Recovery and Relapse

You’re probably nothing like Josh Hamilton. A 28-year-old elite athlete, Hamilton looks like someone who is living the “American Dream.” A former top draft pick who now earns millions as an All-Star outfielder for the Texas Rangers, Hamilton is among the most well-known players in one of the nation’s most popular sports leagues.

He has been featured on ESPN, he has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he has seen his name mentioned as a candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award – successes he has been able to share with his wife of five years and their young daughters.

But there’s more to Josh Hamilton’s story than just home runs and huge contracts.

Hamilton has also struggled with alcohol abuse and drug addiction, come close to losing his career and his marriage, and suffered a very public relapse after years of sobriety.

On second thought, if you’re trying to overcome an addiction or are working on your recovery, and you’ve experienced a setback or two along the way, you’ve probably got a lot in common with Josh Hamilton.

Fighting the Pressure to Use Again

Whether you’re one day into recovery or you’ve gone decades without a drink or drug, you know that everyday life is filled with threats to your sobriety – challenges such as work-related stress, financial pressures, get-togethers with friends, even going to a ballgame and having to navigate a parking lot full of trailers.

But you probably don’t know what it’s like to stand on a field surrounded by tens of thousands of fans, many of whom are drinking and heckling you about your struggle to stay sober.

“If you could stand out in right field with me last night, you would have heard them,” Hamilton told Orange County Register reporter Mark Saxon after an Aug. 8, 2009, game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. “People always wear me out about drugs and stuff. It will happen my whole career. Some people are just like that.”

Though the vast majority of recovering alcoholics or addicts will never experience this type of public pressure, everyone who is working to stay sober is challenged to resist temptations and triggers. The following are among the most common threats to continued sobriety:

  • Being in situations where alcohol or other drugs are available, or visiting places where you formerly used.
  • Emotional lows such as those that may result from a failure at work, problems in a personal relationship or financial difficulties.
  • A success (such as a promotion at work or a big win in your weekend softball league) that would have once called for a celebration with alcohol or other drugs.
  • Complacency, or a feeling that you’ve got your addiction beat, and that having a drink or two won’t pose any danger to you.
  • Events, experiences and emotions such as these may threaten to overwhelm a recovering individual’s ability to stay sober. But while some people mistakenly believe that a relapse means that a person has “failed,” the more informed viewpoint is that relapses are merely temporary setbacks on the road to recovery.

“Relapse should not be viewed as a failure; it is part of a learning process that eventually leads to recovery,” reported Susan Merle Gordon, Ph.D., author of Relapse & Recovery: Behavioral Strategies for Change.

Taking Responsibility, Moving Forward

Many addiction recovery professionals advise clients to treat relapses the way they do other challenges they encounter in their lives – assess the problem, take responsibility and devise a plan for a healthier future.

Josh Hamilton appears to be following this advice. Last summer, photos that appeared to depict Hamilton drunk in a bar began to circulate on the Internet. In an Aug. 8, 2009 press conference, Hamilton acknowledged that the photos were real – taken during a one-time slip-up in March – and expressed both remorse for his actions and dedication to his continued recovery:

“I’m embarrassed about it, personally, for the Rangers, for my wife, my children and my family. It reinforces one of the things that I can’t have is alcohol. It’s unfortunate that it happened. I was out there getting ready for the season and took my focus off the number one factor in my recovery – my relationship with Christ. I hate that this happened …

“I wasn’t mentally fit or spiritually fit. It just crossed my mind, ‘Can I have a drink?’ Obviously, I can’t. One drink leads to two and two drink leads to 10 or 12. When I was in AA, one saying I heard was one drink is too many and 1,000 is never enough. Alcohol just doesn’t mix well with me.”

Hamilton’s relapse resulted in much more publicity than most recovering alcoholics or addicts experience, but his response is worthy of emulation by anyone facing a similar situation.

In a Dec. 30, 2008 article in Time magazine, writer Maia Szalavitz explored the matter of how best to respond to a relapse:

Most people who try to change problem behaviors – whether it’s overeating, overspending or smoking cigarettes – will slip at least once. Whether that slip provokes a return to full-blown addiction depends in large part on how the person regards the misstep. …

For starters, don’t berate yourself for being weak. Instead, tell yourself, “‘I made a mistake. What can I do differently next time? How can I learn from this?’” says [Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington]. “This happens to almost everybody. It’s not just you.”

The Time article reported that Marlatt uses the acronym SOBER (Stop, Observe, Breathe, Expand, Respond) to help recovering alcoholics and addicts both resist relapse and deal with the aftermath when they do slip up:

Stop – Pause for a moment and consider what you are doing.
Observe – Think about what you are sensing, feeling and experiencing, and what events led to the situation.
Breathe – Pause for a few deep breaths in order to assess your situation in as calm a manner as possible.
Expand – Expand your awareness and remind yourself of what will happen if you keep repeating the unwanted behavior (and how you will feel afterward).
Respond mindfully – Remember that you have a choice, that you are not powerless and that you don’t have to continue the undesired behavior.

Accepting responsibility for your actions is essential, as is acknowledging that one relapse does not signal a return to addiction or a failure of your efforts to stay clean.

The problem may be a one-time slip-up that will cause you to recommit yourself to your recovery support network, or it may be a signal that you need to seek additional professional help.

Preparing for Relapse, Planning for Success

Because relapse is such a common occurrence in recovery, the most effective addiction recovery programs address this matter during treatment. For example, some programs incorporate role-playing activities so that clients can practice how to avoid or extricate themselves from situations that may trigger a relapse. Others emphasize the establishment of an effective recovery support network so that clients know in advance who they can turn to when times get tough.

Finding the best addiction recovery resource for you is a matter of identifying which program offers the services that most closely meet your specific needs. When you are considering drug rehab programs, be sure to evaluate their ability to provide relapse-prevention instruction and other types of aftercare services.

Hopefully, you’ve already begun to realize that addiction does not doom you to a life of frustration. By getting help that will support you through your future efforts to stay sober, you will soon realize that relapse is not the end of your journey – it’s just a brief detour.

Read more about substance abuse and addiction.

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