Relapse Prevention: Finding Engagement, Involvement and Purpose through Compassion Attentiveness

The Fact of Relapse

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse rates for drug addiction are around an astounding 40-60%.   In cases of Opiate Addiction, the rate is as high as 85%. In spite of the abundance of inpatient and outpatient care available to people in need of help, an enormous number of addicts will relapse several times and may never be totally free of their addiction.

Most treatment centers do a relatively good job in preparing their clients to live in the world, and quite often, clients feel prepared when they are exiting their treatment program. Intensive Outpatient Programs help clients with discharge plans and provide as many tools as possible for them to stay in recovery. These tools include mental techniques, encouragement of self-care, assistance with job placement, regular meetings through outpatient care, and 12-step meetings.  Although clients do in fact leave the facility with renewed hope and excitement, and with a newly forged community, within days or months or years they are back to old habits. This is troubling and causes the following questions to come to mind:

1. What happened to all the preparedness?

2. Are the treatments or discharge plans not adequate? 

I will be focusing on the third question in this article.

As we in the recovery world are already aware, for the longest time, drugs were the source of the addict’s immediate happiness or relief. Over time, the drug abuser found that they had fallen into a state of misery. Then, they realized that clutches of the drug were firm and that they were helpless to free themselves. 

Eventually, they made a choice to become free. But how is that possible when every aspect of their life involved either using drugs, hiding the drug addiction, trying to procure drugs, or something else directly tied to drugs?  How is that possible when the disease infected their very spirit and drowned out their sense of purpose and the meaning of life?

The emphasis on structure and helping clients to focus on behavior change and reality-orientation is good, even necessary. But, what is often missing in many treatment programs is enhancement of self-discovery and purpose-finding activities.

Recovery and Self-Discovery

“The fundamental aspiration of the human being is to be rooted in the physical but to have a taste of that which is beyond.”


Recovery without self-discovery is neither “whole” nor possible.  Self-Discovery is about expanding one’s awareness beyond the physical realm.  It is about knowing oneself fully and wholly and becoming acquainted with one’s higher purpose in life.

In order to maintain sobriety, the client needs to be engaged with a meaningful activity. The engagement must be such that the individual becomes motivated and manages to remain motivated every day.  The engagement must also lead each client to find their own unique purpose - a purpose that will replace their experience of suffering.

The individuals that I have encountered in my practice frequently talk as if their life has become devoid of meaning.  Through self-discovery, however, some clients have tasted the opportunity to transform their lives from the inside out.  One such client is “Harry.”

Harry recently celebrated his 365 days of sobriety. I asked him what he was doing to stay clean. His responded with a smile saying, “I don’t have time to be an addict.”

Underneath, he knows that his addiction is real and that he must never lose sight of his past and the many roles that drugs played in his life. However, Harry has a newly expanded interest in really living his life. He genuinely believes in the 12 step program, and regularly attends a couple of meetings per week. Additionally, his expanded awareness has encouraged him to assist others in their endeavors toward recovery.  He said he still has cravings but that he has stopped thinking about it because he has found himself naturally attaching to meaningful and purposeful activities. Harry has started to see the world with a different pair of eyes. He tells me that sits in his yard and pays attention to nature as part of his recovery and self-discovery experience. He notices daily how nature is free and inclusive of everything around it.  He finds himself mirroring nature and wanting to include others in his beautiful recovery experience. Harry is a perfect example of being a part of the whole through self-discovery.

Compassion Attentiveness and its role in Self-Discovery

 “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”  

? Aristotle

While it’s true that self-discovery is about attaining wisdom, the purposeful journey toward finding and knowing the authentic self is at the heart of self-discovery. This process requires self-compassion, which is a hard concept for many addicts to grasp. Hence, I encourage acts of compassion toward others when I work with clients.

When clients are in treatment, all they hear is that they are “addicts” and their sole focus is on how to be drug free. If the sole focus is really only behavior change, then clients, therapists and treatment centers should be aware that that will wear out over time. However, I have seen that when clients focus on the capacity to transform their lives, they find hope and a desire to live.  When they hear that they have the capacity to help transform the lives of others by shifting focus away from themselves, that’s when they have really found the boon: a renewed purpose for living. 

Many of those who come to me in therapy do not want to been seen as addicts who are worthless to the society, however they have not come to believe in or understand their true value.  Also, many feel incapable of empathy because of they have a magnifying lens on their identity as addicts, instead of their qualities of kindness, goodness, and productivity.  That’s why transformation is so important. The essence of transformation is to cultivate the spaces within the heart and mind to find the whole, authentic self.

It is not uncommon to hear from clients during group or individual sessions that they would like to work with other addicts or children of addictive families. They have experienced pain first hand and know how addiction has shaped their lives. They sincerely want to alert and assist others.  When they finally embark on their compassionate journeys, they often feel a sense of relief because they not only find that they are capable of joy, but also of productivity and empathy.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

The true meaning of life comes from service, which keeps clients engaged and involved. Involvement is an incredible thing because it is the moment-to-moment process that keeps behavior focused on compassion and is simultaneously the object of a recovering person’s aspiration! 

When clients leave a treatment program with a purpose to serve others, they tend to remain engaged for the long-term and experience joy from serving others. A life that seemed almost like a waste transforms into one of great value! Compassion Attentiveness takes them from being alone and isolated to a life of connection and inclusion.

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