Relapse and Recovery
Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man. Fear sobered me for a bit. Then came the insidious insanity of that first drink, and on Armistice Day 1934, I was off again. Everyone became resigned to the certainty that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or would stumble along to a miserable end. How dark it is before the dawn! In reality that was the beginning of my last debauch. (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 8)
Some time later, and just as he thought he was getting control of his liquor situation, he went on a roaring bender. For him, this was the spree that ended all sprees. He saw that he would have to face his problems squarely that God might give him mastery.
One morning he took the bull by the horns and set out to tell those he feared what his trouble had been. He found himself surprisingly well received, and learned that many knew of his drinking. Stepping into his car, he made the rounds of people he had hurt. He trembled as he went about, for this might mean ruin, particularly to a person in his line of business.
At midnight he came home exhausted, but very happy. He has not had a drink since. As we shall see, he now means a great deal to his community, and the major liabilities of thirty years of hard drinking have been repaired in four. (Alcoholics Anonymous pgs. 155 – 156)
These tidbits of recovery stories are from the story of Bill W. and Dr. Bob (founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps) respectively. The point here is that a relapse in recovery is not a death sentence (not necessarily a death sentence, there are people who relapse and die).
I am not a fan of the idea that relapse is a part of recovery, because although the point is not to say that everyone has to relapse to recover, that is what most people hear. In other words, the idea that relapse is a part of recovery can be used as an opportunistic excuse to destroy your own recovery.
On the other hand, I think that there are cases (as the examples of Bill W. and Dr. Bob demonstrate) where a relapse clarifies how desperate and powerless you really are and forces a person to desperately seek recovery in way that was otherwise impossible. In other words the relapse forces the person to work recovery with enough seriousness for it to finally work.
That is not to say that you should relapse to make your recovery work better; that is like telling a suicidal person to shoot himself in the head to get over being suicidal. But a person who almost kills himself/herself and survives sometimes might finally realize how serious the problem is and desperately seek help.
Some of us have relapsed since starting recovery and a few of us may have just relapsed and be in the process of considering what to do now. Well, the relapse is a terrible stumble and fall in recovery, but that does not mean you have to lie there until you die. In the second example above, Dr. Bob was going through a bunch of recovery stuff and getting it. He felt better and was remaining sober, but then had a terrible relapse.
The key is what he did next: He finally “saw that he would have to face his problems squarely.” Dr. Bob had decided that he had to face a part of recovery that he had refused to do prior to this:
When our friend related his experience, the man agreed that no amount of will power he might muster could stop his drinking for long. A spiritual experience, he conceded, was absolutely necessary, but the price seemed high upon the basis suggested. He told how he lived in constant worry about those who might find out about his alcoholism. He had, of course, the familiar alcoholic obsession that few knew of his drinking. Why, he argued, should he lose the remainder of his business, only to bring still more suffering to his family by foolishly admitting his plight to people from whom he made his livelihood? He would do anything, he said, but that. (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 155)
Dr. Bob was willing to do anything at all in recovery except for what is now known as Steps 8 and 9 which deal with making amends. Dr. Bob had gotten stuck on Step 8; he was not willing to make amends to them all.
Due to his relapse he suddenly realized that the pain of continuing to use until his world was completely annihilated was far greater than the pain he faced from making amends. He finally became desperate enough to do anything to get sobriety even though that is the idea we are supposed to be going into recovery with.
Now we go out to our fellows and repair the damage done in the past. We attempt to sweep away the debris which has accumulated out of our effort to live on self-will and run the show ourselves. If we haven’t the will to do this, we ask until it comes. Remember it was agreed at the beginning we would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol. (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 76)
This passage (which is actually discussing Steps 8 & 9) reminds us that we start recovery with the idea that I am willing to do anything to get better. The idea that “I am desperate and do not have the power to stop myself and am desperate enough t do anything to get better.” This is the starting point of recovery.
If you do not start with this mindset, you are in deep trouble from the beginning. Recovery is going to require that you face and do things that are terribly uncomfortable. Some of these things both your conscious and unconscious mind are constantly trying to keep you from facing in any way. If you are not desperate, when the time comes to face these things you avoid these things and in actuality we often desperately run from these things at all costs.
If you start with this desperation mindset, there is a point for each of us where we reach something that seems to be too much to ask. This is really a test of the desperation that is the fuel that powers your recovery work. Some of us run from recovery at this point, some of us hide it and pretend (ex: Pretend to have listed all the people I need to make amends to, but leave off the ones I don’t want to do or lie and say I made an amends I did not really make etc.), some of us get stuck in some way or other.
A relapse can be a wakeup call to you. YOU CANNOT CUT CORNERS IN RECOVERY FOR ANY REASON.
Reminding ourselves that we have decided to go to any lengths to find a spiritual experience, we ask that we be given strength and direction to do the right thing, no matter what the personal consequences may be. We may lose our position or reputation or face jail, but we are willing. We have to be. We must not shrink at anything. (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 79)
If you have relapsed, let it be a reality check and do whatever it takes to get better no matter what.
My father used to always tell me that there are two ways people learn:
- People learn from their own mistakes
- People learn from the mistakes of others
If you are in recovery and have not relapsed, think of how many people (some stronger than you) thinking the same things you are thinking right now have relapsed. Consider those people and let their example help you understand your own desperation so that that can be the fuel to face the uncomfortable and sometimes painful process of recovery as if your very life depends upon it working. The truth is that your very life does depend upon it working.
Stay Sober My Friends…