Faulty Beliefs: The role of alcohol and drug use in recovery

Okay, so you're in recovery. What does that look like? In order to prevent relapse, it is important to understand what it is and what it is not.

There are a lot of myths or faulty beliefs about alcoholism, addiction, and recovery, and they can be harmful. These include, but are not at all limited to the following.
  • Addiction is a choice.
  • Addiction is a moral flaw.
  • Someone has to hit rock bottom before they can recover.
  • Multiple relapses implies that the situation is hopeless.
  • All addiction recovery programs are the same.

These are just a few, and a full list would include some that are true sometimes, but not all of the time, or which may be true for some people but not for others. Partial truths are also faulty.

The problem with faulty beliefs is that they get in the way of the type of thinking that is required in order to interrupt the cycle of addiction, recovery, and relapse.

When it comes to the prob
lems of relapse, these wrong beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies. When a faulty belief becomes true to you, then you will act as if it were true, and this can lead to relapse cycle that might otherwise be avoided.

People who are prone to relapse often define recovery as abstinence from alcohol and drug use, the obvious idea being that whenever they aren't drinking or doing drugs, they are in recovery, and whenever they start drinking or doing drugs again, they are in relapse. This would mean that not drinking or doing drugs is the primary task in recovery.

However, while a good argument can be made for abstinence being a prerequisite, recovery isn't defined by abstinence. The process of recovery involves much more than that.

The recovery process involves a series of things that have to be done to manage the problems of withdrawal and substance-induced brain dysfunction resulting from the addiction. When an addicted person stops drinking or using drugs, his brain doesn't simply go back to normal. The biological, psychological, and social damage caused by the addiction will have to be dealt with.

In other words, recovery involves a lot more than not drinking or using drugs. Someone who accepts the false premise that recovery is all about abstinence will be ambushed the dysfunction caused by the sobriety-based symptoms of addiction, and in danger of relapse. This faulty belief can prevent someone from finding a way to deal with these problems.

Too often, the faulty belief that recovery equals abstinence is taken even further, and someone comes to believe that as long as they don't drink or use drugs, they will be able to remain in control, and that the only way to lose control is to use alcohol or drugs. The obvious conclusion to this faulty belief is that any return to drinking or using drugs is a conscious and willful decision, which would imply that relapse is a deliberate choice.

It's not that simple.

If you believe that...
  • Recovery is defined as abstinence from alcohol or drugs.
  • Relapse is defined as alcohol or drug use.
  • As long as I refrain from drinking or using drugs, I am in recovery.
  • Whenever I return to drinking or using drugs, I am in relapse.
  • As long as I don't use alcohol or drugs, I will be in control of my behavior and my life.

Then, the logical conclusion is that...
  • Relapse is always the result of a conscious and deliberate choice to use alcohol or drugs.
  • Not using alcohol or drugs is the primary task in recovery.

This isn't true, or at least it's not the full truth. It is a faulty belief. Abstinence does not guarantee that you will recover from your addiction. Abstinence will break the cycle of addiction and prevent the episodes of loss of control that are brought about by intoxication, but when the use-based symptoms are interrupted by abstinence, they are replaced by sobriety-based symptoms of addiction.

In sobriety, these symptoms can be so severe as to cause you to lose control of your behavior and judgment even when sober. It is not at all uncommon for someone in relapse to become so dysfunctional in sobriety that they view going back to drinking or using drugs as a positive option.

Someone who has accepted that recovery is defined as abstinence alone might be in such pain in sobriety that they come to believe that recovery didn't work for them, or that they have to drink or use in order to feel normal or to function efficiently.

That's not true. Abstinence from drinking alcohol or using drugs may be a necessary component of recovery, but the primary goal in recovery is learning to live a productive, meaningful, and comfortable life without alcohol or drug use.

Withdrawal, the inability to cope with life without alcohol or drugs, and the whole family of problems that stem from the biological, psychological, and social damage of addiction will interfere with ability to live a full life without alcohol or drugs unless they are dealt with, as well.

Recovery involves abstinence from alcohol or drugs, but it also requires learning to cope with withdrawal and the stress of life without returning to drinking or using drugs. This is why it is difficult, or impossible, for the addicted person to quit on their own. Recovery is attainable, but it requires more than willpower.

See: Faulty Beliefs: The warning signs of relapse