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Roger Watts, Ph.D.Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.
A blog about alcohol and other drug addictions and how to obtain lifelong recovery.

Alcoholism Relapse Setups: Back Doors Kept Open

Roger P. Watts, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 1st 2012

There are five ways many people relapse by having reservations about their recovery, and keeping a back door in their recovery program to escape through always open is common among relapsers.

door openThe biggest back door of them all is denial. The best definition of denial is "lying to myself." When a recovering alcoholic or drug addict lies to themselves about the necessity of dealing with the people, places, things, and situations that confront them in their life - when they try to escape - they are in denial. To deny something is to reject the idea that normal problems of life lived on life's terms must be successfully addressed. Instead, a person opts for the belief that they can get away with not working hard to solve the problems of life and they take the easy way out instead. It is easy to see how stating "I am not an alcoholic" might be a good example of denial for someone addicted to alcohol, but it is harder to see how the statement "I can do it all on my own" is also a part of denial. To think that a person is in control, has all the answers, and can manage alone is often to neglect the reality that alcohol and other drugs might be controlling the recovering person. Being dedicated to honesty and the truth about life is always the best way to thwart denial.

Addiction has been defined as a disease of isolation. Where once an alcoholic or addict would have been using in the presence of hosts of friends or other social situations, toward the end of their using career they often find themselves in bathrooms, closets, cellars, or cars using all alone. Isolation is also a back door kept open by people close to using alcohol or other drugs again. Up to the point when they stopped drinking, a person's strongest relationship was to the alcohol or other drug they are addicted to. This relationship is isolating them from others because it virtually demands the person's full attention. When isolating - staying home, keeping to oneself, not sharing at 12 Step meetings, or having work as the only outlet - the recovering person can also be setting themselves up to use again. The surest antidote to isolation is involvement with others in activities where there is a common bond. In the beginning of recovery the only place a person may have to go is to 12 Step meetings with other, like-minded people. But, as they grow as people in recovery, most find that there are plenty of ways to reduce isolation by becoming involved with life again.

The need for instant gratification of pleasure is a common setup for relapse. Driven by the need to cut corners to quickly get to the intoxicating effects of the drugs they were using, active alcoholics and addicts will scheme and plot and design methods to get what they want right way and often. This short term gain approach to life is the hallmark of alcoholism and drug addiction. "I want what I want when I want it" is a slogan many people adopt when they get into recovery that mirrors the attitude they had when they were using. Impulsive, impatient, and immature, these people set themselves up for failure because getting what they want is always slightly out of their reach. This can be traced to a significant biological problem in the brain where brain systems that were influenced by alcohol and other drugs remember the ease with which they felt good because of the drug that floated in the brain. It's easy to get high or drunk and the effects usually swiftly remove the pain or enhance the pleasure that comes from the use. Recovering people have to be aware of this biological inclination and work against it. One way many recovering people do this is to develop patience and tolerance and learn how to delay gratification. Recognizing that a person may not get what they want, but get what they need is a powerful way to thwart the impact of immediate gratification. It is easy to understand why people opt for recovery instead of relapse because they know that they can get double the pleasure or pain relief by avoiding what is behaviors that only provide temporary relief.

Alcoholics and addicts also beat themselves up quite well. They find that berating themselves, ignoring their needs, self-criticism and sometimes outright self-hatred creates a situation where they can always be certain that a back door is open to use because of their worthlessness. The "should, ought, must and have to" self talk usually leads to guilt over being unable to handle life on life's terms. Making mistakes are very human things to do and recovering people need to be aware that making a mistake is not nearly as dangerous to recovery as holding themselves unreasonably accountable. Instead, people who want to close that back door to using concentrate on being gentle with themselves, always looking at reality, and not being in denial.

The last back door that some people close to relapse use is projecting too far into the future. The 12 Step programs have made it a point of saying that recovery is a "one day at a time" process. Worrying about or dwelling on the future or something that hasn't happened yet is a prime example of projecting behavior and not living in the moment. When one straddles the fence, living either in the past or the future, they are not living in the present. Shame and guilt from the past can come roaring into the mind if they are the only things in a person's consciousness, and fear about the future can dominate thinking so much that it paralyzes a person from taking action in the here and now moment. These things can lead to drinking or drugging because they are setups for feeling bad, and feeling bad is a major cause for getting intoxicated. There is only one antidote: Live life in the present moment and let the past and the future take care of themselves.


Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.

Dr. Roger P. Watts, Ph.D., a psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, operates and currently provides substance abuse counseling to dozens of alcoholics and addicts. He has 23 years experience delivering health care to hundreds of patients through individual, group, and online counseling services. He has been in recovery himself for 24 years. He lives and works in Saint Paul MN, and can be reached at

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