Tag Archives: Relapse

A Quick Challenge

In your opinion, what’s the most important thing you can say to someone who is new to sobriety?


Demons Be Damned

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

This year, at about 11:00 PM on New Year’s Eve—with my eyelids growing heavier and heavier–I made the following post on Facebook:

To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. The last time I turned in before midnight alone was New Years Eve ’97. That night, the demons were dancing and screeching in my head and making me wish there were an easy way out for cowards. Tonight, I thank God for the fellowship and the many nights of comfort surrender has bestowed. Happy New Year to all.

The next morning I noticed the post had received dozens of Likes and more than a few laudatory Comments about recovery and living sober. Which was great! In fact, that post probably received more likes and comments than any I’ve ever posted. As I read the comments, however, I realized just how completely I had failed to acknowledge the principal source of my gratitude in that post.

It had been a day of emotional highs and lows. Though it was their mother’s day to have them, my kids had spent the day with me because their mom had to work. We made a big, unhealthy breakfast together, went sledding, played board games, read, and finally flopped on the couch to watch bowl games and munch on more crappy food. It was New Year’s Eve after all. Around 3 PM their mom texted to say she was on her way to pick them up. An initial sadness and the usual departure anxieties set in.

Before she arrived, however, a longtime friend in sobriety, X, showed up to say hello to the kids and wish us all a Happy New Year … or so I thought. The four of us reminisced about the previous New Year’s Eve, which we’d spent together. At midnight that year, my daughter, the friends she’d invited to sleep over, X, and a few other friends who’d held on until midnight decided that, at exactly midnight, rather than watch the ball drop on TV, we were going to bang pots and pans in the garage and the front yard to drive last year’s evil spirits off my property—much to my neighbor’s chagrin, I’m sure, but a proper way to begin the new year nonetheless. We wouldn’t be doing that again this year, and we acknowledged we were a little sad about it, but I assured the kids they’d have a really good time at their Moms’, just as they’d had at Dads’ last year. Shortly afterward, we said our Happy New Years, and they piled into their mom’s van, my daughter getting a kick out of telling me over and over, “See you next year, Dad. See you next year.”

As I watched them drive away, I told X I needed to hit the shower. It was nearly 4 PM, and I was due at a restaurant where my sponsor and his wife held their annual New Year’s Eve dinner in a little over an hour. The dinner was always a great time, had been for the 14 consecutive years I’d been going anyway, as was the party afterwards at my sponsor’s house. X said he understood, that he’d head out, but he needed to tell me something first. And as bluntly and matter-of-factly as I type the words here, he told me, “I drank.”

We’d had a blizzard in the Midwest the week before and not a day above freezing since. I stared past X into the painful brightness outside the picture window in my living room at what I like to call a classic midwestern ice bake. I felt equally frozen inside, much the way I’d felt the day—30 years earlier—my father had told me frankly and declaratively, “I have cancer. They give me three to six months to live.”  There are moments like that in life, moments that do not warrant a reaction. They’re freeze-frame moments, moments when nothing really means much at all, and what is simply is.

X had had his fair share of struggles over the past few years: with women, with jobs, with family and friends, even with prescription drugs, but in the dozen or so years we’d been trudging the road together, he’d never taken a drink. To me, as someone who’d spent seven years spinning in and out of sobriety before I’d finally surrendered, this was monumental, as close as one comes to a death sentence after that many years living sober.

X filled me in over the next 10 minutes or so. He’d finally cracked and drunk a fifth of vodka rather quickly on Saturday night, blacked out and spent most of Sunday sick, had gone to a meeting before coming to my house, and felt confident he’d stay sober the remainder of the day. He had plans for the night with sober friends who were coming in from out of town, he said. I asked him to hang around while I got ready for dinner. He said, sure, he’d hang out and watch the remainder of the bowl game the kids and I had been watching when he arrived.

What happened next took my by surprise. As I walked up the stairs, I thought about how I needed to tell X that this was really no surprise, that we’d talked about it and seen it coming for some time. There were things he was doing in his life that would’ve brought other people to their knees much sooner. I told myself I needed to go back down and be deadly honest with him. No holds barred. Tough love for his own good.

But that’s not what happened. Instead I got in the shower and suddenly felt like I’d been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. My joints ached, my throat tightened, and for a moment I genuinely feared I might pass out. All of the sudden, I realized not only X but a number of others I’d known and loved in recovery would not celebrate this New Year sober, that many of them were also out there signing their own death warrants and thinking nothing of it. I thought of the alcoholic suicides I’d witnessed, and the close friends I’d carried to their graves early in my own sobriety. And I heard the old-timers voices in my head rattling off the various warnings, “Wake up, people! This isn’t the flu we’re dealing with here. It’s a disease, and it’s a disease that kills.” Or worse, “Stick around long enough and you’ll see, some of us have to go out and die so the rest of us can stay sober.”  Finally I let myself cry for all of them right there in the shower … because I knew in a short while I was just as likely to be pissed at each and every one of them for passing on a life of freedom and awareness.

When I suited up and went back downstairs, for no apparent reason, I knew exactly what I needed to share with X. Rather than take his inventory, I asked him if he realized he might not be done. It had been my experience, years ago, that once I’d relapsed, once I’d realized how easy it was to put the blinders on, forget all the friends to whom I was accountable, and take the first drink, it became easy to do it over and over again … until I threw myself, with extreme humility, back into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Relapse, more than anything else in my experience, gave flesh and blood to the words “cunning, baffling, powerful.” I didn’t yell, I didn’t dramatize, I just asked him to keep that thought in his head—that it would be easier now to keep drinking than to stop if he didn’t humble himself, that once we relapse after a significant period of sobriety, “cunning, baffling, powerful” are no longer convenient words we impress upon newcomers, but rather the three heads of a beast whose mouths are dripping blood, and if we aren’t careful, one day the blood will surely be our own. I finally gave him a hug, told him to call or text throughout the night, and to be in touch the next day.

That night at dinner, I realized there were hundreds of years of sobriety in the private room where we were seated. Without a doubt, we were people who normally would not mix—except in the pursuit of sobriety. I sat beside one of the men I sponsor, and thought what a yeoman’s job he’d been doing of giving back. At a year-and-a-half sober, he was trudging through his first holiday season after a divorce. His daughter, who’d had a tonsillectomy earlier in the week, was at home resting, and once he finished dinner, he’d head back there to keep her company and take care of her. I was confident he’d stay sober. He was confident the New Year would be great. On the other side of me was a close friend who, though she’d relapsed at 3+ years of sobriety, had her butt in the chair that night even though she didn’t really want to be there. She knew that coming to the dinner and being one among many was insurance against any demons that might be lurking later that night. All around the room sat a host of friends whom I would not want to miss.

Back home that night, in the still silence of the remainder of 2012, I sat in my reading room and, once again, thought about all the faces that had once beamed but were now absent from my sponsor’s New Year’s Eve dinner party. I did the only thing I know how to do for the still suffering alcoholic who chooses not to seek help. I surrendered and I prayed. I prayed for X, knowing full well the demons were still close by and would likely be screeching when his head finally hit the pillow that night. And I prayed for those who would quiet the demons and still their dance the same way I had quieted them back on New Year’s Eve 1997, with one drink after another until the last drink turned into darkness and a long night of unconscious distress. Around 11 PM, I realized I was pretty damn tired, that there were no pots and pans to bang, and that I wasn’t going to miss anything by missing midnight. So I gave thanks for the only peace I’d ever known and realized the only way I’d ever found it was to try and help others find it as well, and then I wrote …

To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. …

Relapse: A Means to One End or Another

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

Whenever I have the honor of telling my story to a large group of people in recovery—after I’ve expressed my gratitude and announced my sobriety date—I usually open with something like this: “I took my first drink at eleven, I came to my first meeting at thirty-one, I’m fifty-two now and thirteen years sober. Do the math and you quickly discover, I’m an AA retread.”

For the sake of the uninitiated in the room, I’m usually quick to clarify that it isn’t necessary to relapse. In fact, I’m sponsored by a man who has been sober more than 30 years and never taken a drink since the day he walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous. Well, whoopee for him, I say. That hasn’t been my experience. I spent nearly eight years stalking sobriety before I finally surrendered to it. During those eight years, I put together as few as three days of sobriety and, surprisingly enough, as many as 3 years. The only good thing that happened during those eight years is that I kept coming back, again and again and again. Mainly because all of you planted the seed deeper and deeper each time I left and returned.

This year, where I live, we had an unseasonably warm March and with it a seeming rash of relapses.  I don’t think we had any more or any fewer relapses than usual and I certainly don’t think the weather had anything to do with it. (Real alcoholics don’t drink because the weather is good or bad; real alcoholics drink because the weather is.) Nonetheless, in a tightly knit recovery community like the one I live in, news of a relapse (too commonly minimized as a “slip”) and speculation about the causes travels fast and prompts community consternation. Where my experience comes in handy is when someone relatively new decides to drink or use again. Usually, within days of the news that they’ve “left the program,” someone will ask me, “What should we do?” This is not flattery. They don’t ask me that question because I’m so wise in the ways of recovery. They ask me because they know I’ve been there. The underlying question is, ” Hey, you got drunk a lot when you first came around. What could people have done that would’ve made a difference?”

The sad but true answer is “nothing.” I’m a real alcoholic. In the absence of a well-maintained spiritual defense, there’s little that can stand between me and the insanity of the first drink. When an alcoholic decides to drink (and the decision to drink is a conscious, if not always premeditated, choice), those left behind, especially those who are also relatively new in sobriety themselves, often forget or dismiss the most primal fact of recovery: That we are powerless over alcohol…our own addiction to it as well as that of others.

By the same token, I do remember the lasting effect of the calls and visits I would receive in the early stages of my lapses. Phone calls or visits in those first few days from those who truly cared sometimes brought me right back to a meeting—and if not immediately, then usually within days. It’s been my experience, however, that if the alcoholic doesn’t come back within the first week, they probably won’t come back for a good long while.

All we can do at the outset of a relapse is extend our hand and love up our brothers and sisters in recovery. If the still suffering alcoholic refuses the hand, all we can do is hope we’ve planted a seed that will grow into a burning desire to live a sober life and move on to the millions of other still suffering alcoholics who do meet the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous: a desire to stop drinking.

In her May 19, 2012 blog post titled “Baby Chicks—Carry the Message, Not the Alcoholic,” Ashley Dane (Follow Your Bliss) opens with this stupendously/marvelously apt analogy:

I was thinking the other day of something I heard about years ago. It was a story about how important it is for a baby chick to fight its way out of the egg. It is quite a struggle, and the impulse for any kind-hearted person would be to help the little guy out. So someone did that, and the baby chick died shortly thereafter. Apparently, the struggle to emerge activated necessary muscles that the chick would need for survival outside the egg. It needed to strengthen its neck muscles with the pecking and squirming, its little legs with the kicking and scratching. It is the same for us. We develop muscles and skills in our emerging process in recovery that are critical to our survival in sobriety. That is why they say to carry the message, and not the alcoholic – if we carry the alcoholic, they may not gain the musculature they need for the future. It isn’t always easy to know the dividing line between being of service, and being an enabler for other negative behaviors.

Ashley Dane goes on to talk about the errant desire to chase after the unwilling. It’s a post well worth reading.

So, when someone I know or, even more painfully, when one of the men I sponsor and genuinely care about leaves the program to drink, I call (once, twice, maybe three times) to remind them my door is open. And then I remind myself (again and again) that I’m as powerless over their drinking, as I am over my own in the absence of a solution. I remind myself that the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking. I remind myself that I can’t instill the desperation that awakens that desire, only alcohol can. I remind myself that far more people need help than want it, yet we can only reach the wannabes. I remind myself, finally, that they will either drink their way back when the pain is great enough, or drink themselves to the gates of insanity and death. Ultimately, relapse is a means to one end or the other, but it is always a means to an end.