Relapse is NOT Part of Recovery
By: Tami Harper Winn
I once heard a woman ask a group of people, “How do you survive a relapse?” It dawned on me that I really had nothing to offer, no words of inspiration, no part of a solution. I was useless to her. You see, I have never relapsed, at least not since I walked into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve been blessed to have found my seat and stayed. However, I say that with the utmost humility, very much remembering that I’m not guaranteed tomorrow and that relapse is only so much as a drink away. I do realize that I am not anymore sober today than the person coming in right behind me in their first twenty-four. Believe me, I know this. I get a strong dose of this reality every time I sit down in a meeting and someone is lucky enough to make it back through those doors and tell me what a relapse looks like.
I have yet (in my days in Alcoholics Anonymous) to see anyone come back, open the door, and say: “You know what everybody, It’s all a lie; What they told us wasn’t true; You can drink like a normal person; It’s totally fine; Come, on; Let’s go.” Nope, that’s not been anything I’ve ever heard. Instead, I see people coming in, with their tails between their legs, looking beaten and busted up - mostly mentally and spiritually, sometimes physically. Some leave and we never see their faces again. Some leave and the next time we see their faces, they’re in caskets.
The old-timers told us when we first got sober, that we needed to buy black suits and black dresses if we planned on sticking around - because we’d be going to a lot of funerals. They said, “Buy a Big Book and a black dress Tami, one’s going to save to your ass, and the other one is going to remind you why you need to save your ass.” I’ve worn that dress too many times now.
I think that if you were lucky enough to make it back, to the rooms or to rehab, then you survived a relapse as far as I’m concerned. You don’t need to ask someone how to survive a relapse. That’s the wrong question to be asked. I think the question should be, “How do you stay sober?” That just may be how to avoid a relapse in the first place.
I know it takes what it takes for each person before we truly understand that for us, to drink (or drug) is to die. It’s just that way. We are not afforded another relapse. That can never be an option. We call that in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, Plan B. If you have a Plan B then you just aren’t done. That’s the basic truth. We’re definitely afforded another drink if we choose, but there is no promise that there will be another chance to recover from this seemingly hopeless disease. I know for me it’s just that way.
I can remember, like it was yesterday, getting my first coin. That thirty-day coin, dazzling red, is my most prized possession. It was the hardest thirty days of my life. It was the hardest because I wanted it more than anything else in this world. It was the hardest because I had put working a recovery program and my sobriety ahead of everything else in my life. I had done a lot of painful work beginning the process of cleaning up the wreckage of my past. I also remember going to celebrate after receiving that coin – at a bar. What? I’m an alcoholic, it makes perfect sense to me. I still was clueless as to the nature of my disease. I went anyways, because it sounded like a good idea. I was with others in recovery. I was safe. Right? No, I was with other newcomers (because we cling to each other in early sobriety) and we are not the brightest crayons in the box. Our bad habits are still deeply engrained. We still thrill seek. We just seek it out the only way we know how.
So off to the bar to sing karaoke we go. I remember sitting there proving to myself that I could do this; hell, I was. I sang karaoke sober for the first time and thought I was the shit. I had arrived. Never mind that I had been sitting there the entire time holding that red coin in my hand rubbing it so vigorously that I made a blister in my palm. Subconsciously, I was trying to rub the red off the coin. You might be wondering why I was trying to do such a thing. Well, those old-timers will always be credited, where possible, for saving my life with the crazy anecdotes they shared with me. Their bat-shit crazy sayings stuck with my that night while I was flirting with fire. You see, I was told that if I could get all the red off of the coin, then and only then could I drink. Believe me, I tried.
Everyone was having fun and I needed more water. So, I headed to the bar. I stepped up to it, fully intending to get my glass refilled. Then, without warning, the thoughts began playing their games with me. It occurred to me that no one was looking. I could take one drink and no one would know. They weren’t paying attention to me. It was only thirty days. I could start over tomorrow. Why not? Everyone else did. Besides, wasn’t relapse part of recovery? That’s what I thought when I stood there.
I had seen so many people relapse and come back in just in the short amount of time I had been there, that I thought it was part of how we do it. I’d even heard people say that very thing in meetings, that relapse was part of recovery. So, for me that meant that in order to be normal I had to relapse at least once. Crazy. Looking back now, I think that is the most dangerous thing that can be said to a person who is trying to recover from alcoholism. It sticks in their brains. It’s a Plan B, a permission slip to relapse. There can never be a Plan B. Besides, nowhere in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous does it say that a relapse is a component of recovery.
I understand that relapse is part of plenty of people’s story. I realize that it is not the end of the world – if you make it back. But, telling a newcomer that relapse is part of recovery just lets them know that it’s something they will do. So, subconsciously it is telling them, “there is no hope for you.” Then it becomes its own entity. There are questions that are left open and unanswered like, how many times am I allowed to relapse? Will I always relapse? When will I relapse, because its only a matter of time before I do? That’s deadly to someone who is dying from this disease. There are too many variables. We need it simple. It needs to be drilled in that dying is what relapse means to those like us.
Of course, we don’t shoot our wounded. They are suffering alcoholics just like us. Their stories are very much a part of the tapestry of recovery. It’s imperative that we know the train of thought that precedes the first drink. The ones that come back from a relapse are the only ones who can tell those of us who have not had a relapse. They hold a golden key. However, telling someone that relapse is part of this journey could be the very words between that person and the first drink. They could very well become the words that seal a casket shut.
Those words entertained themselves in my own mind standing at that bar that night. I asked the bartender what they had on tap. He shot back the list of piss water beers they had. No thank you. I wanted the good stuff. I asked what wines they had. He recited the names of the generic wines they carried. Uh uh. No way. I wasn’t throwing away the hardest thirty days of my life for cheap beer and house wine. The only thing that stood between me and that first drink that night was a higher power bigger than me and my princess attitude. If I was going to throw it all away, it wouldn’t be on that crap. I would be going out large and this house couldn’t do me that justice, so I took my water back to the table, chip in hand.
I know now that it was a miracle I got to stay sober that night. I’m am still so thankful. But, if something larger than me hadn’t intervened and I hadn’t let it, I would have believed those that said, “Relapse is part of recovery.” I almost did. They were right there with me at that bar that night. I hope you remember that the next time some one says that. I hope you think long and hard yourself if you are the one saying it. Those words nearly took me out, and I know me, if I go back out there’s no coming back. I realize that no one person has the power to make me drink. However, why give me a loaded gun if you are trying to help me stop killing myself? I do have another drink in me. I just don’t have another recovery in there. So I tell others the truth of the disease. I don’t sugar coat anything. There is no Plan B for me.
I can only share how it is I have gotten to stay sober a day at a time since I came in. I just don’t drink – no matter what! It’s just that simple. I can survive this life (and believe me I’ve survived a lot since getting sober) just so long as I never take that first drink. That’s not to say it’s always been easy. I confess, I have come close many times other than that night at the bar. However, if I take that first drink, all bets are off. I have no control over what happens next. Once alcohol enters my bloodstream I’m sunk. I have the disease of alcoholism. It’s a very real thing. I suffer from a physical allergy and spiritual malady. It cannot be cured, only arrested. But, in order to stay in remission, I have to take the medicine. I have to live a life of recovery with every breath I breathe. For me, it’s the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s living the principles of the program and surrounding myself with like-minded people. That means you will find me at a meeting on any given day somewhere in the valley, hanging around others in recovery, or writing about recovery in hopes of helping another. Recovery is my life. If not, then I will surely die an alcoholic death. That still doesn’t look like any fun. The countless faces I see return, prove that to me time and time again. Not drinking is my only option.
When I was first sober, I couldn’t conceive having a year clean time much less the amount of time I have now. That was just not a possibility I considered. People who had time weren’t real to me. I didn’t know how to stay sober one day, one hour no less. It was painful and brutal. Looking back, getting sober was the easy part. I had put down the drink many times. I have put it down for the night, for a day, sometimes a week, and even as long as ten months. Getting sober wasn’t the hard part; I’d done it plenty of times. It was staying sober that was the hard part. I get it.
I remember the old-timers in meetings, saying things like, “The longer you are away from the door, the easier it is to forget.” That never made any sense to me. Now it does – very much so. You see, when we get some time under our belts from not drinking, we see miracles start to happen. Our lives change. That’s when we are vulnerable. That’s when we can start slipping back into our disease.
We alcoholics suffer from back problems. We get our families and relationships back, education and jobs back, money and security back, freedom and dignity back. We even get our smile and laughter back. In short, we get our life back. That’s when the back problems set in. We are so focused on the life that recovery gave us, that we forget the life of recovery. We forget where we come from. The pain of even one moment of our last days disappears and is replaced with life, the thing people do every day. We forget and in forgetting we are at risk of drinking again. Vigilance is crucial to remaining relapse-free. The old-timers said things like, “Your disease is outside that door doing pushups, waiting for you patiently.” I admit, I still look at the door in a meeting when they say that and shudder at that thought.
When you have time under your belt it gets more dangerous. The disease of alcoholism is tricky. The Big Book says it perfectly when it says “it’s cunning and baffling.” When you’ve been sober awhile, you don’t think you need to work such a rigid recovery program. Why should you? You haven’t had a drink in (insert number of days, months, or years here) so you are ok. That’s a perfectly normal thought for an alcoholic. We forget. Pain keeps us real. Pain keeps us in the work. Therefore, the lack of pain can take us out too if we aren’t paying attention. The longer the pain is gone, the easier it is to pick up that first drink.
Our brain (the disease) lies to us, tells us things like: “You have been sober (X) length of time, you can drink one drink now. If you haven’t had a drink for this long, you can control it this time. Just maybe you aren’t an alcoholic. If you were, you’d be drunk still.” It feeds you all kinds of insane ideas. What’s crazier is that you question it. That’s where the chink in our armor is most glaring - our thoughts. So those that make it back from the depths of hell are invaluable to a person like me. They are invaluable to everyone in recovery.
I’m so very grateful for the people who are brave enough to come back into the rooms, sit down, and share their story with me. They are the most important people in the room, as far as I’m concerned. I must confess, that every time someone announces that they are a newcomer fresh back from a relapse, my ears perk up. They have my full attention. I sit up and lean in close, hoping to glean something new from them that might save my life.
Often times, I don’t even realize it until after their share, that the reason they are so important is because I was actually on my way back out just as they came back in. That sobering realization frightens the hell out of me when I see that in myself, but it’s so very true. Usually, before their share is over, I am shaking and in tears, remembering the horrid first few moments I drew a sober breath. I remember vividly when I first sat down in that chair, head hung low, no make-up on, face swollen from crying, defeated and broken, the obsession to drink twisting my brain into painful knots. I was completely anxiety ridden, and wanting out of my own skin. I remember sitting on my hands just so I wouldn’t jump up and run away, watching the second hand on the clock inch around it at snail-like speed. And I remember, like it was yesterday. It’s then that in quiet reverence I bow my head, thank God silently for bringing them back safe, and then thank him for bringing them back, to save me.
~Tami Harper Winn~
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