Is Relapse the End of the World?

Staying Stopped: Is Relapsing the End of the World?

 Is relapse to be expected or rather a signal that there is something missing for the alcoholic or addict trying to get well?

So what happened?

We’ve seen it all before—people can, and do, relapse at any length of sobriety. On the other hand, some people come into recovery and never drink or use again. What leads someone to pick up, and what are some warning signs that you might be on a road to relapse?

The State of Play

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous goes to great lengths to explain a few things. Critically, they emphasize and re-emphasize how hopeless alcoholism really is. They emphatically explain that if you are the chronic type you are most likely doomed. We have overpowering physical cravings for alcohol and often can’t stop drinking once we start, and minds that tell us drinking is not an issue, or that it will be different this time, and so on. On top of all of that, the book describes a spiritual discomfort that most alcoholics have, which we use alcohol to relieve. Even more, no human power can fix these issues. No one. When you combine these factors it becomes clear that nothing short of a miracle will help us. When we look at these stark and terrible factors, it’s unsurprising that alcoholics and addicts drink and use again and again, even when they don’t want to.

Now for the good news:

The literature of 12-step fellowships gives precise directions for how to get the miracle. They actually say things like “precise” and “exact” when referring to the directions for sobering up. They also say, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” The AA big book—and the experience of millions—suggests that if you follow the directions exactly you don’t have to drink or use anymore.

So where did we go wrong?

Precise directions aside, people relapse for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes they weren’t working the steps. Sometimes they were keeping to themselves some dark corner of their lives. Sometimes their behavior outside of recovery made them so uncomfortable they needed a drink or a drug for some relief. Sometimes people appear to be doing all of the work, but still relapse because they never truly surrendered enough to develop a relationship with a higher power that was big enough to keep them sober. Relapse is usually the last stop on a long road though. The relapse often begins long before someone picks up the drink or the drug. It starts with the disconnectedness, maybe some resentment too. Thoughts like “these people aren’t treating me right.” Getting too busy for meetings, sponsorship, and slowly backing away from the complete surrender we really need to recover. By the time we actually drink or use, chances are we’ve been a long way from that power for some time.

And now what?

Relapse, if you live through it and manage to make it back into recovery—not a given, by the way—can be a tremendous gift. It can let you know you weren’t on the beam. It can give you a full knowledge of your powerlessness, and what’s at stake. Relapse can bring people to their knees, which is often wildly useful to help them become ready to get some help and go after a real solution with a willingness they may not have previously had. Often, the worse off you are—the better your chances. The more broken and hopeless you are, the higher the likelihood that you will actually change. Relapse can lead to desperation, and desperation is a gift.


Christina Rock is a Seattle-based writer and photographer with a deep affection for late sixties music, strong coffee, and days that go better than planned.