Friday, January 20, 2012

Relapsing: A Mistake, But Not the End of the World

A friend was telling me yesterday about one of her dear friends, a man who has been sober for two years now, who fell off the wagon. Life caught up with him, too much shit was going on, and he said "f*ck it." I know the feeling. I have relapsed many, many times. The first time I tried getting sober, I stayed sober for seven months and white knuckled it the whole time. This was because I had clung to the idea the entire seven months that I could learn to drink moderately. My partner at the time was persuaded by my success with sobriety and acceded to my commencing drinking again. It was a mistake.

There were other periods of attempted sobriety over the course of my twenty-nine-year drinking career, but the second serious time I tried to get sober, it was because I'd scared myself. I drank so much so quickly that I was yabbering away on my bar stool one moment, and a second later, my eyes rolled back in my head. I fell off the bar stool and to the floor, slamming my head in the process, and lay unconscious for a few more seconds. When I came to, I started puking my guts up. People swarmed around me, saying things; a friend pulled me to my feet and drag-walked me to the restroom to clean me up. An ambulance arrived. The EMTs couldn't believe that alcohol was the only thing in my system--there had to be something else. There was nothing. Nothing but booze. I was rushed off the hospital with alcohol poisoning, or, as my official diagnosis read: "acute alcohol intoxication."

Pretty "cute," all right.

It was horribly embarrassing. I was grateful the bar wasn't one I frequented, so only the couple people who were with me would know that fool had been me. The ER nurse suggested tartly that I "learn to change my habits." The cop taking the report was kind: "Too much to drink, huh?" A baffled, "I guess so," from me. I felt like crap for three whole days after that. The bill for the ER and the ambulance set me back two thousand bucks.

I stayed sober for three months, but since fear was the only thing keeping me sober, I went right back out.

And here's the thing. Fear isn't enough. A nagging spouse isn't enough. Nothing is enough to keep you sober until it's YOU who wants to be, and stay, sober. Until you give in to the fact that you are just one of those persons who can't drink, that alcohol does bizarre shit to you, and that you can NEVER drink, you will be doomed to one day pick the stuff up again.

The next step is: how to maintain this frame of mind for two, five, ten, twenty years, the rest of your life?

Some people keep a list of all the awful things that ever happened to them when they were drinking. If tempted to drink, they review that list. That reminds them why they decided to get sober in the first place. (After a few years, it can be easy to forget, especially since the addict in our brain is very good at reminding us of all the "fun" we had when we drank.)

For me personally, it's having a solid spiritual program that keeps me sober. My spirituality now drips over into virtually all aspects of my life: I meditate, I pray, I teach (helping others aligns with my spiritual program), I write and paint and play guitar (creativity aligns with my spiritual program). Basically every waking moment, I breathe and exude my own spirituality in some form or another. Bidden or unbidden, God is always present. With significance attached to every action, every moment is imbued with meaning. Drinking is irrelevant. Drinking is a huge interruption. Drinking is a backslide.

Problems become a spiritual challenge: I meditate, I think, I pray: "Show me. What shall I do? What should I do? Is it true? Is it right? Is it kind? What am I meant to learn from this? How can I turn this into something good?" And so on. There is no time for drinking. Escape is not the answer. I try to embrace problems. I have faith that, no matter what, I will grow. I know that painful emotions will not kill me. They are, after all, only feelings. Ride the wave; I simply must experience those rough feelings and see them through.

Some people are so embarrassed after a relapse that they are too humiliated to show their faces at their old AA meetings again, ashamed to sigh and say, "Hi, I'm Joe, I'm an alcoholic," when the meeting chair asks who is present who's been sober under 30 days. Hey, you can't save your butt and save face at the same time. 'Fess up. You'll feel better. Your fellow AAers tend to not judge relapses because we've all been there. Your sponsor will help you identify the causes of your relapse and help you come up with a plan for staving the next one off. It's not the end of the world; learn from your mistakes. Progress, after all; not perfection.

Brush off your jeans and hop back in the saddle. Welcome back.

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