudson, Russ. The Wisdom of the Enneagram, pgs. 371-376. Bantam Doubleday Dell,1999.

Scroll to Top