Article: How The Twelve Steps Prevent Two Kinds of Relapse

(Pending publication at as of 11/13/2014)

After an impassioned description of the “real alcoholic” and a series of perplexed questions any observer might ask, the authors of Alcoholics Anonymous reach a painful conclusion:


“These observations would be academic and pointless if our friend never took the first drink, thereby setting the terrible cycle in motion. Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.”


Even with the “disease concept” (of 1938), the authors did not flinch from an inescapable reality of the first drink. It requires a decision by the person who is about to take it. They declare, “…. we shall describe some of the mental states that precede a relapse into drinking, for obviously this is the crux of the problem.” This thinking is initially described as “nonchalant” and “devoid of the almost certain consequences that follow taking even a glass of beer.” However, in even the closest reading of the AA text one significant point is easily missed. The distinction made in Chapter Three between this sort of “casual” relapse and one made more “deliberately.” They actually concede,


“In some circumstances we have gone out deliberately to get drunk, feeling ourselves justified by nervousness, anger, worry, depression, jealousy or the like.”


The authors hasten to add that both sorts of relapse fail to adequately consider “what the terrific consequences might be.” They label this shared lack as “insanely insufficient.” Correct, as far as they go. But I have been working with this kind of relapse since 1978. I call it the “expletive” relapse because the decision is most commonly accompanied by an unprintable curse. If you have done it, you know it! The painful truth, experienced by thousands of alcoholics and addicts with whom I have worked, is this: the “deliberate” relapse often consciously and explicitly disregards consequences the “casual” relapse forgets. We might just as well call it the “Naval” relapse – “Damn the torpedoes!”

The two-part practical question remains: how did the creators of Alcoholics Anonymous, none of them sober more than three years, understand these two types of relapse decision? And even more important, how does “working the program” protect the person from making either of them yet again, ever?


First, the “casual” or “nonchalant” decision, expressed by “that old threadbare idea that this time we shall handle ourselves like other people.”  I have been calling this the “wishful thinking” relapse for over three decades. “Threadbare” is but one of nine or 10 different ways the AA authors describe this “sort of thinking” before the first drink. Their labels range from “the great obsession” on page 30 to “curious mental phenomenon” on page 37 to “queer mental condition” on page 92.  Multiple names for the same potentially fatal experience. After calling it “plain insanity,” also on page 37, these recovery pioneers generalize that such thinking “has been characteristic of every single one of us.”  Yet they give their most powerful insight into this mental symptom in the previous chapter:


“We are unable, at certain times, to bring into consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.”


Could they not as easily have said “we are without defense against ‘that old threadbare idea?'” “‘That peculiar mental twist?'” “‘That plain insanity?’ And each of these variations has one common denominator, a memory which lacks “sufficient force.” Lack of power, indeed, the power of memory/experience to warn off the fateful decision to pick up the first drink – that is the problem spelled out in chapters two and three of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hard to learn from pain you cannot remember – an observation based on raw experience.

Once you understand the problem as the founders of AA understood it in 1938, it becomes much easier to grasp how working the program prevents this potentially fatal failure of memory. Repetition, over and over, of the stories and experience of suffering, and how working the program relieved it. Daily reading of literature that reminds one of being in recovery, having tools to use that day. Beyond this, working with newcomers who still embody the suffering that awaits if one takes “that first drink.” A booster shot par excellence for memory with a lethally short half-life. Finally, the 12 steps themselves reduce a psychic load of shame and guilt which lifts only when forgotten or resolved. The steps transform the most painful memories of drunken excess into gifts eagerly offered to the newcomer or sponsee, further decreasing shame and nurturing memory. If you do not understand AA as a mnemonic system, designed by and for those who knew that to forget is to die, you will never “get” AA.


Now, about the “deliberate” relapse, what I have been calling the “expletive” or even “cursing” relapse for all these years. Interestingly enough, no examples are given in the brief discussion of this sort of relapse.  All three relapses in that chapter are clearly of the “casual” variety. Yet two of the most powerful statements in the entire book, appearing two chapters later, seem to address this decision to go “out deliberately to get drunk…”



The first introduces a virtual AA theory of the psychology of alcoholism:


“The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so.”


In other words, he or she won’t take “no” for an answer from life. Frustration is not to be tolerated. Unfortunately, the less frustration you tolerate, the more you will have. The more distress you will accumulate. The more need you will have for relief, often “snapping” with an unprintable expletive. And you will suffer intolerable amounts of the poisonous condition that accounts for so much relapse. Resentment. As the “Big Book” puts it a few pages later in the second powerful statement,


“Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”


The unprintable curse that so often accompanies the deliberate relapse is the voice of the dynamic duo, self-will and resentment. Is it possible to conceive of an addicted human being cursing and reaching for that first drink/drug without the presence of either?


So how does working an AA program prevent the member from returning to this agitated sort of decision?


Accept. Surrender. Let go. Above all, live by the spiritual/existential principle that something other than you is calling the shots. The steps themselves, the serenity prayer, multiple slogans, sharing in meetings, meditation, the telephone, all lead the willing member in one direction – let go of the “control” you never had. And be freed of the endlessly accumulating frustration of not having it, not to mention the need for chemical relief.


Yes, relapse is a process. One that, unless interrupted, almost universally culminates in casual or deliberate decisions to pick up that first drink/drug. Yes, there are underlying similarities in the two kinds of relapse. No space here for the role of craving and its multiple faces. And no, the Big Book may not have made an explicit connection between “self-will run riot,” “resentment” and the “deliberate” relapse.  It may not have told newcomers how everything knits together to preserve and strengthen their impaired memories. No matter. The structure and process of the program take care of those things. Which is why, “it works if you work it.”