The Un-Working of The 12 Steps: The Road to Relapse

By Thomas Sibilia, CAC

12 steps relapse

How can someone who has completed all 12 steps relapse? The Alcoholics Anonymous: Big Book says, “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” (pg.85) Regardless of what we have done, it only matters what we continue to do. Our recovery from alcoholism and addiction is only as strong as what we do today. So how and what does happen to recovery when we relapse.

The Addiction Treatment Field teaches that a relapse starts long before the substance is ever actually taken. The first year of recovery is usually based around just staying clean and sober. Recovery is something new, and there is a joy in at last having found some relief from our damaging and demoralizing addiction that has plagued us for so long. A lot of times we talk about a “pink cloud” or new sense of well-being that overwhelms us in early recovery. If this is where we stop working a program, simply because we feel better, we are doomed. But, that is not what this article is about, it is about the person who does buy into the 12-step program and starts a life of recovery. At this stage of the game, we are usually willing to take suggestions and keep an open mind.

As time moves on, we start to get things back. Things we have placed on the back burner, in order to ground our lives in recovery, begin to return. Usually in years 2-5, we begin to seek a more serious form of employment or even a career, return to school or maybe enter into a relationship. Hopefully, by now we have completed the steps with our sponsor and have a home group. Life becomes more of a balancing act. Where initially our main focus was recovery, now life has crept back in.

Sometimes old patterns of behavior, that may or may not have been addressed during the steps, begin to rear the ugly head. This is where we may start to see a relapse begin. Relationship issues begin to surface, whether that is with a boss, co-worker, peer or a loved one, these can detract from our new found serenity. Some things such as codependency, over extending oneself or perfectionism issues, which may have been dormant in early recovery, begin to become more magnified as we seek a healthy balance between life and recovery. Many people replace their recovery with work, the gym or a relationship. For women, perhaps it may be child birth. We may forget how we got to this point in our lives. Some just get cocky. Contact with recovering addicts starts to diminish, meeting attendance declines, and so on. This is the un-working of Step 12, failure to carry the message other addicts and alcoholics. We can begin to be so caught up in the other aspects of life that one of the fundamental pieces of our recovery begins to fall by the wayside.

Next we may stop praying or meditation. This is the undoing of our conscious contact with a Higher Power. It may be a subtle change at first. It is common for many in recovery, who once got on their knees to pray, to discontinue this practice. Where is that desperation for recovery we once had? Our awareness of a higher- power begins to fade.

Here we plummet; un-working steps 10 through 4 in one mighty swoop. A nightly personal inventory slips into weekly or non-existent. If there is no inventory, there is no need for amends. There are no shortcomings visible to us. Controlling our defects of character becomes like trying to corral a litter of energetic puppies, trying to escape in all different directions. We lose sight of the moral inventory we once made.

Now comes the really scary part: We make a decision to take our will back. Not just a little, as we may have done with certain situations in the past, but the whole enchilada. The power we once believed could restore us to sanity has gone out the window, most likely with our sanity. If our sanity is gone, we once again believe this time will be different. We believe we now have the power, and we can manage our own lives. As we spiral down to insanity, we end up in that disheartening space we thought we had left behind. We once again get that feeling of a deep dark hole in souls, a void so vast that nothing can fill it no matter how hard we may try.

So what can we do? One way to maintain our program is make sure we have a home group. A meeting we attend, at the very minimum, on a weekly basis. Allow these people to really know us. Take commitments such as coffee maker, greeter, or many of the others available at meetings we attend. Allow close friends in our support group to take our inventory. Keep your sponsor close and be open to feedback. All these little things help us to be accountable to our program of recovery. The Alcoholics Anonymous: Big Book says, “We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.” (pg. 24) If we thoroughly understand this, we can see how imperative it is to remain perseverant with our recovery.

Thomas Sibilia, CAC, is the Program Director at Destination Hope Inc. and on the faculty at The Academy for Addiction Professionals. Destination Hope is a gender specific addiction recovery program located in Fort Lauderdale, Fl. Thomas can be reached at