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Being a Chronic Relapser: The Husband's Story

I have 10 days back. And while I've been a member of AA for 24 years, I've been drunk for the last 12.

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By Jimmy Long

05/21/13

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It was 1981 when I made my first AA meeting. I wasn't anywhere near being ready to stop drinking and using drugs. I can only say it was like having a veil covering my head. I didn't understand what all these people were talking about. I just didn't get it. So I didn't get sober until eight years later. By then I had hit a number of bottoms and was in and out of AA and treatment programs. I was also homeless and jobless, living in a New York City park and sleeping under a pile of rags.

Then it happened. Something clicked. I was able to accept help. People in AA were kind to me. They bought me a burger when I needed one and sometimes put me up on their couches. On my last night using, I had $5 left in my pocket, and for some reason, instead of getting another couple of beers, I got a pint of ice cream. That was my last day drinking for 12 years. Maybe it was the grace of God, I don't know, but I was able to stay sober.

My life got better. I got a job, a place to live—the first time in my life I held an apartment lease. I went to lots of meetings and did a lot of service. Because of my experience living on the streets, I was able to reach out to a lot of guys in similar situations and help them get sober. I run into a lot of people now who say I helped them during the 12 years I didn't drink.

This started what has become a 12-year relapse. I have now been relapsing the same amount of time that I was sober.

So what happened? I never really did the step work. I did a lot of what old-timers call "two-stepping"—working the first and 12th steps without much in between. Don't get me wrong, I did some work and I knew the Big Book. But I still couldn't or wouldn't let go of some things. I was still playing God. I was still being dishonest, inconsiderate and selfish. I was filled with fear and shame.

So after getting into a relationship with a newcomer, I cheated on her and hurt her. She reacted badly as you can imagine. There was a lot of drama. I became serious with the new girlfriend and the old one wouldn't let go. I was trying to break up, something I should have done before starting a new relationship. But I felt guilty and would agree to meet with the ex and we would end up fighting. I got angry after one of these fights, in fact I was in a rage. And I drank.

This started what has become a 12-year relapse. I have now been relapsing the same amount of time that I was sober. I married the new girlfriend and she relapsed with me, and we drank together for five years until she got sober again. We are still together, but I haven't been able to put down the drink for any significant length of time. I stop for a few weeks or even months and then drink again.

The first day drinking went like this: After the fight, I got a case of the '"fuck-its" and bought a suitcase of beer—30 cans from the beer distributor on Christie Street. I sat at home, put on music and drank all that warm beer. I remember talking to my new girlfriend on the phone, telling her how great Lou Reed sounded. Needless to say, she was quite upset that I had relapsed. I got drunk, then sick, and passed out. When I came to, I had a bad hangover. I had spent about $20, but I was home and nothing really bad had happened.

Nothing bad happening was the very worst thing about that first drunk, because I said to myself, "That wasn't so bad." In my mind I had the green light to keep drinking. But I didn't for three weeks. I went down to Virginia to see my girlfriend and we went to lots of AA meetings together. Still, in the back of my mind, I thought maybe I could get away with drinking once in a while.

So one night, after a meeting, I was home reading the Big Book, and I came to the part where it says, "If you're not sure you're an alcoholic, try some controlled drinking. Try it more than once." I thought, "What a great suggestion!" and went and got a six-pack. Then I went home, put on a baseball game and drank just four beers. I went to sleep and woke up feeling fine.

Then I was off to the races. I have heard people say that when we drink after a period of sobriety, we pick up exactly where we left off. What happened to me was even more dangerous: I "got away" with drinking for a while before the devastating consequences came back.

My girlfriend moved back to New York to live with me. Soon after, she relapsed. Now I had a partner. I'd be lying if I said we didn't have any fun. The consequences didn't happen for her right away, either. We traveled, drank fancy drinks. I thought I had arrived. I got a better-paying job and we moved into a nicer apartment. We got married.

It's said that alcoholism is a progressive and fatal illness, that over any significant period of time, alcoholism gets worse, never better. And so it was that when things started to go downhill, a steady momentum built up: I got arrested, and she was in and out of mental hospitals, as the drugs and alcohol wreaked havoc on her bipolar disorder.

We both kept going to meetings throughout our relapsing together. Going in and out, not being able to stop or stay stopped. Seeing people come and get it while we kept drinking. Running into other people who I'd helped get sober. It reminded me of the old joke: “Be nice to your sponsees, because they may someday be your sponsor.” I can't tell you how much shame and frustration I felt.

Then the unthinkable happened: My wife got sober. To do this, she had to move out. She told me we weren't breaking up, but she just couldn't be around me drinking and stay sober. I knew she was right, but I still felt angry and abandoned. She would come every day to check to see if I was alive. I think she thought that I would get sober in the face of losing her. But all that happened was that I drank and drugged even more. She said to me, "You are choosing drinking with your bar friends over me."

The truth is, I had lost the power of choice. I wanted to stop, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't. I lost the job and the apartment. I was arrested again, and had more health problems. I was falling apart in every way. And I still couldn't stay sober, despite the fact that I was going to meetings almost daily.

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