Relapse and the Appeal of Living in a Garbage Bin
The Urge to Return to the Garbage Bin
Imagine living in Disneyland yet making the choice to spend all of your time hiding in a trash can. This is how I’ve come to view addiction. Many of us do eventually crawl out of our chemical prisons. We develop the courage to start exploring this amazing opportunity known as reality, yet for some reason we miss our old hiding place and decide to go back – why is that?
I know what some of you are thinking. By comparing substance abuse with living in a garbage bin, and recovery with living in Disneyland, I am being ridiculous and unfair. After all, alcohol and drugs can be highly pleasurable and living life without any chemical assistance can be hard. I disagree. My own experience is when I truly started to open up to reality, it made any high or comfort I got from alcohol or drugs to appear meager and sad – it really was the difference between exploring Disneyland and hiding in a trash can.
So why do we decide to return to our trash cans? There are plenty of compelling theories to explain the process of relapse, but for me the answer is simple – we relapse because we don’t yet recognize the value of what we walking away from by returning to alcohol or drugs.
Quitting Drugs is Hard but Letting Go of Drugs is Much Easier
I hit my first rehab at 19, and I was still trying to quit alcohol at the age of 35. My attempts at recovery became more desperate as I got older, but I just couldn’t manage to stay away from the booze while I continued to view it as any type of sacrifice. It was only after I understood how alcohol had nothing more to offer me, but reality could offer all I ever wanted, that it became possible to walk away for good. It was like suddenly realizing I was holding a burning hot coal – it was then no longer a matter of quitting but of just letting go of something I no longer wanted in my life.
Don’t Quit Before the Miracle Happens
There are some great bits of wisdom found in recovery slogans and one of my favorites is ‘don’t quit before the miracle happens’. Recovery requires a leap of faith. It takes some clean time before we start to appreciate the possibilities of this new life. When we first step out of our trash cans, we are going to be disorientated and possibly a bit overwhelmed at times. This new chemical-free way of living may feel a bit alien, but if we give it some time, we will adjust to this bigger, brighter world, and we will see it is much better than what we had before.
I used to believe that if I could stop drinking, my life would be automatically perfect. This was not how things turned out. I found it is possible to be sober yet almost as miserable as when in the midst of addiction. All that happened when I gave up alcohol was that it then became possible for me to begin the work of fixing my life – something that couldn’t happen while I was still drinking. Stepping out of the trash was a good start, but I needed to put in additional effort to enjoy the delights of Disneyland.
“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
Randy Pausch – The Last Lecture
Getting out of our trash is an excellent choice, but it is only the first step in a process that never ends. We have to learn to navigate reality without chemical assistance, and this is going to be painful at times. We are sure to have periods where it feels as if we have hit a brick wall, and the temptation to return to our trash cans will be strong. If we can hold on though, and continue with our explorations, we will be rewarded with an adventure that is far even beyond even the imagination of Walt Disney.
How to Avoid the Allure of the Garbage Bin
• Develop compassion (the ability to be with discomfort) so you are better able to deal with the ups and downs of life and you emotions
• Develop a positive attitude towards yourself (e.g. loving-kindness meditation) so you are no longer willing to settle for living in a trash can
• Focus on what you are getting in recovery rather than what you are given up – you will hopefully reach a stage where you realize there is nothing really to give up
• Understand that even the worst day can’t last forever
• Surround yourself with a supportive community that values a life free of alcohol and drugs