People do not want to consider themselves as addicts or poor performers or sources of problems. As a result, they are good at justifying their behaviours, even when those behaviours are wrong. The justifications in their minds make perfect sense – to them – even if they seem unreasonable to others. Drug and alcohol dependency prompts these kinds of justifications because they enable people to hang on to their bad habits whilst attempting to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that creates emotional and mental stress. Though some people are truly unconcerned about their bad judgement or poor decision-making, most realise they are acting unreasonably by using illicit drugs or drinking alcohol in the workplace. Yet they continue to do so, and the justifications and lies begin. The justifications are meant to protect their view of themselves, stop co-workers from getting suspicious, and/or stop employers from insisting on a for-cause drug and alcohol test.
Relapse is the end of a staged process. When someone decides to give up drugs or alcohol, the first stage is contemplation. At that point, the person is ambivalent about quitting. The next state is taking action. The third state is maintenance during which the person changes behaviours to make a substance-free life. During maintenance, there comes a point there a person makes a decision to achieve long-term success or relapse.1 Drug dependence increases the chances of relapse.
It Just Feels Good
Unfortunately, people can justify themselves back into addiction, and especially if they are risk-takers. Dependency is a function of the physical response to the drug, but it is also determined by a person’s willingness to be a risk-taker or novelty-seeker and by how rewarding they find the effects of substances.2
Relapse is the end result of giving in to a craving that has already been proven to be controllable.
A person who has a craving knows the wrong thing to do is use drugs or drink alcohol. Since the behaviour (using substances) would not fit the thoughts (drugs or alcohol would help), the person alter their thoughts to fit the situation. If this seems a bit circular, it is important to remember that concocting justifications is a process in which something wrong is turned right-side-up. Ultimately, in justifying relapse, the goal is to explain away the cognitive dissonance to bring behaviours and thoughts into alignment. Justifications can vary widely with employees telling themselves:
- They are making a big deal about drugs, but one time isn’t going to hurt me
- I can drink this time so I fit in at the office party; otherwise people will think I’m weird
- I will use a different drug than the one I was using and it won’t have the same effect
- My job is so stressful and that is not my fault; I need a way to really relax
- People who never use drugs don’t understand how much they help
- Life is short and sweet, so who cares? If I lose this job, I can always find another.
- Drugs and alcohol release my creativity
- I have insomnia and am desperate to get some sleep
- I get too anxious when I speak in front of a group; it’s important to my work that I be calm and professional and drugs help
- Do-gooders are always preaching to everyone else, but they are really just a bunch of hypocrites
- I have too much to manage between work, family, finances, and my elderly parents and have to find relief sometimes
Most employers have heard the justifications, and often at the point in time when an employee tests positive during a random drug and alcohol test. People who have recovered from addiction may have recovered physically but have not let go mentally. They do not want to admit that drugs and alcohol cannot be used safely and believe they are the exceptions to the rule. The person only needs the right justification to return to an addiction or habit.
Finding Life is Disappointing
Relapse justifications often centre on thoughts that being “clean” has not helped their life or work or family situation as much as expected. They will frequently turn on those who were their greatest supporters, whether spouse or counsellor or co-worker. The justifier tells him or herself that life after addiction should be happier, more perfect, more interesting, and certainly more fun. They exaggerate in their minds that the office party was so much more fun whilst drunk (forgetting all about getting sick in the bathroom), or that the long shift at work is only possible whilst high on meth (forgetting about the hallucinations and erratic behaviour that endangered the person’s life.)
Employers who are confronted with justifications for drug and alcohol use by employees should always be aware that relapse is the end result of a process that began long before discovery. It is important to only address the work-related issues like policy violation and job performance; however, employees should be directed to professional resources. Counsellors and health professionals understand the complexities of addiction and relapse and can specifically address the faulty thinking that leads to renewed use of illicit drugs and alcohol. One relapse does not mean the person will return to being an addict.
Random drug and alcohol testing programs are needed to ensure that workers do not use substances in the workplace. Whilst it is always hoped that people who went through treatment or counselling can stay away from substances from that point forward, the reality is that it does not work that way for many people. Mediscreen (mediscreen.net.au) can assist employers with flexible and dependable drug and alcohol test screening services and a web-based portal for ease of program management.
1 National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) Consortium. (2004), Alcohol and Other Drugs: A Handbook for Health Professionals. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.
2 Linda R. Gowing. (2011), Pharmacotherapies for Relapse Prevention in Alcohol Dependence. Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia.