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By Jack Sykstus, Resident in Marriage and Family Therapy
Using substances is very common. Our society is built on consumption. The amount of people I meet daily that want to change their relationship with alcohol, marijuana, or any form of consumption is significant. The problem doesn’t lie in desire. I wanted to go multiple days sober, engaging in my college classes, and make my parents proud. The problem lies in behavior change. How do I take my desires, good and bad, and turn them into a new, long term sustained behavior change?
As a counselor, one of the most arduous requests I make to my clients is behavior change. It takes courage, bravery, and consistency to make a change in behavior and one of those many bumps in the road is relapse justification.
Relapse justification is simple in theory. I am living a meaningful engaged life, and all of a sudden I have a simple, innocent thought: “oxycontin would be great right now.”
Now my mind is moving a million miles per hour.
“Well I don’t have money, well I do, but I won’t have enough for gas to get it, well I do have some weed I can sell, BUT WAIT, your parents will be mad, your fiancé would be devastated, you might lose your job due to this coronavirus BS, ahhh but a 30 mg blue roxy would be so refreshing and nice, and I mean I can figure all this out after I get it, we are quarantined because of Coronavirus so I am relaxing anyway, no one will know, honestly the past three weeks have been super stressful and I deserve to relax, can I hide it from the people I love, will one pill really set me back, I might not find enough to get addicted during coronavirus.”
All of these thoughts happen in about a five-second period, then my brain selects just a few of those thoughts: It REALLY has been a stressful few weeks, aaanndd my parents drink alcohol, my brothers drink alcohol, what’s so different about me using an opiate? I am going to be sitting at home for days on end with nothing to do anyway.
This process does not negate that I want my family to be proud of me, but my brain has now filtered out all the other noise and focused on two things, my stress over the past three weeks and how to cope with it. I just justified my relapse.
With COVID-19, it has been a stressful few weeks, and our brains want us to relax and soothe which prompts us to change our behaviors! One strategy to combat relapse justification is called delaying the process.
For example, I have been on a diet for a long time and I LOVE Wendy’s. I mean it is so good. My brain might say, “Jack, go get a Wendy’s burger, that is the dopest burger around.” I might get really excited and start feeling euphoric and thinking back to all the beautiful Wendy’s burgers I have had and I say YES, I will get one tomorrow. This strategy of delaying the process can help slow down the escalation of thoughts and allow the initial emotional surge to pass.
Delaying is just one strategy to navigate relapse justification. Other strategies might include:
These are just a few strategies that can be used during these times. Reach out to local resources and support groups such as Not One More Alabama (NOMA) to identify other strategies and ways to get learn more strategies and ways to navigate substance use.
This is a tough time in the world. Use your voice, share your concerns, and be kind to yourself, and to each other.