Why Do We Self-Sabotage in Recovery?

Self-sabotage in addiction recovery is common.

Being in recovery for the last ten years has taught me a lot about myself and other recovering addicts. While we’re all unique individuals with different, often dysfunctional, histories, we also have a lot in common. One of the most common similarities that I’ve seen time and time again is our ability to self-sabotage.

Addiction itself is a form of self-sabotage. When we’re in our active addictions, we depend on our drug of choice to help us escape dealing with life’s issues, which usually leads to bigger problems and more devastating consequences. Active addiction is self-destructive, isolating, and it destroys everyone who is caught in the wake of the disease. Yet, we often go back to it over and over. I know I have. Even after nearly seven years sober, I relapsed last year, reverting to old coping methods that I knew didn’t work.

Why do we do this? I think there’s a simple reason for this complicated behavior. Even though it’s so destructive and chaotic, self-sabotaging feels comfortable, familiar, like wrapping ourselves in warm security blankets, even in recovery. It’s what we’ve always done – it’s what we know. And even worse, it’s what we think we deserve. In active addiction, we feel like the pain, guilt, shame, and negative consequences are warranted. We deserve to lose our progress, our relationships, our dignity, our sanity because we’re not worth anything better. Unfortunately, that way of thinking doesn’t just go away when we get sober. It takes time. And it takes vigilance to not let it sneak back into the soundtracks of our lives.

I think there are numerous reasons that we self-sabotage our recoveries. Some that we may not even realize until much later. I’m certainly not professing to know all the answers, I’m speaking from my own experiences and from what I’ve learned from others in recovery about the art of self-sabotage. That said, these are some of the most common reasons that I think we undermine our recoveries:

Inability to cope with excessive stress. When I was in active alcoholism, the only coping skill I had was to check out of my life by drinking to the point of blacking out. Since then, I’ve learned how to deal with stressful times more effectively, but I’m still no expert. It’s easy to fall back into old behaviors when life gets really rough, and if I’m not paying attention, that can lead me to some dark places.

Guilt and shame. My drinking made me a different person, someone who was unrecognizable to me and to the people who knew me. My behavior created so much guilt and shame in me that I thought I would never be able to let go of my past. Fortunately, working the 12 steps of AA helped me work through a lot of it, especially steps 4 and 9. In step 4, we take a personal moral inventory of ourselves and in step 9, we clean up our side of the street. Through those actions, and God’s grace and mercy, I’ve been able to forgive myself for many of the bad things I did and said. Not all of them by any means. It’s a process, and it takes time.

Fear of missing out. We see booze everywhere; it’s ubiquitous and it’s usually associated with having a good time. It’s no wonder that there have been times, especially in my early sobriety, when I romanticized drinking and all the “fun” that goes with it. Why can everyone else drink and enjoy themselves and I can’t? Well, it’s because when I do, bad things will happen. Just like when someone with diabetes eats too much sugar, bad things will happen. There is nothing romantic about ending up passed out beside a dumpster at Circle K after a night of drinking. I have to “play the tape to the end,” as they say in the program, remembering what happens when I drink.

Stuffing emotions. Oh boy. I am a champion at stuffing emotions and finding distractions to keep myself from feeling them. Of course, my main strategy to stop feeling used to be drinking. Nothing stops an uncomfortable emotion like a couple (or twelve) shots of tequila. The thing is those negative emotions will still be there when the booze wears off, and so will whatever additional messes I created by drinking. When I was in rehab, I remember that my therapist told me, “Your emotions won’t kill you, but your alcoholism will.” That was pretty eye-opening at the time. These days, after much therapy, I am better about sitting with my emotions, talking about them, and working my way through them instead of around them. I do still use distraction sometimes when I’m uncomfortable with my emotions (I’m a TV show binge-watching ninja), but they’re healthier distractions, and I don’t wait as long to get back to what’s bothering me and deal with it.

Low self-worth. There’s no doubt about it, when I drank, I felt like I was smarter, prettier, funnier, and more outgoing than my quiet, sober self. Of course, I know that isn’t true, but booze gave me the self-confidence that I’m pretty sure I was born without. Liquid courage, I’m sure you’ve heard it called, and I had it when I was drinking. When I got into recovery though, I no longer had that artificial boost that I needed to feel like I was interesting or worthy of anyone’s time, and that’s a lonely place to be. That feeling of low self-worth led me back to the bottle many times when I was first trying to get sober. Now that I’ve been in recovery for a while, I do feel better about myself a lot of the time. When I don’t, I can turn to my husband, my friends in recovery, and God for encouragement.

Addiction is a dangerous disease without us adding to it with self-sabotage. But our ability to make things worse is huge, in active addiction as well as in recovery. In both, self-sabotage starts the same way, with destructive thinking patterns. That thinking, left unaddressed, leads to self-destructive behavior, and then it’s only time before we are masters of the art of self-sabotage.

When we get into recovery, we have to recognize the importance of working with a new medium. We need the willingness to try new techniques that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for us. We need the confidence to use new, healthy tools that paint a whole different picture. And we need the courage to see the canvas as it really is. True recovery means that we have to embrace the art of self-awareness and leave self-sabotage in the past where it belongs.

When Relapse is Part of Addiction Recovery

alcohol addiction relapse

Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, p85

I’m back! Back to writing and blogging for myself and not just for work. I wish that I could say that I’m back and I’ve stayed sober for the last couple of years, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I had a relapse in September 2019. Fortunately, it was a one-time, one-day relapse, from which I got right back on the wagon. It was a huge blow to my ego and to my self-worth, knocking me to my knees in shame and humiliation, which is probably why it’s taken me over a year to write about it. I won’t go into the gory details of that horrible day. Suffice it to say, I was an alcoholic being an alcoholic, and it wasn’t pretty. However, looking back now, I can clearly see some important lessons that I needed to learn.

Lessons My Relapse Taught Me

My relapse taught me a lot about myself, my recovery, and my loved ones. Here are a few of the most important things I learned:

I need a recovery program. In the year or so before my relapse, I had fallen away from AA. Nothing bad happened, I just allowed other aspects of my life to get in the way of going to meetings. I really think that I thought I was far out of harm’s way, that I wouldn’t drink again ever. After all, I had been sober for almost seven years. Complacency. How many times had I been warned about it in meetings? Way too many to count. Yet, I allowed it to happen to me. I know that there are some sober people who don’t need a recovery program to stay that way. I also know now, that I do.

I have to manage stress and anxiety more effectively. When I was in active addiction, the way that I coped with stress and anxiety was to drink. When I got into recovery, I learned other coping skills to manage them. Things like self-care, talking to another alcoholic, H.A.L.T. (to be aware if I am hungry, angry, lonely, or tired), going to meetings, taking a nap, writing, praying, and other healthy activities helped me handle life on life’s terms. Prior to my relapse, I had returned to old behavior, and started stuffing feelings of stress and anxiety. I didn’t use my healthy coping skills consistently, making a disaster just waiting to happen. And then it did.

You do go right back to where you left off. The only thing different about my drinking when I relapsed in relation to my old, active addiction drinking, was that I no longer had a tolerance to the booze. One of my last drunks in 2012 ended with me in the hospital following a blackout and a handful of pills. My relapse, though not as serious, ended up with a blackout and a trip to the hospital. Thank God it didn’t end in handcuffs, which happened more times than I care to share in my previous drinking.

My family loves me unconditionally. After my relapse, I felt terrible guilt and shame. But it wasn’t because of anything my husband, daughter, or stepson said or did. They were nothing but loving and supportive in the days and weeks that followed. They loved me through it, with graciousness and mercy, and I am so very grateful.

Relapse is a Part of Recovery

I’ve always hated the saying, “Relapse is part of recovery.” I felt like it justified an addict’s or alcoholic’s choice to pick up again. My feeling about it hasn’t completely changed, but it’s loosened up a bit. I can see now that for many of us who are in recovery, relapse is part of the process. It’s something that we can learn and grow from, enhancing our recovery. It’s risky though. One relapse can be (and has been, for many) a fatal action. Luckily for me, that wasn’t the case, but I certainly don’t want to risk it again. So, I will remember the truths I listed above and always remember that I am not recovered, I’m recovering – hopefully forever. 

 

Gratitude – July 20

 

help each other

Last night our friends who recently relapsed came over for dinner.  They have a few days of new sobriety under their belts and we thought that it might be nice for them to get out of the house and away from the guilt and shame they were feeling.  We spent several hours talking about alcoholism, recovery, our personal stories, relapse, AA…the list goes on.  It was a wonderful evening, I am so glad that they accepted our offer to come visit with us.  They shared with us what feelings and events lead them back to drinking, and the consequences that resulted.  We shared with them our own tales of relapse and of cleaning up the wreckage.  We talked and laughed, as only we alcoholics do, about things that I know would completely horrify the ‘normies’ out there.  Even after being in recovery for a few years, it still blows me away how quickly people trying to accomplish the same thing – sobriety – can become completely comfortable talking about very intimate things.  We alcoholics bond quickly, I think, because we all share the experience of having lived in the hell that is active alcoholism.  It is not a nice place, even just to visit, and I think that talking about it with others like ourselves helps keep us from going back there.

After our friends left last night, I was thinking a lot about how lucky I was to have spent the evening with them.  I am filled with gratitude that they both opened up to us, shared their feelings and their fears.  I am thankful that I was able to offer my own stories and that helped  put them at ease.  I am also grateful that all of us were able to be completely comfortable being vulnerable with one another.  These days I think that is a beautiful, but rare, thing.

I got a voicemail today from the wife thanking us and saying that it really helped them.  That’s so awesome.  What I don’t know is if they left here knowing how much they helped us.  I’ve written before about keeping it green and remembering my last drunk, but I don’t think that anything helps more than talking to other alcoholics.  That’s why I blog, that’s why I go to meetings, that’s why I have a sponsor and that’s why I sponsor others.  Together with other alcoholics, we can accomplish the very thing that we could never do alone.  For that, I am grateful.

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thankful-what

No more ping-pong for me

Ping Pong Ball

In Alcoholics Anonymous, I have heard those people who go in and out of the program over and over again, called ping-pong balls.  They bounce back and forth between sobriety and drinking.  I was one of those people for a while, not able to stay sober, but not wanting to continue drinking either.  I would build up some sober time, and then pick up again.  I always made it back into the rooms, but wondered for how long.

I’ve done a lot of reflecting about why this time around sobriety seems to be sticking.  I’ve written posts about what I think some of the differences are this time (you can read them here and here), but it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is.  I think that there are many contributing factors, some of which I have written about, and still others that I have failed to recognize.

At a meeting over the weekend a lady with a few years of sobriety was talking about her “ping-pong” years.  I thought that the way she described it was perfect, and I had never heard it described this way.  She said that she would drink until the pain of drinking was too much, and then she would stay sober until the pain of sobriety was too much.  And she operated that way for years.

The pain of sobriety.

I had never really thought of it like that, but it’s true.  Every time I tried to get sober in the past, the pain of sobriety sent me back out.  You see, in the beginning, I wrongly thought that drinking was my only problem, and that as soon as I stopped my life would be a great big bowl of cherries.  I believed that merely staying sober would mean eternal happiness and everyone would love me again, and there would no longer be trials and tribulations.  OK, I may be exaggerating a little bit here.  I knew that life’s little problems would still come up, but I honestly thought that just being sober would make me more able to handle them, that I could use my new-found sobriety like Wonder Woman used her bracelets, to just let the bad things bounce off of me.  Clearly, that isn’t what happened.  Everything that I drank over in the first place was still there, with some extra added resentments.  Imagine my dismay!  And, not only that, but if I wanted to stay sober, then I could no longer use my tried and true coping mechanism.  Drinking was out, but I hadn’t yet learned how to cope any other way.

I learned how to white-knuckle it through cravings, but struggled when I started feeling my emotions.  Guilt, shame, anger, grief, and sadness plagued me, and I was in emotional pain.  I hadn’t yet learned how to just sit with negative emotions, and I sure couldn’t stand the pain they were causing.  So I drank, just like the woman at the meeting said.

My solution would work for a little while.  The booze would take away my feelings, and life was good again.  Until it wasn’t.  Drinking only caused more guilt, shame, anger, grief and sadness.  Guilt and shame that I had broken promises, anger that I had failed again, grief and sadness that I had once again thrown away my sobriety.  So I would sober up, start working my program again, and the cycle would begin again, and it was vicious.

It was only when I came to the realization that the pain that I felt when I was drinking was far worse than the pain of sobriety that I was able to stop the ping-pong game that had become my life.  I realized that there was no way to work through the pain if I was drunk, but I could if I was sober, it was possible.  Being in emotional pain would not kill me, but continuing to drink would.  It was inevitable.

It has been extremely hard to deal with all my past hurts, current troubles, and fears about the future.  I have gone through a lot of really difficult things in recovery.  But now I know that if I stay sober, it can be done.  That simple possibility is what keeps me going.

No more ping-pong for me.

Keeping It Fresh

fresh

My husband secretly recorded my last drunk.  He told me that he had done so while I was in rehab, but it took me almost three months to be brave enough to watch it.  It was painful to watch what I become when I put alcohol in my body.  It was hard for me to believe that the person I was seeing and hearing was me.  I have little recollection of that afternoon and evening.  What I saw and heard in that video was so pathetic.  It was, as the Big Book says, pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.   I was a mess of emotions, crying and begging Austin to take care of me, and asking him over and over if he still loved me.  At one point (actually several times according to Austin), I was laying on my stomach in a bathtub full of water and he had to pull me out to keep me from drowning.

I wasn’t always that kind of sad, overly emotional, needy drunk.  There were many times that I was combative, mean, and just plain abusive.  We can joke now about me having been a brawler, because sober I couldn’t be farther from it.  But when it was going on, it was pretty damn ugly.  Booze made me someone that I am not.  It turned me into a liar, a cheat, a slut, and a thief.  My drunkalog is full of just awful, disgusting, scary situations that I put myself in.

Why am I writing all of this?  Because it’s important for me to keep it fresh.  I have to remember what it was like, so that I don’t ever have to go back to that way of living.  Or dying, as the case may be.  It’s really easy for my alcoholic mind to forget all of the negative things that happened when I drank, and to just remember that feeling of relief the first drink brought.  Euphoric recall has caused many an alcoholic to go back out, myself included.  Just last week, one of my husband’s sponsees relapsed.  He thought he could handle it.  It’s heartbreaking to see those AA members that bounce in and out like a ping pong ball, like I did for a while.  It’s scary too, because we never know if there is another recovery in us.  It’s a crap shoot.

For that reason, I try to keep it fresh.  Going to meetings help me with that.  When newcomers introduce themselves, I am reminded of how I felt when I was in their seat.  When I can see the shame and regret in the eyes of someone returning to the program after a slip or relapse, it helps me remember what it’s like to start over.   I recently heard something at a speaker meeting that really struck a chord with me.  The speaker said that it’s important for him to look in the mirror every day to see who he is.  Then he said that his mirror is the rooms of AA.  That is true for me too.  In the reflection that I see when I go to meetings I see those that are struggling to stay sober, those that are fighting for their lives, those that are not drinking even when things are bad, and those that are happy, joyous, and free in sobriety.  I see myself in all of them.

My worst day sober is better than my best day drunk.  I have gotten a second chance at happiness and I don’t want to let it go.  Ever.  That’s why I keep it fresh.