As stated in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as “the big book,” relapse is when a person who has previously abstained from an addictive behavior or substance, like alcohol, returns to using that substance or engaging in that behavior.
For many people with an alcohol or drug addiction, relapse is a part of the recovery journey.
However, despite being a familiar occurrence in recovery, a relapse doesn’t have to be a part of your story.
Understanding the AA big book and what it says about relapse can help people develop relapse prevention strategies to support long-term recovery.
Where Relapse Is Mentioned In The Big Book
The AA big book is made up of two sections. The first section is where AA meetings typically focus most of their attention, while the second section is made up of personal stories.
The book states that without the support from another person in recovery, reliance on a higher power, and the 12 steps, relapse is a strong and inevitable fate.
Chapter 1: Bill’s Story
The first chapter of the big book is Bill’s Story. It shares the story of William Wilson, or “Bill W,” a New York City stockbroker who co-founded the AA program with Robert Smith, known as “Dr. Bob,” a surgeon from Akron, OH.
Both Bill W and Dr. Bob dealt with substance use disorders, primarily involving alcohol. The men worked together to develop the AA program, which was founded in 1935.
“Bill’s Story” is an overview of the progression of Bill’s alcoholism. In these pages, Bill describes several attempts at sobriety that ended in relapse.
These attempts often began with feelings of vigor and confidence, but he had little defense against the first drink. Time and again, Bill found himself drunker than the last time, with little understanding as to how it had happened.
Bill spoke with a friend who was a recovering alcoholic, and the experience provided him with hope: A person with an alcohol use disorder could provide support to another.
This hope is what welcomes people into the rooms of AA. Members feel seen, heard, understood, and supported.
Chapter 3: More About Alcoholism
In the third chapter of the big book, the authors tackle relapse. This chapter explains the thought processes, delusions, and deteriorating mental health of people with alcohol use disorders, along with why relapse happens.
The following quotation acknowledges the pitfalls of relapse:
“In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic.” (page 31)
The chapter states that a person with an alcohol addiction who cannot honestly admit to their substance abuse, and who does not have the help of a support group, is bound to drink again.
By admitting to a substance abuse problem, accepting accountability, and working the 12 steps with a sponsor, AA members can transform their way of thinking and develop healthier coping skills over time.
Having healthier coping skills and the support of the AA program provides members with a stronger defense against the first drink.
Chapter 5: How It Works
This chapter begins with an excerpt that’s often read at the start of AA meetings, particularly “beginner’s meetings.”
Chapter 5 outlines how AA works as a 12-step program. It provides an overview of all 12 steps and includes a quote that pertains to relapse.
The quote reads as follows:
“Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” (p. 58)
Honesty is a key component of recovery. It forces you to take a closer look at your substance use history and past behaviors in order to learn and grow.
In AA, resentment is understood as the “No. 1 offender.” Harboring feelings of ill-will toward a person, place, or experience is believed to contribute to relapse, particularly if those feelings aren’t worked through with a sponsor.
Relapse Triggers, According To The Big Book
In addition to discussing relapse as a common part of the recovery process, the AA big book also references thoughts and behaviors that may trigger a relapse.
One of the many benefits of having a sponsor — for first-timers and long-term members alike — is having the ability to discuss the following feelings:
- being “restless, irritable, and discontented” (page xxvii)
- “having trouble with personal relationships” (page 52)
- inability to “control our emotional natures” (page 52)
- being “prey to misery and depression” (page 52)
- struggling to “make a living” (page 52)
- having “a feeling of uselessness” (page 52)
- being “full of fear” (page 52)
- unhappiness (page 52)
- inability “to be of real help to other people” (page 52)
How To Learn More About Relapse
The big book contains much of the information you’ll need to know about relapse. However, there are other ways to find information beyond the big book.
AA Grapevine is a monthly magazine that’s recognized as the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each month, the magazine publishes firsthand accounts of members’ experiences.
Many of these stories describe members’ experiences with relapse. Sometimes, entire issues are dedicated to the topic.
At most AA meetings, you’ll have the opportunity to meet members who have experienced relapse. As part of the AA program, members often share their relapse stories to comfort others along the way.
Remember, the AA program is designed so that you’ll never have to deal with a substance use disorder or its effects alone — including relapse.
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Published on January 16, 2024
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- Alcoholics Anonymous – Bill’s Story
- Alcoholics Anonymous – How It Works
- Alcoholics Anonymous – More About Alcoholism
- National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) – Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science Of Addiction Treatment And Recovery