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Chronic Relapse.

4 June 2012

Relapse is a word filled with sustaining terror. Terror, because the life I live when I drink is a terrible life. Small. Isolated. I drank alone. Or I went to places where I don’t know anyone and drink among strangers, so that there is no risk of being pegged for what I am, recognized as who I am. And then drove home drunk. Tiny life. Sad and isolated and miserable. Sustaining, because my life today is wonderful, and fear keeps me honed in on the things I need to do to keep my life the way it is. Open. Social. Engaged with the world. With my career.

The speaker at my Sunday morning mixed meeting was a chronic relapser. I’ve known many people who are. Who keep trying to go back and find a way to drink normally. Or who simply can’t bring themselves to contemplate a life without anaesthesia. That was frightening for me. I liked to be able to not feel the things that hurt and lingered and pushed their noses into my consciousness like wolf-hounds in the dark of night.

She spoke about giving up drinking over and over again. And about how she would be sober for months, and then have one drink, and try to convince herself that that didn’t count. Since she didn’t get drunk, she shouldn’t have to change her sobriety date. She claimed to be sober, currently, for about five months. I believe her, because I believe people until they give me a personal reason not to. And because it does me no good to be doubtful. I am happier when I am trusting.

But I am deadly afraid of relapse. And I have not relapsed yet. I never tried to quit drinking until I quit drinking. Many times I tried to abstain for a short while, or to control my drinking. But I never tried to quit. Because I didn’t want to. Because I knew I couldn’t. Because I needed it. Going without alcohol even for a day put worms in my skin and started my mind on a whirlwind of craving and obsession. Relapse mean willfully inviting all that back into my life.

Relapse means abandoning my usefulness to my fellows, both in recovery and in my family and in my professional life. It means abandoning my ability to contribute to science and engineering. It means looking carefully at this life I’ve built over the past four years and deliberately choosing to let it all fall apart. Because the thing about relapse is: we’re sober when we take the first drink. We have to choose, with all of our faculties present, to lay down our sobriety, our serenity, and actively choose misery and darkness again.

Why on earth would anyone do this? How could anyone just throw away all the progress and dignity and courage and hope that we get by working a program of sobriety? I don’t know. I know that I haven’t been tempted to. But I see it happen, all around me, over and over again. People become complacent. They forget how miserable it was. They stop going to meetings. I can see how that happens. When I feel good about where I am, I often feel like I don’t need to go to a meeting. But I’m wary about that. I know that the first thing I need to do when I start feeling that way is to get to a meeting.

It’s so insidious. We in AA talk about alcoholism as “our disease”, as if it is this separate thing, a malicious homunculus, ever-present and plotting against us. It’s an easy construct. It’s helpful sometimes to say: “My disease wants me to drink.” But the truth is, it’s just another part of me. Part of my intrinsic character. I am an alcoholic. My disease is a part of me. A defect in my brain, my genetics? Perhaps. There are people who know better than I do about that.

We relapse, in the end, simply because we’re alcoholics. We drink. It’s what we do. I don’t know any better way to put it than that. If I do not scrupulously maintain my condition as a sober person, I will very likely drink again. And so I am diligent. Because I am not immune. I am in good standing, no doubt. I work hard at my sobriety. I haven’t wanted a drink in a very long time. I haven’t craved one in longer. I do still miss alcohol from time to time. But I have found such a great way to live without it. A way that I could not have found if I were a normal person.

And so it’s funny. Sometimes I pity the non-alcoholic. Because they don’t have access to this wonderful program of living that I do. But then I stop. Settle back. I remember that this isn’t an evangelical program. People live their own lives and it’s not my business. Just as most normal people have some difficulty understanding what I’ve been through, where I am, how I’ve gotten to where I am, I similarly do not understand their motivations, impulses, drives and ambitions. People make choices. Why we do is often a mystery.

The choices that matter to me are my own. I choose to maintain my condition. I choose not to drink today. I try not to worry about tomorrow. Because I do today the things I need to do to take care of tomorrow. And not more. Because I can’t live tomorrow. I only have now. And now is pretty good.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Harlow permalink
    4 June 2012 11:54

    I suspect that that first drink is not a concious decision as much as a habit. Stress can lead me unthinkingly to grab a snack. The solution is to keep them out of the house.

  2. 4 June 2012 12:11

    Good post. I am interested in the way that you say that the disease is part of you. One of the things we looked at a bit in my medical anthro class is the fact that different people (generally aligned with culturally-learned behaviors/values) THINK about diseases and illnesses in different ways. The way you think of your relationship to a disease can have a big impact on how you feel about it, yourself, and your treatment. So I think the fact that you think of the disease as part of you, and not as a thing outside yourself that is imposing itself on you, or needs to be attacked, may be part of why you engage with treatment as you do.

    For example: not everyone talks about a ‘battle with cancer’, that’s predominately an Anglo-American thing. It is viewed as an outside entity that needs to be controlled and destroyed. Latina immigrants don’t view it this way – it is a part of themselves that has grown differently. So they want to talk about healing and balance, not battle. The battle metaphor doesn’t work for them, so many of them avoid the support groups offered by hospitals because a) some of them don’t think they need to discuss it, as they don’t feel imposed upon and b) the conversations that are being led are not focused on what they deem to be relevant about what is going on in their lives.

    Hope that made sense. Lunchtime ramblings.

  3. 5 June 2012 06:01

    I think if you keep this attitude you will be in little danger of drinking again. The slide into a “relapse” is usually characterized by an arrogant sense of imperviousness to all that others must maintain constant vigilance over.

  4. 5 June 2012 06:57

    You sound solid to me. Remembering what it was like has got to be a deterrent. My wife tells me that everything is so much better without drinking–food tastes better, her body feels better, a feeling of peace and joy is present.

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