A relapse fable and an encouraging note for all relapsers
Imagine that it is a cold and icy winter day. School is out and most cars are off the road. This is your third day in the house, and you are getting a little cabin feverish.
You received a note yesterday stating that you have a package at the post office that must be picked up ASAP. It is likely from your Granny and may be filled with her famous and decadent peanut butter fudge.
The sidewalks are shoveled, and the post office is only two blocks away. So you put on your gear and head out.
You know it is super icy, so you are very careful to watch your step. But, about halfway there, you hit a piece of black ice a little too fast and up fly your feet as you go crashing to the ground.
After getting up and dusting yourself off, you are happy to find that nothing is broken and you are still in fine shape. There may be some bruising, but nothing serious.
So, what do you do now?
Do you turn back? The freeze isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
You are already halfway to the post office, and if you turn back, you will lose the progress you made. Later, you would have to start from the beginning to retrieve the package.
Why would you turn back when you are already halfway there?
You wouldn’t, as long as you were in well enough shape to complete the mission. What would be the sense in going back to where you started and starting the journey all over again?
Relapse is just like that. You simply slipped and fell. But that didn’t take you back to square one. You can get up and keep going. You did not lose the progress you already made.
Relapse is a part of recovery, but it doesn’t have to be 🤔
There are those who never face relapse and that is great. But that is not the story of most people.
Why do most people relapse while others don’t?
There are a plethora of explanations to this mysterious question, many of which are plausible. But none are definitive.
It could be a lack of honesty and personal inventory or a lack of desperation that causes some people to relapse. Maybe it is the mental blank spot that the Big Book describes. Sometimes, people use relationships as a substance substitute, which inevitably leads to relapse. Some people have severe and unaddressed mental health issues or trauma. Ad infinitum.
The people who don’t relapse are the anomaly. They could have thrown themselves into the steps and service work, and that may very well have carried them through the rough times. Maybe they were never serious alcoholics or addicts in the first place but just had a few substance challenges. Let’s face it. The 12-step fellowship is a pot of gold for anyone looking to make friends. Some who never relapse also never recover — which is arguably much worse.
Those familiar with recovery call these people dry drunks or clean and crazy. They may have been white-knuckling it for 20 years or using their ego and meetings as their new drug of choice. Clean time does not equal recovery, although it is admirable.
Possibilities are so endless, and there are so many variables, that it is impossible to define the cause of relapse.
If you relapsed, you can surely find out what contributed to yours — through your own personal inventory. I would suggest it. But it is only that — personal inventory. It is circumstantial.
The truth is, you could do everything right and still relapse. And you can find all the mistakes that you believe led to your relapse, but you will never know for certain if changing these things would have prevented it.
I addressed the whys because they are so popular, but that is not why we are here. We are not here for me to tell you why some people relapse and some don’t. No one can definitively answer that question, and if they tell you they can, I suggest taking caution.
I am here to tell you that if you relapsed, that relapse doesn’t define you.
Your relapse doesn’t make you a failure to the 12-step fellowship or the recovery path of your choice. It doesn’t mean you did it wrong or you are broken or constitutionally incapable of being honest with yourself.
Relapsing doesn’t negate your progress or erase everything you have learned. It doesn’t mean you have to start over and, despite the bad messaging of some 12-step members, it doesn’t make you a newcomer again.
In fact, if you asked the founders of the 12-step program, relapse doesn’t even mean you should stop sponsoring. After all, Bob relapsed after 6ish (exact timing is debated) months and Bill didn’t get a new sponsor. Bob was Bill’s sponsor with zero days sober — twice.
If we had to choose one definitive answer as to why people relapse, it would be very simple. And sometimes, especially when coming out of a relapse, you must keep it simple.
If you used again after putting together some clean time, there isn’t always some profound answer. You used because you are an addict, and that is what addicts do. And if you drank again, the same logic applies. You drank because you are an alcoholic, and that is what alcoholics do.
Remember, if you didn’t pick up again, that would be abnormal and anomalous. For the addict, using is normal. For the alcoholic, drinking is normal. So relapse is no big surprise. It is the day, hour and minute of clean time that is the big deal — not the relapse.
If you have relapsed, and even if you are a chronic relapser — there is nothing wrong with you. You are not less than your fellow recoveries, and you are not hopeless. Yes, every relapse lowers your chances of achieving long-term recovery — but we have seen people recover after 100 relapses. And the stark reality is most people relapse.
There is a culture of recovery shame in today’s age of the recovery fellowship. It leads, inevitably, to lower recovery rates. Sometimes, this shameful culture causes those who relapse to feel such shame that they never return to the rooms or pick up an even more lethal drug than they relapsed on. Some die.
I write many essays on this culture of shame because that is the best I can do — to bring change. It is my hope that we can change the current recovery modality and reform the hierarchical and dehumanizing paradigm that has overtaken much of the fellowship. But that is not why I am writing today.
Today, I write to you, relapser. I write for you and only you.
I write to tell you that all those shameful mantras you may be hearing in your mind’s ear are meaningless regurgitations. Those mantras do not define you.
Yes, it works if you work it — usually. But just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean you didn’t work it. Only you know if you worked it. And if you didn’t work it, avoid morbid reflection and work it. The truth is, some people work it, and it never works — while others never work it, and it does. There are also many pathways to recovery, and the same ones do not work for everyone.
You do not have to negate your progress or act like a miserable failure because you relapsed. Nor are you required to allow fellow members to treat you as such. Even the Big Book tells us not to grovel.
…we stand on our feet; we don’t crawl before anyone. — Alcoholics Anonymous, pg. 83
I wish there was some way for me to say this a thousand times, in bold neon letters. But instead, I will break my own guideline and use all caps.
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU
You are enough. You are doing just fine. If you are reading this, you are doing better than fine. You are doing great. Smashingly. Unbelievably. You are like knocking it out of the park right now.
The fact that you, an addict or alcoholic, are asking yourself why you picked up and how to avoid doing it again is a fucking miracle. Add that you are willing to put in the work by reading and reflecting — well, you are well on your way to being fully and completely victorious. Think about that for just a second.
With all the love in my heart and great certainty, I assure you that there is a solution. And no matter what your story is, you can find it. No matter how far down the scale you have gone, you deserve it. The world deserves it too — for you to recover.
If you fall down, brush it off. We all fall in some way. No one is better than you, and you are no worse than anyone. You deserve life just as much as every other person seeking recovery, and it is readily available to you. You are already halfway there. Keep going.
Written by Holly Kellums
Inspired by Nimkeek
Originally published on Medium.com