Everybody falls off the wagon and the last month has been my turn to be drug behind it. This phrase typically refers to addicts, but aren’t addicts just people trying to change a difficult, unwanted behavior? Be it mental health disorders, weird personality quirks, or addiction to drugs and alcohol, all of us have in common the fact that variable X has cemented semi-permanent pathways in our brains that consistently lead us down the path towards the unwanted behavior.
I googled a great article to get me up and running for this post and found some very relatable points. This post ends up being much more scholarly than I intended, but oh well, it’s a learning experience.
The director of Addictive Behaviors Research Center at UW is Alan Marlatt and he’s coined a medical term for falling off the wagon: abstinence-violation effect. Marlatt defines this effect as, “a form of black-and-white thinking. You blame [your failure] on internal factors that you consider beyond your control.” He also defines abstinence-violation effect as the Fuck It Effect.
Hmmm, well, that sounds about right. Although I knew consistent journaling helped my anxiety, once I missed a few days, I thought, “Fuck it.” Although I know exercise is scientifically proven to decrease my levels of anxiety, when I don’t run every day, I think fuck it. Fuck it, I’m a failure and I’m not going to get any better at this. Screw it, I can’t do anything about how I feel or how I look. My brain is messed up and there’s nothing I can do to control it.
Marlatt goes on to say that addicts (or in my case, anxiety addicts) believe that a drink equals a drunk. For me, a tiny amount of failure equals a complete failure. Here’s a stupid example: if a piece of paper has a small crinkle in it, I won’t use it because I think that the whole paper is ruined now. How’s that for exaggerated thinking? Why does my extreme black and white thinking lead me to saying screw you guys, I’m going home?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I can only assume that after spending years and years thinking that way, my brain is most comfortable driving in autopilot down the same familiar, well-worn path. It seems the logical, but difficult, solution would be to repave the way down new roads where I can handle my anxiety and my problems in a healthy way.
So when I fall off the wagon, instead of laying in the mud thinking how much a failure I am for relapsing into my old unhealthy ways, Marlatt suggests, “For starters, don’t berate yourself for being weak. Instead, tell yourself, “I made a mistake. What can I do differently next time? How can I learn from this?” This happens to almost everybody. It’s not just you.”
Don’t berate yourself for being weak: I usually fall into the thought pattern of “I’m never going to get any better, this will never go away, I might as well just cave in because I don’t have the strength to commit to the work it takes to get healthy.” If you had these thoughts and shared them with me, I would tell you that no one succeeds cold turkey. No one can commit to doing the same thing every day. The work to get healthy shouldn’t be an obsessive daily regimen; this method, in fact, is really unhealthy and only strengthens your brain’s resolve to stay on autopilot.
I made a mistake: these words don’t typically cross my mind. Instead, I’m thinking I screwed up completely because of my inability to succeed. If I’m walking and I trip on the curb (which happens often), I don’t say, “Oh, dammit! I can’t walk! Somebody get me a wheel chair!” Why can’t mistakes related to mental illness healing be considered in the same light? If you said to me, “I had another anxiety attack, I’ve been working so hard on controlling my anxiety and it didn’t work,” I would ask for a before and after picture. Before working on your anxiety, you probably had problems with it multiple times a day. And now that you’ve been working on it, your anxiety is only getting the best of you once or twice a day. That is progress and moving forward instead of backward is always a good sign of recovery.
What can I do differently next time? I had told myself that I was going to blog every day, work out every day, meditate every day, and a bunch of others things every day. That is so overly ambitious that I’m instantly setting myself up for failure. When I made those goals, my thinking was, I know I’ll be succeeding if I do all of these things every day. A little to much of that all or nothing thinking. My goals need to allow room for flexibility, room for slow, scaffolded growth. So, this next time around, perhaps my goals can be to accomplish one thing on my list a day.
How can I learn from this? Well, now I know that falling off the wagon is something that will happen, I should expect it to. But just because I fell off, it doesn’t mean that I have to lay there, moping about my inadequacy. It means I get the opportunity to find what triggers me to fall off the wagon and either steer clear of that trigger next time or hold on tight when it comes around again.
This happens to almost everybody. It’s not just you. Knowing that now makes me realize that falling off the wagon is part of the healing process. In order to get better, I need to fall off the wagon a few times. Falling off the wagon teaches me more about my anxiety and how to control it than staying in the wagon ever could.
Imagine that: a path towards mental health that entails you doing a perfect job the whole time. Would you even need to pursue coping skills and therapy if you could do it perfect to begin with? If you were doing it perfect, then you wouldn’t be here. And “here” is a good spot. Here is where you’re making yourself a better person, where you’re carving out true character made up of the ability to overcome.
So, I hope that the both of us fall off the wagon a few more times, just for the sake of learning how to get back on.
The article that I used in this post can be found at: