You can find a printable PDF of this guide here: A Guide to Sobriety, Slips, and Relapses in ITAA
This guide has been written by ITAA’s Web Content Committee and has not yet gone through a Conference Approval process, which our fellowship is in the process of developing.
Newcomers to ITAA often ask “What does it mean to be sober from compulsive internet and technology use?” This guide is meant to help give clarity on the concept of sobriety in ITAA, as well as how to understand, prevent, and grow from slips and relapses during our recovery journey.
What is Sobriety in ITAA?
Sobriety in ITAA is a process of discovery, and it looks different for each of us. Coming to understand our personal sobriety needs is something we do in conversation with other members in recovery, and our understanding develops over time.
Simply put, sobriety is abstaining from compulsive internet and technology use. However, how we understand or define “compulsive internet and technology use” can vary from member to member.
Many of us have decided to let go of non-essential internet and technology use. We have found the following guideline helpful in our own recovery: “I will abstain from all internet and technology use except for what is strictly necessary for work, finances, health, recovery, and sober connection with loved ones. I will not use internet and technology for the purposes of entertainment or satisfying my curiosity. I will also avoid internet and technology use that helps me numb my emotions. If I am uncertain whether an activity is strictly necessary, I will consult others first.”
This guideline can help us grow in awareness of what usage is important and in alignment with our values, and what usage is unnecessary and risks drawing us into compulsive use. To better help ourselves follow this principle, we may also ask ourselves the following questions before engaging with internet and technology: “Is it necessary? Is it necessary to do with technology? Is it necessary to do now?” Some of us have also found these additional questions to be helpful: “What do I gain by doing this? What happens if I choose not to do this? Is there another way to do this? If I still need to do this, what is the safest way?” These questions help us build our intuitions and better distinguish between sober, purposeful use on the one hand, and unnecessary, dangerous use on the other.
Another helpful tool for understanding what sobriety means for us is to set ‘Top, Middle, and Bottom Lines’. This exercise can be helpful in giving language to our own personal addictive behaviors. Top lines are the positive activities and behaviors we want for ourselves in life and recovery, as well as the tools of our program we can rely on in difficult moments. Middle lines are dangerous and triggering situations or behaviors that can bring up urges to use compulsively or go into our bottom lines. Bottom lines are the destructive internet and technology behaviors that when we start, we don’t know when we will stop, and when we stop, we can’t stay stopped. Many members define sobriety as abstinence from these bottom line behaviors and situations. More information on top, middle, and bottom lines can be found on ITAA’s Tools of Recovery page.
Our personal definitions of sobriety might look completely different from those that are outlined here. All approaches are welcome in ITAA. Regardless of which tools or frameworks we may use for defining sobriety, we have found that the most important element in discovering what sobriety looks like for us is honesty with ourselves, another person, and a higher power of our own understanding. If the truth is honestly sought, we find we inevitably come to a sobriety definition which serves us as individuals. We connect regularly with other members through meetings and outreach calls. We can benefit in particular from connecting to members with long-term, stable sobriety who “have what we want.” By honestly sharing our experiences and hearing what has worked for others, our intuitions will strengthen, and over time our relationship to sobriety will grow clearer.
It’s ok if this journey takes time; how we see sobriety has changed gradually for many of us. An activity that was safe last year may be unsafe next year. We may have a moment of realization that a certain activity we had perceived as ‘sober’ has been compulsive all along. This is all part of the process and is a sign of recovery.
Our sobriety definitions are themselves tools, means to an end. However we define sobriety, true recovery comes from working the 12 steps of ITAA and using other program resources.
As we arrive at an understanding of sobriety, we may ask ourselves whether we want to count the number of days that we have been sober.
Some of us have found it helpful to avoid counting sobriety days, at least in the first 90 days of our program when we are still learning what sobriety means. Rather, we simply focus on staying sober one day at a time, recording in our journal at the end of each day whether we felt sober or not, or how sober or powerless we felt over different internet and technology activities. This practice helps us to stay honest and in the moment and to put recovery before the pride that can sometimes come with counting days or the shame we might feel from losing a day count.
In addition, some of us may not feel that our recovery can be expressed in terms of a strict binary between sobriety and compulsion. We might feel ‘more sober’ or ‘more compulsive’ on any given day, and so we might not count days for that reason. In practicing this self-awareness, we seek to deepen our honesty, and we remain vigilant to avoid using these grey areas to justify compulsion.
For other members, counting days can help keep us accountable to our fellows and give us a measure of progress. Counting days can motivate us, help us to celebrate milestones, and give us clarity when we have not honored our commitments around sobriety.
The important thing to realize is that neither option is better than the other. In the end, sobriety happens one day at a time, and we don’t need to tie ourselves in knots to figure out how many days we do or don’t have. What’s important is that we are able to share our successes and setbacks with complete honesty, and to practice living sober in the present moment.
Slips and Relapses: How To Prevent Them
As we are recovering, we may experience a slip or a relapse. These terms don’t have ‘official’ definitions. That being said, many members use the term ‘slip’ to refer to a brief or unconscious recurrence of unhealthy behavior and ‘relapse’ to refer to a full and conscious return to our destructive patterns after a period of abstinence. While they may differ in magnitude, slips and relapses both represent the same thing: we have returned to the harmful behaviors that we cannot safely engage in.
We have found that it has been crucial for us to take all possible measures to prevent slips and relapses. It’s important to remember that relapse is a process, not an event. It begins with a series of subtler changes that can occur over hours, weeks, or months. If we notice any of the following signs, it could indicate that we are headed towards relapse:
- We have stopped attending meetings regularly.
- We have stopped making regular outreach calls to other members.
- We are persistently engaging in middle line behaviors.
- We have stopped working with our sponsor or co-sponsor.
- We have stopped investing time into our stepwork.
- We have stopped our normal routines and self-care practices.
- We feel as though we have solved our internet and technology problem, and no longer need support from others.
- Something has taken priority over our recovery, such as a new job, relationship, move, illness, or other life event.
- We experience memories, urges or fantasies about our bottom line behaviors.
- We have stopped praying and/or meditating.
- We do not feel a conscious contact with our Higher Power.
- We are regularly encountering stressful situations, or situations that put us in touch with resentments or fears.
- We are experiencing a period of increased exposure to necessary technology use.
When we notice these signs, we have found it essential to respond with seriousness and urgency. By getting out ahead of our subconscious patterns before they appear urgent, we give ourselves the opportunity to correct course. If we wait until the slippery slope has brought us to the door of relapse and we must rely on only our willpower to save us, it will already be too late.
These are preventive measures that have helped us avoid relapse when we notice ourselves straying from our recovery path:
- We call other members and share honestly what is happening. We communicate to them that we want to take these warning signs seriously.
- We share in meetings. We share openly that we are feeling shaky, knowing that our honesty and vulnerability helps others. We let go of our pride and self-image, trusting that we will be accepted and supported.
- We journal to get in touch with any needs, resentments, feelings, or stresses that we may be suppressing. We write about any urges we have or unhelpful behaviors we’re engaging in.
- We make concrete commitments to other members around changes we will make. For example, we may commit to regularly attending meetings, making outreach calls, doing stepwork, or returning to daily routines and self-care. We do not overwhelm ourselves but we do take action, relying on others for support.
- We surrender any thoughts, actions, devices, relationships, or behaviors that are leading us away from our recovery.
- We take time away from all screens when we are feeling shaky, allowing ourselves a couple hours, a day, a weekend, or longer away from technology to help restore our footing and improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power.
- We take recovery one day at a time. We ask ourselves what we can do just for this day to stay sober.
- We seek to strengthen our connection to our Higher Power, for example, through recommitting to regular prayer and/or meditation.
By marshalling our efforts and energies into awareness and prevention, rather than resistance and willpower, we have found it possible to arrive at and maintain long-term, sustainable sobriety.
Slips and Relapses: How To Recover From Them
Despite our best efforts, we may still experience a slip or a relapse as we journey towards long-term sobriety. What can we do when this happens?
As a first step, we fully acknowledge and accept what has happened. Rather than downplay our actions, or exaggerate them to dramatic proportions, we accept that exactly what has happened has in fact happened—no more, and no less. In particular, writing down what happened can help us gain clarity in this respect.
One of the most helpful actions we can take after a slip or a relapse is to share honestly with other internet and technology addicts on outreach calls and in meetings. We have found this essential—we have not been able to keep our slips and relapses to ourselves and find lasting sobriety. In recovery, we let go of our masks and how we want others to perceive us. By sharing honestly with others, even in our lowest moments, we let go of our need to hide from others and ourselves. By asking for and receiving help, we can receive the strength and support we need to recover from our addiction. Honesty sets us free, and every moment is a chance for a fresh start.
After a slip or a relapse, we may feel shame. In this moment, we can remember that our setbacks are not moral failings; as the 12 step phrase goes, “We are sick people trying to get well, not bad people trying to get good”. We are in recovery because we struggle with addiction: a cunning, baffling, and powerful disease. We did not choose to be addicts, and we don’t need to beat ourselves up for having this condition. We may be motivated to shame ourselves in order to prevent ourselves from repeating our behavior, but we have found that self-shaming tends to reinforce the toxic cycle that our disease thrives on, moving us into isolation, separation, pain, and self-control. By accepting ourselves and letting go of shame, we can step out of this toxic cycle and strengthen our recovery efforts. And when we honestly share with our fellow members, we find that we are received with love and understanding.
We also benefit from noticing and accepting any other emotions that are present in us. For example, we may feel tiredness, irritation, grief, disappointment, numbness, anger, or depression. These feelings can take time to pass, sometimes weeks, and we can practice patience, self-compassion, and acceptance. Here also, writing is a powerful tool to gain clarity about what we are experiencing on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level.
Our relapse may have led us to neglect our sleep, hygiene, eating, or other aspects of our physical health. We take a loving and kind attitude towards ourselves, and we take appropriate actions to attend to our physical needs.
After a slip or relapse, we may consider disconnecting from our devices for a day or two, or longer, to help us reconnect to our bodies, our emotions, and our Higher Power.
Beyond simply accepting what has happened, we have also sought to practice gratitude for our relapse and what it can teach us. Rather than seeing our setbacks as failures, they are always an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves and our recovery needs. Here are some questions we have asked to help ourselves grow:
- What can I learn from this experience?
- When and where did this compulsive episode begin, and what factors, behaviors, or situations contributed to it?
- What was I missing in my recovery program?
- Where was I not taking care of myself?
- What unhealthy habits have I been holding on to?
- What new sources of stress entered into my life?
- What might I try doing differently the next time I am in a similar situation?
- Are there action plans, tools of recovery, or other preventative measures I can put in place moving forward in my recovery?
- Are there any habits, behaviors, devices, relationships, or commitments that I need to let go of in order to better prioritize my recovery?
- In what areas of my life can I strengthen my conscious contact with my Higher Power?
- How can I better practice spiritual principles (such as honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness) in all aspects of my life?
After a relapse, we have found it productive to closely examine the first step: “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step offers us a rich opportunity to examine ourselves and our condition. The following four questions can help us reflect on our relationship to the first step:
- In what ways, if any, do I believe I have power over my addiction, and in what ways do I believe I can control my usage and/or manage its consequences? (In asking this question, we are allowing ourselves to be fully honest, noticing what is and accepting any doubts we might have about the step. We are not trying to disprove these thoughts.)
- In what ways am I powerless over my addiction, and in what ways does it make my life unmanageable?
- Am I ready to let go of addictive internet and technology use?
- Am I willing to go to any lengths to recover?
In addition to these questions, we may also review other Step One questions in the stepworking resources on ITAA’s website. When we have slipped or relapsed, we have benefitted from seeking out and writing on new Step One questions that we haven’t worked with before.
After writing answers to these Step One questions, we read our writing aloud to another member.
Reading literature from other programs about the first three steps can also help us more fully recognize our condition and the changes we need to make moving forward. A great place to start is Chapter 3 from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, More About Alcoholism.
As we come out of a relapse, we prepare ourselves for withdrawal. We accept that withdrawal symptoms may be present, and we make a conscious decision to prioritize our recovery above other responsibilities for the next 2-4 weeks. For further reading on withdrawal, we suggest reading our fellowship’s Guide to Withdrawals.
Should I reset my day count?
As mentioned above, not all of us count our ‘sobriety time’. For those of us who are counting sobriety days, a slip or a relapse may prompt us to wonder whether we should reset our day count. We may find ourselves asking “Was it a slip? Was it a relapse? Was it anything at all?”
These questions can bring up anxiety and pressure, and they may block us from being fully honest with ourselves and others. To counteract this, many of us have found it helpful to wait one week before deciding what label to give our experience, if any, and whether we want to reset our day count. In the meantime, we share honestly with others about what has happened. With time and the input of others, we find we are able to arrive at a grounded and honest decision. Here are some decisions we may arrive at, though this list is not exhaustive:
- If, upon review, we have found that we have consciously disregarded our sobriety commitments and returned to the harmful behaviors that we cannot safely engage in, we may find it useful to reset our day count. Like the alcoholic who resets their count after the first sip, not once they are drunk, we have found taking our sobriety commitments seriously serves us well in the long term.
- Similarly, we may have done something that technically didn’t go against “the letter of the law”, but that we knew in the moment was virtually the same as an underlying problematic behavior we had committed to avoid. In these cases, we may reset our day count and adjust the language of our sobriety definition to include these situations.
- On the other hand, sometimes we may have technically gone against the “letter of the law”, but our action was sober and well-founded, and not in the spirit of the underlying problematic behavior we are abstaining from. In these cases, we may choose not to reset our day count, and we adjust the language of our bottom lines to clarify what we can soberly engage in and what we cannot. We may also commit to bookending or speaking to another member if we find ourselves in similar future situations, so that we can consciously and honestly readjust our sobriety definitions before we engage in uncertain behaviors.
- We may have engaged in a problematic behavior automatically and unconsciously, and immediately stopped as soon as we realized what we were doing. We may decide not to reset our sobriety count in these cases, though we do take the event seriously and examine any changes we can make in our recovery moving forward to prevent repeating it.
- At times we have encountered an entirely new internet and technology behavior and found it unexpectedly pulling us into true obsession. In these cases, we may decide to reset our sobriety count or we may not, but we find it important to add the new behavior to our definition of compulsive use moving forward and commit to abstaining from it.
These suggestions are examples of decisions we can take; they are not rules. Again, we have found the input of others to be essential in helping us understand what course to take. As we consider the decision to reset our day count, we ask ourselves what decision will most help us grow in our recovery. We remember that counting days is just another tool—it is not sobriety itself. If we are getting too hung up on technicalities, we may wish to try not counting sobriety for 90 days, and instead focus simply on recovery one day at a time.
Developing our sobriety
As we journey along the recovery path, our understanding of sobriety will continue to strengthen, deepen, and grow clearer. As we find abstinence from the problematic behaviors that initially brought us to ITAA, we may discover new compulsive activities that begin to cause us difficulties, or our recovery needs may shift in some other way. While this can feel discouraging, we have grown to see this as an important part of our healing process. Like a gardener patiently tending to their garden, we are slowly learning to weed out our compulsive ways of thinking and acting, and to instead grow a reliance on our Higher Power and the tools of our program for guidance, safety, and strength.
In order to maintain our abstinence as our needs change and develop, we find it helpful to regularly review our model of sobriety and examine how well it is serving us. We benefit from discussing our abstinence every several months with our sponsor, co-sponsor, or another member of ITAA. Here are some questions we ask ourselves:
- Do I feel like my definition of sobriety is describing my addictive behaviors well?
- Are there places in which my model of sobriety is too vague or too specific? Did I use loopholes in my model of sobriety to engage in behavior that didn’t feel sober to me?
- Are there other behaviors I am engaging in compulsively? These may be new internet and technology behaviors or other compulsive behaviors, such as sex, eating, reading, codependency, work, substance abuse, etc.
- Am I confusing sobriety with perfection? Am I using my sobriety definition as a way to control myself or beat myself up?
- Are there any other changes I would like to make to my model of sobriety or my recovery program?
Many members notice that the road towards sustainable abstinence might not always be a straight and smooth path. When we quit one problematic tech behavior, our compulsion might find expression in a different tech behavior. By connecting honestly with other members and working the Twelve Steps, we practice building a living program that helps us work through any new compulsive behaviors as we discover them, improving our ability to stay sober over the long term.
On first entering recovery, it is common to have an attitude of ‘How much can I get away with before I fall off the cliff into relapse?’ Many of us with stable sobriety have, over time, adopted a new attitude: ‘How far away from the cliff can I get?’ In other words, we become willing to let go of much more tech behavior than might at first seem necessary.
While we must find abstinence in order to recover, sobriety is more than abstinence alone. It is a serenity that results from both our continued abstinence and a commitment to the spiritual program of ITAA’s Twelve Steps. Our experience of it has been a grounded peace; a lack of anxiety, fear, or urgency; and the ability to deal calmly and directly with challenges, achieve our goals, meet our commitments, and live our values. We have experienced honest relations with ourselves and others, and we have experienced a sense of being alive, of being in the world.
Long-term sobriety also includes struggles and emotional lows. In recovery, we have found it possible to remain abstinent even in the midst of such difficult moments, and to be present with ourselves, those around us, and the challenges we face. In doing so, we are better able to experience and engage with the full spectrum of our experience.
Most importantly, in sobriety we feel genuinely free from our addiction. We find our experience of this freedom to be accurately portrayed by the 10th Step promises written in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 84-85:
And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone—even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.
Reprinted from the book Alcoholics Anonymous
Copyright © 1939, 1955, 1976, 2001 by A.A. World Services, Inc.
All rights reserved.
And so we practice daily to remain in fit spiritual condition, in good times and bad. With persistence, patience, earnest willingness to recover, and the support of our fellows and our Higher Power, we have found that we cannot fail to improve our condition, one day at a time.