Can Relapse Be A Good Thing?
I’ve heard people at AA meetings say they were grateful for their relapses because they had to go through them to learn how to stay sober. I’m not sure I’d go that far because it neglects the wreckage that results from relapse, particularly to any trust that’s been built with long-suffering loved ones.
But from a strictly egotistical point of view, my relapses were beneficial to my sobriety because I survived them, learned some essential lessons, and took action to apply them. These were emotional lessons, not rational ones. Rationally, I knew drinking was suicide. But in the face of embarrassment or white-hot emotion, rationality dissolved. I learned, among other things, that there were no vacations from sobriety and that un-dealt-with anger and resentment were toxic, powerful relapse triggers that could induce amnesia and keep me from accessing my sobriety training. My relapses forced me to find a way to deal with those emotional triggers without reverting to my self-destructive medicine again. (For more on these lessons, click on Post-Relapse Treatment and Antabuse.)
But that’s only true looking back, having dissected the causes of my slips. At the time, my relapses were thoroughly demoralizing experiences plunging me deep into depression which I had a mighty struggle to overcome.
One type of relapse I found completely beneficial, though: someone else’s, provided they survived. Other people’s relapses brought me face to face with where I’d be if I drank. Seeing someone you care for in relapse is a tremendous learning opportunity, a look into your own past and possible future insanity. I saw this right away when one of my closest rehab buddies relapsed in mid-treatment just a couple days after moving from in-patient to out-patient and showed up at the hospital drunk. Seeing him plastered was an indelible reminder: “Don’t be crazy!”
As a twin, I’ve been used to seeing myself in another person since before I can remember. So to me, seeing others relapse was at once familiar and foreign, as if I were having someone else’s deja vu. It was easy to see myself doing the same insane things I saw my relapsing friends do. So I couldn’t help but learn from others’ relapses.
Tragically, not everyone made it. Two of my Aftercare mates, both heroin addicts named Mike, overdosed within weeks of each other. One day each appeared to be doing well, but then without warning they were dead.
They were just the first, there were too many more. Each death served as a reminder to work my program and keep close to my sober support network. In that sense, other people’s relapse deaths were miserably good for me, though I refused to call the lessons I learned “final gifts” like some in AA did. No one’s death, I felt, was in any way a gift.