Relapse. Go ahead say it. It might take some of the fear out of it straight away – or it might not. It might make you shudder, it might make you cringe as you maybe remember your own experience of one, or it might even strengthen you as you use it as your resolve to stay clean. Whatever the word, and the event, of a relapse does to you, it’s one of the most dangerous subjects in recovery that I have come across.
In the true spirit of the band of brothers and sisters that recovering addicts are, let me share my own experience of relapse. It has happened once, and it happened very early on in my recovery. There were definite triggers for it, and I can pin point them – but even knowing and acknowledging there were reasons behind the relapse did nothing to lessen the shame I felt. In fact, the feelings I had about that “slip up” took me right back to the mental state that was all to common during my active drinking days – anxiety, embarrassment, deceit, pity – the list goes on and none of the words look or feel particularly positive. At this stage of my recovery, I was still somewhat of a nomad in terms of attending AA groups, so hadn’t settled on a Home Group, and as chance would have it, it also occurred on the weekend before I started a new job in a new location that I was moving to – this at least in part helped me get over the embarrassment part of the relapse, as I could and did treat the new beginning as exactly that – a new start.
It was the one and only time that I gave in to the demons of addiction since going to rehab, and ladies and gentleman, here’s the kicker, I am grateful I had that relapse. Yes. Grateful. I have even included it on my gratitude list a number of times since – because the lessons I learned from that episode and the dissipation of fear around the subject of relapse that it gave me have been worth their weight in gold.
Let me start with the lessons I learned.
Probably the biggest was that what I thought I was missing from drinking was really not that attractive, sexy or exciting. Having given up drinking after 25 years of barely ever going a day without a drink, and as the memory of what it was like to indulge in that most poisonous of liquids started to fade just a little – there was that little voice in my head, and I’m sure some of you know the one I’m talking about – the one that kept saying ” it wasn’t so bad”, ” just one won’t hurt”, “what could possibly happen?”.
Coupled with the other voice in my head that was almost daring me – “you’re really gonna go your whole life without a drink???”
There was a …. curiosity … I guess …. around what it felt like to drink and get drunk, as if 25 years of doing it on a daily basis hadn’t taught me all I needed to know on the subject. Then there was the wonderment at how good did it really feel? Obviously at this point I’d spent a few months doing little else except practising the lore of the 12 steps and understanding that alcohol was not going to do me any good – and in fact, without it, my life was already starting to go much better – but like a carefully edited movie trailer that shows you all the best bits of a film within 90 seconds, my brain played tricks on me. Stop. It wasn’t my brain playing tricks on me, that sounds like I’m passing responsibility to someone else, as if my brain is completely not under my control – no, I was playing tricks on me, and started to just think about the great times of drinking.
Lastly, I think there was a part of me that had the relapse itch to scratch. If I hadn’t done it, I would have spent a lot of time energy wondering about it. Maybe the longer I remained sober, the more that feeling would have built. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it would have lessened and disappeared altogether – who knows. But at that point in time, there was a very strong feeling within me that I needed to know what a “relapse” felt like.
So, what did it feel like? Happily, it felt awful. It did all the things I had learned drink would do. It made me feel depressed. It made me feel beaten. My self esteem plummeted. It took me low. It took me right down. Within a few hours I felt like I was back where I started, and everything I had learned in recovery was for nothing. I didn’t feel it right then, but now I see it was one of the best things to have happened to me in recovery.
The mystique of drinking was truly gone once and for all. It suddenly didn’t hold any more magical promise for me.
Waking up with that horrible dry mouth, a mind full of regret and an anxiety that bordered on mania, I could well and truly say that relapses were not good things, not things to try every now and again and certainly took away any notion of “it wasn’t all that bad” when I reminisced on my drinking days.
It was a harsh lesson, a painful experience emotionally – but an important one.
I think another dangerous side of relapse is the way we perceive others will view it. I’ve seen people suddenly stop going to AA meetings, only to bump into them at other AA meetings – their reason for changing groups was simply the fact they had endured a relapse – or a period of relapse, and felt they would be judged, or that they had failed when they returned to their group.
Of course this is completely against the ethos of AA – it’s a community that doesn’t judge ( in my experience ), but the feelings of shame and guilt overpower that reasonable logic. The powerful, deceitful cunning effect of alcohol.
So whilst I don’t wish a relapse on anyone, and if you’re in recovery, I hope it remains a clean run for you – if you do stumble, you’re not alone and don’t be ashamed of slipping up. Do learn from it though. From a seemingly negative situation, take the positives. Use it to help you stay on the clean path for the longer term. Good luck.