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Learning Our Way Out of the Cycle of Recurrence

the recovery process and relapse

Outwardly, Bimba’s son’s life seems wonderful: good job, good relationship, education, financial security. Still, he only manages to remain abstinent for about 90 days at a time. While this stage of the recovery process is often brutal, there are resources and people ready to help. Sustained reinforcement—“getting the message about recovery”—is a vital piece of the puzzle.

My 29-year-old son has been active in recovery for two years, but in practice there appears to be some regularity in Maarten’s relapses. While they are not very serious, long-term situations, every time there is definite stability and maybe some sort of rut (?) there is a relapse. It sneaks in, starting again with a joint, lies, running away, and then the speed of benzos again. This time it is his girlfriend who is directly confronting it, but somewhere I always have the feeling that something is not right. What’s incomprehensible to us are the lies and the fact that there are five or six moments of choice Maarten. Everything on track—relationship, education, money…and then anyway.

It seems like spoiled laziness, but I found that hard to believe. To me it seems like Maarten is always trying to solve a deep wound or emptiness in order to soften it with things from outside (love, distraction, work, etc.) and that doesn’t work. It’s in himself, the sadness, the lack of self-esteem and self-love…and then he covers it up with drugs. If he doesn’t get to that deeper layer of trauma, does he keep relapsing? The wound that everyone has and everyone wants to cover with something, but Maarten is addicted and uses deadly drugs. That is the problem. Fortunately, we’re talking about this. He thinks that his good work, education and sports will help him. He thinks this good life will sustain him.

Of course I am hopeful and happy with his motivation, but in the end he loses his built-up life, and the people in it too, if he keeps relapsing like this every time things go well. Or is it also possible that this way of dismantling will eventually get him clean?

Thanks for the attention. Kind regards from the Netherlands.


Our Response

You are wondering how to comprehend your 29-year-old son’s apparent good fortune in life—a job, a girlfriend, education, sports—against this backdrop of periodic relapse. You believe he thinks this good life will sustain him, yet it doesn’t, and every three months or so he runs off and uses, endangering everything he has built up.

You wonder if his emotional health, past traumas and a nagging emptiness are what drive him back to the drugs each time. Perhaps, you think, he’s just a little lazy and not doing enough.

He’s not the first.

What you describe your son doing makes perfect sense to me. As a former secret binger near the end, I, too, had everything going in life that I thought should have protected me from relapse. I was in graduate school; I had friends and a drug-free home life. This was a far cry from just a few years earlier, when I was dragging myself around on crutches because I had blown out all the veins in my feet. I had pulled myself out of a horrendous place, and yet there sat that little devil on my shoulder, its whisper getting louder and more frequent: “No one’s going to be home next weekend. I could drink and take those opiated pills I’ve been squirreling away. I’ll get it all cleaned up by Monday.”

I was mentally quite fragile in those early days, like so many who use drugs and alcohol to make life more tolerable. I had untreated trauma and a roaring case of insecurity. These fueled a level of stress and tightness in me, until then only and exquisitely relieved by drugs. I imagine your son has some version of this story, a deep pain at its core that drives him to look for relief.

There’s a social context to substance use—and to getting past it

A recent work by Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, argues that addiction is a learning disorder. We learn to use drugs socially, within an environment that permits and provides access to drugs, and against a backdrop of a developmentally, genetically and psychologically vulnerable self. This perspective is particularly interesting in relation to CRAFT, which is grounded on social learning theory. If we have learned to drink and use drugs, then we should also be able to back out of addiction and learn how not to use.

Treatment provides one important avenue for teaching us not to use. The daily focus on skills training to get through a day without using is immensely helpful. Not using while in treatment is a fair site easier than trying to hold onto that abstinence back in the everyday world. For this, I firmly believe, we need near daily learning inputs, especially at first. These inputs can come from meditation, faith, exercise, a healthy social network, readings, and most directly from the repeated messages of abstinence/recovery one hears in mutual aid groups, like Recovery Dharma, AA, or secular AA.

Reinforcement is a daily necessity

For now, your son gets through about 90 days abstinent on his own. He has a full life, a girlfriend, a mom who cares deeply, and yet he regularly falters at about three months. He says that his life should hold him together, but it doesn’t. I believe that’s because he isn’t doing anything specific to provide him the message of recovery on a very regular basis.

For 20 years, I had trained my body and mind to become deeply accustomed to the daily fix of alcohol and drugs. What was needed was a counter force, a regular daily pushback to the increasing romanticization that would sneak into my consciousness and convince me that only alcohol and opiates could provide that sweet relief and euphoria.

This early period in recovery is challenging because it takes time for the body and mind to heal. It can take 90 days, likely more, to begin to feel truly “normal.” True to form, I had trouble drudging up any good feelings on my own in early recovery. A structured life, filled with school and friends, would take me only so far. It wasn’t long before that little devil on my shoulder would start: Maybe I’ll just use this once, short and sweet, and stop in time for school on Monday. Inevitably, I’d find myself using more than planned and having real difficulty stopping on Sunday night. As with your son, things regularly blew up.

He’s done a lot on his own, but he’ll benefit from help

So yes, 90 days sounds about right as the breaking point. That your son can hold on for three months shows considerable abstinence skill. He’s correct that a good life is indeed part of what is holding him together, for we all need purpose and something to strive for. There is a little angel that sits on the other shoulder that needs to build muscle and a stronger voice. It’s this opposing stance that quickly shuts down any thought of romanticizing the drug.

While your son has built up significant strength in withstanding relapses in the past two years, without some kind of recovery-specific input, I suspect he’s not done with them. More and deeper learning is needed to convince him of the hold addiction still has on his life. His current achievement of remaining abstinent for three or so months is a huge one. Lapsing every few months is not unusual. At 29, he is showing great ability to put together a sober life.

He’s recovering, but it gets tough late in the game

If you consult the graph by Stephanie Covington in Module 1 (at about 1:30 in this video), it suggests that your son is in the recovery process. We can see that he’s part of the way there. This graph suggests that your son should—and I realize this is just an expectation—experience fewer, shorter, and less painful relapses. I feel for your son. Another saying sums up this stage: a head full of recovery and a belly full of booze. It’s uncomfortable. I feel for your son.

As his mom, you are understandably worried. I do think that this dismantling, as you aptly put it, is part of his learning process. With each successive relapse there are consequences, one hopes some disappointment, and ideally more understanding about the patterns his addiction is taking. Social learning suggests that he will take what he’s going through apart and learn from it.

There is so much great recovery support online these days. Here is a list of resources we put together at the start of the pandemic. I suggest you print this out, along with local in-person groups that are near your son. Keep the paper in your pocket and wait for him to express a wish or experience a dip. Those are the moments when your son would be more open to hearing about mutual aid.

I’m so glad you reached out to us. Please let us know how things progress for you and your son.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. Thank you very much Dominique, for this detailed response!
    I received this last week and was pleasantly surprised. It helps me a lot with understanding and I believe that my own thoughts about relapse are still quite close and that I can really hope for progress and healing.
    Maarten is doing well and he is growing in his good day job and the meaning he now gives to his life.
    For support in relapse, he wants to be treated by a hypnotherapist. He is on a waiting list for that.
    I will definitely continue to write about the progress and I am very happy with the support from Allies in Recovery. Thanks so far and best regards from Holland.