Victims of circumstance: How to avoid being a delicate addict on the edge of relapse

Quick answer: You can avoid being a delicate addict on the verge of relapse by refusing to blame circumstances (and other external factors) for your substance use – and simply owning it as a choice freely made for immediate pleasure/happiness.

As with anything I write, please note that ideologically, I reject the terms “addict” and “relapse”, and please accept my apology for using them as  shorthand to get my message across to a wider audience.

It doesn’t take a long time of working in the field of helping people with substance use problems to end up feeling like you’ve “heard it all.” I know that might sound cocky, but on certain issues, I really feel like I’ve heard it all. One popular issue on which I feel like I’ve heard it all is external factors that “cause relapse” or keep people from “recovering.” The reason I say I’ve heard it all, is that I’ve heard excuses that span an extremely wide range of life situations. If everything I’ve heard about what causes addiction/relapse is true, then addicts are in a truly impossible situation where relapse is eternally imminent.

Life is too hard – Stress causes relapse into addiction

The most common excuse for “relapse” is obviously on the negative side of the spectrum: life is too hard. Many people are eager to tell you just how tough they have it – “I lost my job”, “I’m a convict and have trouble finding a job”, “my family doesn’t trust me anymore and treats me with suspicion”, “my health is screwed up from drug and alcohol use”, “my wife and kids left me”, “I’m taking care of a dying parent”, “I give and give and give – and no one appreciates me – I get so worn out and stressed out that all I can do is drink.” There are a trillion and one negative circumstances people face in their lives.

Some people refer to all of their psychiatric diagnoses – “I’m clinically depressed”, “I’m bipolar”, “I have anxiety.” Or they just say, without any accompanying diagnoses: “I have too much stress in my life.”

And then there are the circumstances that don’t exist anymore, but are kept alive mentally – “I had a traumatic childhood.”

Then there are some downright laughable circumstances that supposedly cause relapse – “my cat died, so I relapsed”, “I got in a fight with my girlfriend/boyfriend, so I relapsed.”

It never stops. What’s worse is that the treatment industry validates and promotes these excuses. They teach that families had better be supportive, or else you’ll relapse. You better use the right “coping skills” to deal with your anxiety, or else you’ll relapse. If you don’t get a new group of “recovering” friends, you’ll relapse. If you don’t get proper treatment for your psychiatric diagnoses, you’ll relapse.

This model of addiction as a product of the “stress” of “underlying issues” (and the weakness of the addict) is heavily peddled by treatment providers. It focuses on external circumstances. To the degree that a solution is provided, it amounts to fighting the boogieman of stress and attempting to create the perfect stress free life full of “support” from support groups and therapists.

The problem is of course that life is always presenting new challenges, unforeseen disasters, and other curveballs – and if you feel like you fail at dealing with those, or that you’re just too weak, then you will proceed to “succumb to addiction” and relapse.

Life is too easy – addiction is “enabled”

The part about having “heard it all” is this: I have heard plenty of people tell me that the reason they can’t stop, or continue to relapse is that their life is just too easy. For some, it’s seen as eternally too easy, for others it’s described as a matter of not having it bad enough yet.

That’s right. They can’t stop, because the consequences haven’t gotten bad enough yet. Many complain that they just haven’t “hit bottom.” And of course, the recovery culture encourages this. They tell people this in rehabs, meetings, and outpatient programs. Things just have to get worse for you to quit. It needs to get banged into your skull.

Others complain that life will always be too easy. Their situation is too good. “I made a killing in real estate after college, and now I don’t have to work – so I just drink.” “My family keeps supporting me, and so I’m not forced to change.” “I’m a fully functioning addict – I never miss work or get in trouble, but I’m just bored, so I keep using.” These people don’t seem to dwell on the matter of “finding their bottom.” They don’t expect there to be one.

The trap: all circumstances can be seen as causing addiction

The problem is that the recovery culture endorses both these points of view. They support the “hardships cause addiction” view by talking about stress and triggers etc as causes of addiction, and the need for the proper “support” and “coping skills” as the remedy. The support the “life is too easy” view by blaming “enablers” and saying “you haven’t hit your bottom yet” and encouraging “tough love.”

But here’s the rub – taking both these views as true, then you need to meticulously construct your world so that things are neither too hard, nor too easy. So, life is too hard. Your job stresses you out too much; your relationship is toxic. You quit the job and get something part time;  you leave the “toxic relationship” and spend a lot of time “working on your issues.” Now life is too easy, and you go back to heavy substance use.

Maybe life is too easy. You decide to take on some challenges, some new goals. You quit your cushy job and decide to open a business of your own. It’s more than you can handle. You’re too stressed out, you can’t make ends meet. Now things are too hard, so you fall apart and “relapse.”

If you take the too hard and too easy views seriously, then you’re left searching for a perfect balance of circumstances in the elusive middle:

victim of circumstance chart

Here are the circumstances you need to orchestrate in order to “stay in recovery”:

  • A lifestyle that is challenging, but not too challenging.
  • Family, friends, and a significant other who are supportive, but not too supportive.
  • Society needs to make you feel the consequences of your choices, but not be too punitive.

Maybe you can find a set of circumstances that are just right, so that you neatly rest right in the middle of too hard and too easy. Maybe, like Goldilocks, you’ll find a life that is “just right.” But maybe, someone might come along and screw it up. You might get too big of a raise, making it too easy. You might lose your job, making it too hard. You might find the relationship of your dreams, making it too easy. You might have a loved one die, making it too hard. When you leave rehab, your family may be too trusting, making it too easy for you to use again. Your family may be too suspicious and untrusting when you leave rehab, making it too hard and hopeless.

Everyone and everything outside of yourself may change in some way, upsetting your delicate balance and knocking you off your “recovery” – at any given time. Or, you may fail and forget to use “the tools” you need to maintain that delicate balance.

In the model of addiction that pegs external circumstances as the cause of addiction, recovery, and relapse – relapse is always inevitable. There’s always an excuse.

Maybe, understanding this, you might look for a better way to conceive of things. Maybe you’ll consider the idea that substance use is a freely chosen behavior. Maybe you’ll decide to stop being a victim of circumstance. Maybe you’ll simply evaluate the costs and benefits of substance use choices. Maybe you’ll consider the opportunity costs as well. Maybe you’ll find out that you have more rewarding choices you can make. And then, maybe you’ll decide to change despite your circumstances. Maybe you’ll decide to permanently change despite ever-changing circumstances.

Or, maybe you like having an excuse to stick with a troubling pattern of substance use. Maybe you like having an easy out, so you can ride the fence and avoid making a real choice and commitment to provide yourself with a better life. Some people do. It’s easier in the short term than changing – but less rewarding in the long term. Maybe one day you’ll decide to care about your future more than you do now. But it’ll be hard to honestly evaluate any of this if you remain committed to the idea that your choices are not your own.

Or maybe the stars will align, forcing you to stop problematically using substances.

You can avoid being a delicate addict on the verge of relapse by refusing to blame circumstances (and other external factors) for your substance use – and simply owning it as a choice freely made for immediate pleasure/happiness.


  1. Rick Hagedorn says

    Peave: It is common to hear that treatment is as effective as no treatment at all. This is usually an argument (sort of) that one shouldn’t bother with treatment. But if treatment is as effective as no treament, it looks like both options have value. I didn’t do research, but I heard AA’s sucess rate is a mere 5%, and that no treatmeant at all nets 5%. Shouldn’t we take 10% instead of just the 5% that is favorable around here (it’s a choice)? I didn’t research the statistics, but if I can believe what I heard, AA is responsible for half the attempts at sobriety.

  2. Tiff says

    This is the most refreshing website I have come across in years. I work in a residential rehab facility for “addicts” and I was an intravenous heroin user at one point in my life. I never bought into the “addict” label and have done extensive reading on neuro-plasticity. I refuse to buy into the garbage our society likes to believe about avoiding personal responsibility. I am going to add this to my list of references when I teach at our facility again this December (I teach classes here on occasion in addition to general program staff duties). This is empowering truth. More please. Much, much more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *