Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from other addicts who’ve relapsed, there are two kinds of slips back into the insanity of picking up a first drink or drug.
One is completely unconscious: it doesn’t feel like anything at all. It’s automatic, instinctive. The second is completely conscious: it’s a response to too much feeling, whether it’s feeling too terrible, too elated or even too bored. Despite the differences between the types, they both share two important traits: craving, a full-body cry for relief; and amnesia, the complete inability to access rational sobriety training.
My first relapse was an example of an instinctive reaction. It happened at the first cocktail party I attended after rehab.
I felt ready, having planned for the event thoroughly, walking through it with my sponsor, my Aftercare and Alumni groups and sharing about it at meetings. I had strategies ready and was as prepared as could be for the short time we planned to attend. My primary concern wasn’t even about drinking. It was facing the inevitable questions about whyI wasn’t drinking when I’d never before been without a double, the dread of being outed. The consensus at the hospital was that few, if any, would notice, particularly if I had a non-alcoholic drink in hand. Those who did were unlikely to say anything, but just in case, I had a pre-planned two-word explanation. “I’m driving.”
On entering, I got a seltzer with a twist of lime. Unfortunately, this provided no cover, as it was a wine-only event and anything other than a wine glass screamed the drink was non-alcoholic. I don’t know how many noticed, but only one person asked. The husband of one of my wife’s business associates, he was at the bar when I ordered. I’d always had too much when I’d been with the couple before, and he asked, “What’s with the seltzer?”
Despite all my planning, the question jarred me. Momentarily, I was at a loss for words. Then I stammered out, “I’m, I’m, I’m driving.”
“Oh,” he said. That was it. No one turned, pointed, and shouted a top-of-the-lungs condemnation, “Alcoholic!” a la the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My crisis came and went in a second and the world hadn’t come crashing down. Still, I suspected, embarrassed, that my questioner left unsatisfied, meaning he knew I was an alchie. Right then I was struck by a major craving, fast and muscular, accompanied by my mind drawing a blank, the memory of my sobriety training wiped clean.
Completely premeditated, as it required scheming, it didn’t feel that way in the least. I waited strategically across from the bar for an opportunity. After a few moments, no one was waiting to be served and no one I knew was in the almost empty room. I quickly walked up to the bar and nervously asked for a glass of white wine. As the bartender handed me the glass, I wrapped it with a napkin to hide the color of its contents. I turned, walked away from the bar, and took a large a swig. By the time I made it three steps, I’d drained the glass and put it down on the nearest table. I looked around guiltily to see if anyone was watching. No one was there.
I felt the wine wending its way down my throat and into my stomach, like I was the model for the coating action of Pepto Bismol. It was warm and welcome and delicious, so familiar, so longed for — the “aaaaaahhhhhhhhh” of relaxation, as if uncoiling from a full-body clench I wasn’t aware of. I got my first indication relief was on the way and could feel the spreading sense of well-being, as Jonathan Winters used to say, “all oooooooooooover my booooooooooody …” It was only one drink. And it felt great! Greater than great! Not like dying at all. Immediately I was overcome with the DNA-deep knowledge more is better and soonest is best. I snuck a second glass like the first.
Of course, drinking was against everything I’d learned at rehab, so I felt horribly guilty even as I savored the intoxication. I recalled hearing a speaker at an AA meeting say, “A head full of AA and a belly full of booze is a terrible place to be,” and now I understood why.
I knew, intellectually, I was going off a cliff. But that didn’t stop me because the internal cry for more was far too compelling. I continued drinking for a week, progressing from a mere two glasses of wine on a Friday night to a pint of hard liquor Saturday and back to my pre-rehab normal of a quart by Sunday. I pretended to go to AA meetings each day so as not to arouse my wife’s suspicion but what I really did was sit in my car, drink, and do my best to cover up the smell of the cheap vodka before heading back to my family.
It was fun for the first couple days before I plunged headlong back into the misery and depression that characterized my pre-rehab days. Finally, on Thursday, I had a mini-bottom prompted by my return to utter demoralization and my realization, looking at my son, that I’d broken my sacred promise to myself that he’d never again see me drunk. I confessed to my wife, which landed me back in the hospital and, at my doctor’s insistence, my taking Antabuse, a drug which makes you violently ill if you drink.
My second relapse, 23 months later and two months after stopping the Antabuse, was an example of the second type of slip. This time, it was clearly about my inability to deal with too much feeling, in this case, anger. I was increasingly infuriated by a series of emotionally fraught circumstances until the un-dealt-with resentment reached critical mass, white-hot and sanity-defying. I had a “fuck it” moment, a conscious cry for relief. I also had access to alcohol when no one was watching and I drank it. And continued to drink for five days before coming to my senses, once again looking at my son playing happily while I saw myself going down the drain. I confessed again and waited until it was safe to pop an Antabuse pill and avoided returning to rehab.
Was I setting myself up for relapse when I stopped taking the Antabuse? I never felt that way consciously. To the contrary, I was quite sure, having taken the pills for so long, I’d learned how not to drink in response to intolerable feelings. I never thought Antabuse was forever, I’d stop eventually. When I did, it was past time as far as I was concerned.
But I made a catastrophic error. I didn’t discuss it with anyone. Did I think I was getting away with something? Was it the only way to arrange a relapse? Beats me. But it’s not by accident that AA says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” And I learned, once again, that my perception of the security of my sobriety was disastrously wrong.
So my first relapse was an example of being unconsciously “struck drunk,” while my second was entirely willful. Addicts in recovery have to have a defense to both.