One of my first and most memorable patients was a Native American man who I was treating for alcohol dependence (among many other complicating factors). On multiple occasions, he had been admitted to the hospital for detox with blood alcohol levels that would kill most humans.
He could drink a lot, but the problem was he also had a traumatic brain injury that required medication, so with every relapse came the potential for death and need for hospitalization.
After months of weekly individuals sessions, and despite frequent relapses, we had an incredibly strong therapeutic relationship – so strong that one day he came in to session and said…
Your approach isn’t working. I know you mean well, but the western way is hard for me to understand. Here is my bible
…and he handed me a copy of Seven Arrows by Hyemeychsts Storm. It was one of those valuable early lessons where I realized that there is no one right path in healing from addiction. Only the path that is right for you.
The story continues
Months later after reworking our treatment plan around the medicine wheel, he is still relapsing, ending-up in the hosptial for detox, and I am left wondering where I went wrong.
Fortunately, my Clinical Supervisor at the time was an insightful, experienced therapist who suggested I review all hospital detox admission records since he first entered treatment to gain some perspective on what was actually happening.
Since every relapse had been followed by a hospital admission, I was able to easily complile a graph of relapses over time, and when I did, something amazing materialized.
He was getting better
It was right there in the data. After plotting the relapses on a graph I was able to see that the time between them was increasing – actually doubling with every relapse. What on the surface seemed like failure to me, was in fact – after reviewing the data – success. And why should have I expected progress to be any faster?
This guy had years and years of drinking history behind him. Change is a process, and with addiction, takes incredible patience. We also know that addiction is a chronic medical condition where relapse is part of the process. When I presented the graph to him at our next session he was equally pleased, and even more motivated to continue the progress.
Six years into our work he had well over two years of sobriety. His relapses continued to decrease in frequency maintaining the pattern he began when he entered treatment.
The moral of the story
- Follow a recovery path that is right for you.
- Track relapses and other significant events because data can provide insight where memory fails.
- Change is slow – Patience is key.
- Relapse, even after significant abstinence time, should be an opportunity for learning and not a time for shame and blame.
We all make agreements with ourselves to do things; diet, exercise, New Years resolutions. We all fail at times.
Relapse is not an Addiction Phenomenon, it is a Human Phenomenon