Addiction and Relapse: A “Normal, Expected” Part of Recovery?

Have you ever noticed that the same issue sometimes bombards us from all angles for a while? It’s funny how life seems to come in themes.

Lately I’ve been receiving a number of articles into my inbox, talking about addicts who relapse after they come out of treatment—or even after many years of sobriety. Most of these writers are telling me that relapse is a ‘normal part of recovery’ from addiction. Some are even trying to differentiate between a lapse and a relapse, as if that jargon matters or is important. Basically, they’re saying that relapse is to be expected—and that we should not be too surprised or upset by it.


First of all, I don’t agree with this premise at all, and secondly, I totally fail to see how it’s helpful for an addict coming out of rehab—or to their families and other loved ones—to be armed with that kind of biased and ultimately untrue information.

When addicts of any kind have been abstinent from their addictive behavior of choice for a time—such as when they’ve participated in a structured treatment program—a “relapse” becomes nothing more than a decision to use again. They know what it’s like to be sober, to be living life on life’s terms. They’ve been doing just that for a while, so they have already proven to themselves and to us that they can in fact do this.

But what appears to happen, for some addicts, is that when life becomes just a little too real for them and they don’t feel like making the effort to shift, change, and grow in order to accommodate the hardships life can bring to any of us, they look for a way out—and the way out they’ve used before starts calling their name. These addicts begin to “slip”—another word for relapse—which actually stands for Sobriety Loses Its Priority.

And that is when the choice point happens.

portrait of a young business man depressed from work against whiIt’s the same for all of us. None of us gets through this life unscathed, everybody has something difficult to deal with—and for some, it’s on an ongoing basis. I have Crohn’s Disease, for example, which is a serious, often quite painful and debilitating illness. I’ve now struggled with it for over 40 years and have learned how to take much better care of myself—but because there is no known cure for Crohn’s yet, I continue to live with the symptoms to some extent on a daily basis. My own addiction began when I was diagnosed in 1973 and given as many prescriptions for Valium and strong painkillers as I wanted. Couple that with the pot I was also smoking several times a day (I do understand the lure of medical marijuana) and I became a full-fledged drug addict. Anybody’s body would have become addicted to what I was putting into it day after day after day. My body definitely did.

Fast forward 15 years and I found myself at a pretty desperate bottom—extremely depressed, suicidal and still very sick physically. I’m so grateful that I reached out for help at that point and began to learn about addiction and recovery.


A huge part of that choice to get help and stay in recovery was that I had to be willing to learn how to face a life that wasn’t very pleasant without the use of mind-altering drugs. I was still in really bad pain every single day, continuing to frequently experience symptoms not unlike severe food poisoning. I can tell you that it wasn’t fun—and now, 27+ years later, I still sometimes have days like that. And I’m still abstinent from mind-altering substances.

How, you ask? Simply because I make that choice every day.

What if I had been told all those years ago when I was in rehab, or later as I sat in meeting after meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, that relapse was a normal part of recovery and that I shouldn’t be too surprised or worried about it? I’m pretty sure I would have used by now, given a free pass like that.

But I have never relapsed, one day at a time.

In fact, when I had my third major surgery for Crohn’s in 1988, a mere eight months after choosing to practice a program of abstinent recovery, I recall waking up in my hospital bed connected to a morphine drip—very scary stuff for a clean and sober addict. Of course I immediately knew I was already buzzed and that I loved the feeling. Pain? What pain?? The pleasure center in this addict’s brain was delighted!

But I also knew that it wouldn’t take long at all for me to become addicted to this drug, it was just too good. So I made the decision that within two days after the surgery, I would stop using the morphine—instead keeping ice packs on my deep abdominal incision and controlling the pain as best I could with extra strength Tylenol. I remember that the nurses were often quite irritated with me as I lay in that bed, sometimes screaming in pain but refusing their addictive meds. Little by little, day after day, the pain subsided—as pain generally does when we give ourselves some time and learn healthier ways to deal with it. And I was still clean.

Now, I’m not trying to give you an “I walked to school for 5 miles in the blizzarding snow—and you should too” story. Everyone is different, and we all know what we can handle and what we absolutely can’t. And some people who struggle with severe mental health issues, and who are not receiving professional help for that, may have a more difficult time staying away from addictive behaviors.

I deeply believe that there is a line between use and abuse. Sometimes we need medication, and sometimes that very medication can be potentially addictive. We need to be acutely honest with ourselves at those times (and perhaps accountable to someone else, like a sponsor) and not use to the point of abuse. That was an amazingly difficult time in my life, but the inner strength and self-respect I gained from that experience—as well as from a number of other physical and emotional hardships I’ve gone through during my many years in recovery but making the choice not to relapse over—have made me the person I am today, a person who’s proud of herself and knows she can handle the tough times. I’m grateful for that, and I’d love it if we could all feel that way about ourselves.

Aren’t we taking that possibility away from addicts when we tell them that relapse is a normal part of recovery, and that it’s essentially okay if they choose that instead of squarely facing themselves?

And aren’t we basically cutting their loved ones off at the knees by giving them that message too—by virtually telling them that they just have to put up with it when the addict they love relapses?

I’ve been in recovery long enough now to know people who’ve been given diagnoses of cancer, or who have had to deal with the death of their child or someone else close to them—and who have made the choice to remain abstinent instead of trying to hide from some pretty brutal realities of life. And I also know others who have had the proverbial ‘broken shoelaces’ and have chosen to use these as excuses to get loaded.

I’m reminded of Robin Williams—how very sad I was to hear of his death by suicide. I do so fervently wish there had been more help out there that he could have accessed for both his depression and his evolving Parkinson’s. But at the same time, as I heard the details of how he took his life, I was struck by how much his recovery meant to him. It likely would have been a much easier death for him, had he used enough drugs and alcohol to simply overdose and pass out, never to wake up. But he made the choice to be clean and sober to the end—and I respect that decision.

It’s absolutely up to the addict, whichever way they go in terms of staying abstinent or not—millions of clean and sober addicts show us every day that relapse is NOT a normal, expected part of recovery, while others use when they want to because it’s the softer, easier way out.

But make no mistake, for the vast majority of addicts—at the end of the day relapse is a choice, nothing more and nothing less.

Lassana Bathily – A True Hero

Just like everyone else in the free world, I’ve been increasingly disturbed about what’s going on. I, too, feel worried and apprehensive, with so many questions and very few answers. Mostly I wonder about how these atrocities could have gone on for so long now, with no one putting a stop to them. I’m wondering how much longer our politicians and world leader believe they can continue to assuage us with what now feel like empty words, such as, “We will catch them and make them pay.”

“Pay”? What does that really mean anyway? Could there possibly be any consequences that would actually be appropriate for the horrors these gruesome bullies of the world are inflicting upon others as we speak? Considering that they want to ‘die as martyrs,’ even death seems to be little incentive to them. I can’t help but wonder—what will it take?

Although some may at times attempt to explain the psychological underpinnings of what goes on in the hearts and minds of people who think that it’s totally okay to brutally murder, rape, and torture others, it’s impossible for me to fathom why this has been allowed to continue. I just seriously don’t understand it.

But—I digress.

What I really want to talk about is a young man I read about recently in a Huffington Post column—an extraordinarily courageous and compassionate human being who saved a number of lives in the Parisian Kosher Market, at precisely the same moment that another man was fanatically intimidating and killing others in that same store, all in the name of religion.

Lassana-Bathily-620x400If you haven’t read about this amazing young man, his name is Lassana Bathily. He is French and he is Muslim. While that horrific brutality was happening in the Kosher Market, he had the foresight to lead several people into the freezer area of the store, turning off the power so they wouldn’t die in there. He was later quoted as saying, “We are brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, of Christians or of Muslims. We’re all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis.”

How right he is!

When he managed to slip out through a freight elevator and encountered the police, Bathily was immediately assumed to be one of the terrorists in question—due to the color of his skin—and was physically taken down and handcuffed. Although I’m sure we can all see how that could have happened, especially in the heat of that moment, thankfully the police didn’t shoot at him as part of their retaliation.

What an amazingly brave man Lassana is—how gutsy and honorable and heroic. He stood up for what he believes, in that exact instant when it was most critical for him to do so. Would you do this? Would I? I’d like to think we all would, but until we’re faced with our own moment of truth, do we really know?

I find it so heartwarming to hear a story like this—especially now, when everything else we’re hearing is so negative. There truly is good in the human spirit, and people like Mr. Bathily continue to show us that.

Lassana, I wanted more people to know about you; the world is a better place because you’re in it. My deep gratitude and appreciation are with you. I can only imagine how terrifying this situation was for everyone—and having you there made it that much easier. I wish I could meet you in person—you are definitely the kind of person I’d like to call my friend, and I wish the best for you always.

Je Suis Charlie ~ Je Suis Juif.


How to Enjoy the Holidays When You or Your Loved One Has an Addiction

15213920_sAnother year has gone by and “The Holidays” are fast approaching – although if you’re anything like me, you’re still wondering where September went!

The time has come when we are once again seeing commercials on TV and in magazines about how wonderful the Christmas season is, that it is better to give than to receive, and how warm and loving families are, especially at this time of year.

But the reality is that, for many of people, this is not a time of peace and joy…

However, because there is so much shame associated with not having positive holiday times, most people don’t talk openly about how difficult this time of year can be for them. This can lead to intense feelings of loneliness and disappointment.

And when any form of addiction is thrown into the mix, this season of the year can be anything but jolly.

If you can relate to any of the following, then this article may be give you some helpful tips for getting through the holidays…

  1. If you are still in “active addiction”…

If you are still using your addictive behaviour of choice, I want to congratulate you for reading this article, because it likely means that you are getting closer to reaching out for some help. Please know that all of us who have been in the throes of addiction have felt the same shame, guilt, hopelessness and despair that you are feeling right now. Every year, thousands of people all over the world are able to stop engaging in their addiction – and you can be one of them!

At this time of year, instead of spending time with your family, it may be wiser for you to sign yourself into a detox or a treatment centre, or to call a professional Addictions Counsellor. Although this may feel lonely, it may be easier than facing those same arguments and disappointments that you and your loved ones have experienced during past holidays.

If you are unsure of what to do, you might want to seek help from a trained professional to explore options and to make the best decision for yourself.

  1. If you are in “early recovery”…

I generally consider “early recovery” as anywhere between having one day to one year of not engaging in your addictive behaviour of choice.

If you are in early recovery and involved in one of the popular self-help groups, there may be alternatives to “going home” for the holidays. These can include potluck dinners, dances, and other social activities, as well as extra meetings that have been scheduled for this time of year. If you’re involved in one of these groups online, there are often chats and meetings that you can join to discuss your feelings, where you can give and receive some extra support.

If you are not involved in a recovery program, spending time with friends who understand where you currently are in your life can be a wise alternative. These friends can provide loving support without the emotional triggers that often accompany your visits home.

If you do decide to spend the holiday with family who live out of town, it is a good idea to have some support lined up for yourself. For example, before you leave, check out whether there are 12-Step or 16-Step meetings where you will be. You can also explore the online availability of these programs, either as your primary source of support or as backup.

In addition, you can line up some people to support you where you currently live. Keep in touch with your friends, if they are either non-users or in recovery themselves. If you have a sponsor, checking in with that person daily, either by phone or online, would be a good idea. If your counsellor or therapist offers phone counselling, book an appointment or two for the time you will be away.

There are also Crisis Centres in most urban areas that you can call. Some are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, while others have more limited hours of operation. Finding out when they are open and how to reach them is another wonderful way to be proactive and take care of yourself while you are away.

  1. If you are a “loved one” of someone with an addictive behaviour…

If you are a loved one struggling with a family member’s addiction, you may find yourself tempted to over-function in order to reduce your anxieties and to make certain that everything goes well. But having an addicted person at your gatherings can make everything much more difficult.

Don’t be afraid to openly address your loved one’s addiction BEFORE the family get-together. Otherwise, you may find yourself with “an elephant in the living room” that nobody acknowledges, and you will feel as if you have to walk on eggshells and continue your accommodating behaviours just to keep things under control.

For example, when dealing with family members who are alcoholic, you could let them know beforehand that you would love to have them there, as long as they understand that the expectation is that they will remain sober. If they choose to drink after being informed of this boundary, inform them that you will be asking them to leave.

If your loved one does not agree to this boundary beforehand, then it is best to not invite him or her to the gathering. Openly discussing these options with other family members and having their support when setting these boundaries can be crucial for the success of the gathering. Let them know your thoughts and feelings, and the specific help you need, whenever possible.

Please know that learning how to set these kinds of boundaries takes time and practice, but you can definitely do it! If you feel that you need help with it, get in touch with a professional counsellor or therapist who can assist you. Many therapists work during the holiday season because they know that their clients need them at this time.

I hope these suggestions will help you have a happier holiday season than you may have had in the past. Deciding on whether to spend time with family over the holidays is not an easy decision. Remember to do the things that will help you achieve greater self-respect, and to let that be your guide during a potentially emotionally perilous time.

Happy Holidays, Everyone!

Violence Against Women: Can We Really Be Shocked by Jian Ghomeshi?

Jian GhomeshiJian Ghomeshi is one charismatic guy.

He’s been revered as attractive, popular, successful, a ladies’ man—until now. Now we see that this man, nearly 50 years of age, has been thinking and acting like a spoiled child who totally believes the world revolves around him—and that he is completely entitled to have all of his needs met, sexual and otherwise.

Now, he is a man reviled. But I have to wonder why we, as a society, are shocked by his behaviour. Personally, I am more surprised that we are so surprised!

This morning I read an article by renowned author and psychiatrist Gabor Mate, discussing the element of male narcissism and how it plays out as rage against women. I agree with much of what he explained, especially about how women are generally our primary caregivers when we are babies—catering to every need we have—until we begin to grow up and find that we, and our needs, are not the centre of the universe. I believe it‘s true that children of all genders develop rage against parents who don’t continue to dote on them—and that it’s our parents’ responsibility to teach us how to deal with that normal frustration and disappointment in healthy ways.

Unfortunately, since there is so very little affordable training available for most parents these days, that job very often goes un-done. In most cases, little boys (and little girls too) get mad at their mommies but somehow understand that rape and other forms of sexual abuse against women will not be tolerated when they grow up.

Or will it?

Sexual assault takes many forms in our society. When I watch TV these days and see all the young women sexually strutting their stuff in videos, on stage, and in commercials, I’m aware that this is done merely for the bottom line—the money that this behaviour rakes in for the performers, their entourage, and most significantly for the advertisers and TV execs, most of whom are males in powerful business positions. I recently read that Beyoncé is the most highly paid singer in the biz. How can she not be, when sex sells so completely? And Miley Cyrus continues to be the wrecking ball she has created herself to be—making piles of money doing it.

One of my favourite TV shows over the years has been Dancing with the Stars. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching the back-stories each week, seeing how the celebs have overcome both physical and emotional challenges to be able to give us their wonderful performances. But this season, I’ve been more aware than usual of the skimpiness of the costumes, as well as the dances that seem like orgasmic writhing more than anything else. When I watch this kind of thing, I can’t help but think that the women involved are selling themselves short and giving in to the male-dominated sexual culture that we have all allowed to be created.

If women want to be on TV, this is the price a great many of them seem to have to pay, while the men behind all of this nonsense rake in all the cash. It’s crazy! And it’s hurting our children, who are all—without exception—growing up in this sexually drenched idiocy that can so easily lead to confusion about how boys and girls should be with each other. They are sexting at very early ages now. Where do we think this comes from?

And let’s not forget all the hoopla that “50 Shades of Grey” and its many sequels caused. How could a man like Ghomeshi, who was already twisted in his views about women, not feel totally validated? How could he possibly think that there was anything wrong with what he was doing, when that series of books was so wildly successful?

I’m hoping the movie won’t do as well.

I’ve worked as an Addictions Therapist for 25 years—and I know that many men watch porn on the Internet, frequently to the detriment of their significant relationships. I hear about this from clients, both male and female, all too often. Do we really believe that the women who perform in these videos do it because they love male-dominated, often violent sex ‘games’? How naïve are we, that we can’t understand how resentful most women really feel, having to debase themselves in this way to earn the almighty buck from the very men who salivate—and more—while watching them perform?

As a woman, I’m concerned with the direction that all of this nastiness has taken us. I’m glad that Ghomeshi’s behaviour has been pounced upon as the news-story-flavour-of-the-month. I hope it sparks a lot of very meaningful and necessary conversations, and that more and more women who have been sexually assaulted will come forward—and be treated respectfully when they do—so that this horror can stop.

But what I’m most concerned about is this: What happens once the men who pay the women to degrade themselves lose interest in this story? Will it just fade back into the woodwork, just like ‘addiction and mental health’ did merely weeks after Robin Williams’ suicide?

I believe that the women of our society must keep this issue alive, if any real and lasting change is going to happen. Let’s make sure that Justin Trudeau and other male political leaders like him continue to fire men who sexually and emotionally harass women. Let’s make sure this isn’t a one-time occurrence, happening so that he and others like him can look good for a day and get some votes.

What if we stopped buying into the culture that makes Beyoncé the most highly paid performer because she knows how to sexually writhe so convincingly on stage? What if we, as women, truly take back our own power and actually are the role models for all those who are looking to us to guide them?

If not now, when?

Stephen Collins’ Secret is Out: How Society Enables Addiction

Say it ain’t so­—Eric Camden, a child molester??

That’s as bad as finding out that Richie Cunningham’s dad beat his wife, Marion.

I’m not in any way trying to diminish this. It’s horrific. According to news reports that first came out, Stephen Collins’ voice has yet to be authenticated on that taped confession, but we all know that it sure sounds like him. And it probably is.

Let’s face it, sex addiction is very real—and it’s alive and thriving in our society. We see it everywhere—from Internet porn, to Jennifer Lopez flaunting her ‘booty,’ to the obvious glee that sick perverts very likely experience when they post nude photos of innocent celebrities taken in the privacy of their own homes. But please understand that sex addiction in the media is alive and well only because we—the audience—perpetuate it with our hard-earned dollars when we choose the movies we watch and the music we buy. That is the truth about any kind of addiction: the only way it can flourish is if it’s enabled to continue. And as a society, that’s exactly what we do. In my opinion, it’s a form of craziness.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we choose to be bamboozled into living in a fantasy space when it comes to our celebrities. We choose to forget that they are flawed human beingSCs who put their pants on one leg at a time and who make mistakes, as we all do. We choose to forget that they are not, in reality, the characters they play when we invite them into our living rooms night after night. We don’t know these people! But we choose to put them on pedestals and pay them exorbitant wages to entertain us so that we can forget our own problems for a while—which is what addiction is essentially about. We are addicted to our celebs, and until they go horrifically astray—as Stephen Collins has allegedly done—we choose to believe they can do no wrong.

We are not responsible for Stephen Collins’ gross and perverse child molestation, but we have enabled his sense of entitlement—and I think that we, as a society, need to own this and make some different choices. We also have allowed our lawmakers to historically slap ridiculously small penalties on those who abuse children. Why, then, are we so surprised?

In our societal addiction to fantasy, we also enable in other ways—a case in point is the recent excessively, embarrassingly lavish wedding of George Clooney. How many millions did he shell out for that? Ok, so he loves the woman on his arm—hopefully he does see her as the powerful person she is rather than just the stunning eye-candy she also is—but that’s for another blog post.

The point here is that we, as a society, ooohed and aaahed over this on such TV shows as Entertainment Tonight and even CNN. Personally, I would have ooohed and aaahed a whole lot more if he’d donated those millions to feed hungry children, or to fight terrorism, or to fund research for Ebola.

I’m just sayin’…

But let’s be crystal clear: sex addiction of any kind—especially toward children—is never about sex. It’s about those who feel powerless within themselves, doing something absolutely abhorrent to avoid having to feel that way. I don’t want Stephen Collins to be a child molester. I don’t want ANYONE to be a child molester—or a rapist or a wife beater or a terrorist. I don’t want to see anyone misuse personal power by lording it over someone else. I don’t like entitlement in any of its ugly forms. But if we keep paying enormous sums of money to people we think we know to be the fictional characters they portray on TV, we are going to keep on being disappointed, blind-sided, and yes, sometimes horrified.

But hey, it gives us something to talk about at the water cooler, right? It gives us something to text our friends about. Once again, it gives us a reprieve from our own lives. And that’s what addiction is about in our society, in whatever form it takes.

Are we courageous enough to pop the bubble we’ve stuck our collective heads into and start living life on life’s terms—preferring to deal with reality instead of choosing to stay stuck in fantasy? If not, then we need to prepare ourselves to continue to see more and more of this type of travesty—for as long as we’re willing to financially fund it. Our entertainers are only human, nothing more—and if we continue to enable them, many of them will continue to feel—and act—entitled.

But alas, that’s not as exciting to discuss at the water cooler, is it?