Relapse is Not Recovery

Glacial_grooves

Is it a groove or a rut? Glacial grooves take time to form, so do our habits, addictions, and recovery efforts.

You have been biting your nails for years and are tired of it. Your nails are bloody stumps and they hurt all the time. So you decide to make a change. You start with a spray to make your fingers nasty enough that you won’t want to put them in your mouth. Lexapro becomes a regular morning companion at the advice of a doctor. And you start meditating 20 minutes every morning to relax because the main problem is anxiety and nail biting is a symptom. You feel great. Your fingers are feeling wonderful, you are more relaxed, and you look down and thing, “I could be a hand model.”

Then one day it’s raining and cold outside and you have a major deadline at work that day for something you are not sure will get finished. Tired after weeks of hard work you refuse the Lexapro, the spray, and the meditation. When you get home that night, you need bandages because your fingers are bloody stumps because you chewed them to a pulp that afternoon. You take a Lexapro and go to bed, back at Day 1.

Was going back to biting nails part of the recovery process? I have heard some ideas supported that say relapse into the very behaviors that a program of recovery is trying to prevent is part of the process of recovery itself. But that is like saying sitting down is a necessary part of running or that getting into a car accident is a necessary part of driving. Sitting down is highly probably and a car crash is probable but less so, but both are symptoms or consequences of both running and driving. Neither must happen for running or driving to be possible.

It’s a fact that relapse happens. Depending on the strength of one’s addictive patterns of behavior, it might happen more than once. But even if relapse is highly probable or if it is even inevitable in some cases, it does not make it a part of recovery. Highly probable does not mean necessary. Facts are not necessities. So what is relapse?

Relapse is a symptom of addiction, not recovery.

This is important. Nail biting probably won’t kill you. But alcohol, cutting, drugs, and even compulsive eating can. Stopping medication or other important behavioral modifications in illnesses like depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia stir the pot for a suicide soup. Relapse in any of these cases is not part of recovery, it is part of the illness from which you are trying to recover. And it can kill you.

When we have habits that are powerful shapers of our lives and around which our relationships and behaviors seem grounded like some gravitational or magnetic force, escape velocity is really hard to achieve. Like a ball tossed in the air, the tendency of our bodies and minds is to fall back down to the place where “normal” has existed as long as we can remember. But that’s the delusion. That “normal” feeling of being stuck to the addiction is anything but natural. It’s not a natural part of the brain to do things that put our very survival as human beings in danger. The brain is there to keep us alive, not kill us. Yet with many of these strong addictions, the brain turns on us like a bad scene from M. Night Shayamalan’s terrible film The Happening.

Relapse happens because addiction is powerful and change is difficult. Change in order to stop addictive behaviors seems insurmountable because addictive behaviors have formed absurdly deep grooves that our lives seem to automatically follow whether we want them to or not. Getting out of these patterns requires a radical program of behavioral change to fill in those old grooves and make some newer, healthier grooves for our lives to follow. This takes time, patience, and a hell of a lot of hard work and consistent, repeated effort. Relapse shoots us back into those old grooves and when we fall into them, they feel deeper and more impossible than before. For many they are inescapable.

Relapse is not a part of recovery, it is a symptom very addiction that people are trying to recover from. That distinction is important enough to make because it will save lives.

Rules for a Happy Life: Eat Less

myplate_yellow_livetype copyMy go-to response to stress and depression is eating. I love sugar and I love carbs. It turns out that for people with depression in their families or who regularly experience depression, sugar is a source of craving. Too much sugar can jack your hormones and create more craving which plays right into addictive patterns of behavior. It’s the great proxy for people getting sober as well. When you stop drinking, your body consumes less sugar so you naturally it will seek out sugary foods. Talk to any recovering addict about ice cream and they will let out a knowing laugh.

Most of my calories have been from processed carbohydrates which turns into sugar at some point in the power plant of the human body. Since I was not exercising, that sugar turned into pounds and sent my already unstable emotional balance downhill. Moving helps this problem since by using up the energy found in the glucose stores in muscles, your body is processing all of the crap it would normally store. If you are a runner, you need this stuff because after about an hour or so, you use it all up. But if you were a slothful slug like me, all of that ice cream, potato chips, and pasta would just put on the pounds.

I used the idea of calorie cutting first to help with the weight loss process. But what it also does is helps me to build an awareness of what I am putting in my body. Carbs feel great for a little while, but they don’t satiate hunger for a very long time. Something like a can of Pringles (screw not eating just one, I eat the whole damn can every time) is 900 calories but will only help you feel full for like an hour. Ice cream is even worse. Protein rich and fiber rich foods on the other hand are filling, take a lot of work for the body to digest, and far more satiating. So if I am going to cut my gross calorie intake a day, it had better be with those kinds of foods. That means more things like veggies and legumes.

I used to be tired and sluggish after lunch. At the start of 2015 and all of the years I can remember before that, I would avoid meetings after lunch and would feel exhausted for the hours afterwards. I ate too much and was doing nothing to burn it off. That sluggishness is gone. Now, I snack more periodically throughout the day and my main meals I try to keep around 500 calories. If I go over the limit of around 1500-1800 net calories, it’s not a big deal, but I try not to slip all that much. I dropped the excess pounds and now sit at a very comfortable weight that gives me enough fuel for a long run without the need for gels and other crap – even though they help sometimes. For that I will intentionally jack my system with complex carbs but only with the intention of burning it off.

I use MyFitnessPal to track what I eat. It is a great tool to build awareness and to see what I am actually putting in my body. I can’t trust my eyes or stomach to tell me the truth. Only data can do that for me. This is not a diet. It is part of a lifestyle change. And it works.

Part three of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.