Coming Back From Relapse

Relapse is a return to addict insanity, yet it happens with alarming frequency. It’s shocking how quickly one can go from a first drink or drug to the utter demoralization of the bottom that made you surrender in the first place. In my case, it was just a matter of days between having my first drink and returning to more than a quart a day and wanting to die.

One thing I heard in rehab was that “a belly full of booze and a head full of AA is a terrible place to be.” I had to relapse to learn how true that is. Once you’ve admitted your inability to control your drinking it’s much more difficult to deny it.

Still, coming back from a relapse is tremendously daunting. With relapse, the intense fear of withdrawal returns. Many relapsers don’t believe they “have another detox in them.” They replay and exaggerate the misery of their previous detoxes and become convinced they can’t go through it again. They interpret their relapses as the ultimate evidence of their weakness and convince themselves that they aren’t strong enough to bear the pain of withdrawal.

Furthermore, the guilt and shame one feels at having failed despite all you’ve learned and in spite of your best intentions is overwhelming. The guilt and shame is also accompanied by fear: fear of what others in the program will think of you. That they’ll think you’re a loser. That everything you shared at meetings was just so much egotistical bullshit. That your sincere promises to work a good program will be unmasked as a con job. That no one will ever trust what you say again. That no one will want to have anything to do with you.

There’s also the huge fear of having to raise your hand as a newcomer again. Once you’ve gotten past that status you don’t ever want to return to it. One irrational thought I’ve heard many relapsers express — one which I shared when I had to contemplate raising my hand again — was that they’d stay away from the program and get sober for 30 days on their own, despite all evidence and experience that they couldn’t, precisely so they wouldn’t have to raising their hands for another 30 days.

Those fears are real, but they aren’t true. In actual fact, there is no place more understanding and forgiving of a relapse than AA meetings. When an AA member tells you “I’m glad you’re back,” which I heard over and over after each of my relapses, they truly mean it. Many relapse, so they know how easy it is to fall back into the clutches of “the Disease.” Most also have had close friends who’ve died as a result of relapse and are genuinely happy to see that death hasn’t claimed yet another victim.

But in the midst of the shame and depression of relapse, it’s hard to believe that you can withstand another detox or that you’ll be welcomed back. You have to overcome these incorrect assumptions and realize that continuing to drink is far worse than withdrawal and the embarrassment of returning as a newcomer. That’s not an easy thing to do. Many don’t make it back.

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