“When I relapsed in the past, I would keep getting high until I was in a car accident or got arrested. But this time, after drinking for two or three days, I came back. I didn’t wait for an intervention. I just got right back on the wagon. After years of therapy, I had learned not to beat up on myself. I remembered that relapse is a part of recovery.”
New York Times 1/3/14
When we fail at our goals, sometimes called “relapsing”, we are at a risk of giving up altogether. This process is described by one of my mentors, Dr. Alan Marlatt as the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE). For example, if we have a New Year’s Resolution to go to the gym every day, but then we miss one day and say, “Well I already missed one day, I should just take off the week,” or after eating two Oreos in the row, we just resign to eat that whole row.
I was knocked out completely when I read boxing champion Mike Tyson’s essay in the New York Times last week. Mr. Tyson’s piece was a heartfelt perspective on dealing with addiction and behavior change in general. It is poignant article in which he shares how his relationship with drugs and alcohol developed over the years. He discusses how the tragic death of his daughter helped him quit in 2009. His story doesn’t only discuss how and why he stopped when he did. It also discusses what led him back to drugs and alcohol after that. In fact, what I found most revolutionary in his piece was how Mr. Tyson discusses the importance of dealing with relapse. The take home was powerful and very compatible with the psychological theories of Relapse Prevention and Harm Reduction.
One of the most important things when working to change your relationship with behaviors related to drugs, alcohol, food, exercise or any other resolution is to handle any lapse in your plan as adaptively as possible. Try to look at any lapse as an opportunity to prepare better for future challenges rather than a failure. Relapse can be thought of a teacher on the road to recovery. As Tyson implies, the most important thing is how long it takes you to get back on the wagon. In other words, a big part of your success is related to how quickly you can return your behavior change plan. Reducing your time feeling guilty, criticizing yourself or procrastinating is hugely helpful in your overall success. So if you are reading this because you are struggling with staying true to your resolution, you can start again today. As Mr. Tyson implies, we all have the best intentions but things come up. I hope you have success in rebounding from the challenges that are presented to you in your planned changes. All the best for fighting the good fight in 2014!
Three tips for sticking with your resolution:
Name them – Tell your loved ones what you are doing. Ask them for specific help in aiding your efforts. Spell out what they can do to help you.
Know Why – Be explicit as to why you are engaging in this change. Make a reminder and put it on your phone, computer desktop or wallet.
Seek help – Contact a licensed professional to discuss your goal and practice strategies for preventing and coming back quickly from relapse.
Dr. Jonathan Fader is a clinical psychologist and Co-Founder of the Union Square Practice, a group practice offering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychiatry in New York City.
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