Utter the seven-letter word relapse in recovery circles and the room grows silent. Why did it happen? How did it happen? How much sobriety did she have? How long did she stay out? If a person had years of sobriety accrued, it is expected that the clock be reset – as if they had never stopped drinking. Call me a rebel, but this is too black and white for my taste. While I realize the need to recognize and commemorate consecutive days of sobriety, recovery from addiction is rarely straightforward or neat. More often than not, it’s a messy, ongoing journey of learning and coping and healing that includes its share of falls. Relapses are a sometimes-necessary part of the adventure. In fact, I’m glad mine happened. Here’s why.
My five-day experiment
The summer before last I experimented with alcohol after 28 years of sobriety. Having quit drinking before I was legal, I always questioned whether or not I was truly an alcoholic. Maybe, I thought, my binge drinking between the ages of 15 and 18 were merely a form of high school rebellion. It seemed a valid question. I couldn’t relate to many of the testimonies in twelve-step group meetings because I hadn’t really lost anything as a result of my drinking, except for some pride after initiating a stupid cat fight under the influence.
One July evening after everyone had gone to bed, I stared at the Heinekens in the fridge. Maybe I am normal, I thought to myself. Maybe I can have the occasional cocktail and join the fun. So with shaking hands, I pulled one out of the fridge, opened the bottle, and reacquainted with my long lost friend.
Nothing terrible happened. I stopped at one. So the next night I tried it again. For the first 48 hours of my experiment it seemed as if I had joined the ranks of the social drinkers. Hallelujah! However, by day three, I began to obsess about my next drink. On day four, I smuggled a six-pack of Coors Light into a park to drink alone. On day five, I considered stopping by the liquor store to buy a bottle of vodka to keep in the trunk … you know, in case I needed a fix.
The next day, by coincidence or divine intervention, a friend who is a recovery alcoholic stopped by the house during his run. He has never done this before or since. I confessed to him the details of what I was up to and he told that he was picking me up for a meeting the next day.
A bathroom break, not a start over
“Is there anyone here with 24 hours of sobriety?” the meeting chair asked at the end. I wasn’t sure whether or not to raise my hand. As the folks in the room saw it, I had about 26 hours of sobriety. However, by my standards, I had been sober 28 years and one day. I went with their math and waltzed sheepishly to the front of the room to claim my chip.
That day was an important milestone for me. I haven’t drank since. However, I wasn’t celebrating a day of sobriety. I was commemorating all the wisdom and perseverance and courage that had kept me sober for over a quarter of a century. All the sweat and hard work of the 28 years of sobriety that preceded my 24-hour chip were on display in that moment. Nothing was lost. I don’t believe a person starts over if they pick up a drink. I view it more like a bathroom break, where you look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “What the hell am I doing?” and then resume your place in line to get a table.
Progress is uneven
Perhaps some people have linear recoveries. They drink. They stop. They find happiness and peace. But I have yet to meet such a person. The recovery patterns for most of us entail a dance of up-and-down movements, right-to-left adjustments, a pirouette and a plié – with the hope that we are moving forward. Much like a walking labyrinth that guides you out before in, recovery is typically more spiral or circular than it is square. Just when we think we’ve encroaching on home base, we are thrown out to left field.
“Progress, not perfection” rings true with all of my addictive behavior. I don’t have to get it down the first time, the second time, or even the 52nd time. Gradual baby steps towards the goal of serenity and peace are enough. On those days when I engage in codependent behavior or reach for something to relieve my pain, I remind myself that it’s not the fall but the rebound that counts. Healing consists of catching myself and trying over and over and over again, sometimes as many as 50 times a day. It’s the journey and effort that matter in recovery, not a perfect score card.
Lessons of a relapse
Relapses teach us invaluable lessons if we are open to learning. For example, before my experiment, I regarded my decision to stop drinking much like I did eliminating gluten and sugar from my diet. My relapse demonstrated the seriousness of addiction, that sobriety is a life-saving action, not a healthy choice. Abstaining from a cocktail isn’t in the same category as foregoing a brownie or piece of bread. For addicts, alcohol hijacks your brain, whispering false promises in your ears. If you’re not careful, the self-destruction can erode all aspects of your life.
My relapse also taught me that abstinence isn’t about willpower and discipline. It has nothing to do with personal character or emotional resilience. Recovery is about humility, about admitting powerlessness and relying on other people and a higher power for strength and guidance. The healing power is found in the shared experience of others, in tapping into a community of support.
The pain underneath the addiction
I dare say that my relapse was life-transforming in that it forced me to discover what was driving the addiction. I began intensive psychotherapy and probed more deeply into every aspect of my life, asking the question, What’s going on here? My soul-searching efforts resulted in a stronger sense of self. As a result I can better identify the pain that makes me susceptible to addictive behavior.
I’m certainly not saying relapse is all good. Some people can’t get clean again after they start drinking or reengage in an addiction. It is a risk, for sure. However, if you are able to end your addiction and return to recovery, relapse can open the door to a better understanding of your addiction and, therefore, to a stronger recovery. I don’t believe you start over if you pick up a drink. I believe you pause and begin again with a new perspective.