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From Long-Term Recovery to Long-Term Relapse

After 17 years of being sober in AA, I went out for five years. Now I'm sober once again. This time, I have a better grasp of what that means.

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It's lonely at the bottom. Photo txking / Shutterstock.com

By Maddy Demberg

04/04/13

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After 17 years of sobriety, I drank on the night of my wedding. In a gorgeous Monique Lhuillier wedding dress, in a hotel on the Lower East Side, I took a sip from a glass of expensive champagne. Nothing happened. I wasn’t transformed.

One month later, in Paris, on my honeymoon, in a restaurant along the Champs-Élysées, I ordered my first legal glass of alcohol. I got sober when I was 20, so I had never yet ordered a legal drink. I ordered the most expensive champagne on the menu. When it arrived, I drank it. Slowly. Again, nothing happened.

When I returned home, it occurred to me that it might be nice to start having cocktail parties. I had never had a cocktail before, had never been to a cocktail party. It seemed like fun. I created invitations, made a table full of cupcakes, and bought boxes of French macaroons. When the guests arrived, I was mixing drinks in the kitchen. It was my job, I told myself, to mix the drinks. So, of course, I remained in the kitchen mixing drinks the entire night.

At around this time I’d begun training for a marathon. Training for marathons and half marathons is great for alcoholics. It provided me with a plausible deterrent to drinking. For example, I had to get up Sunday mornings by seven for a training run of 12 or more miles. This helped force me to not stay up late; helped me to not drink too much. And I was able to tell myself I wasn’t really an alcoholic. Look, I’d say, I’m training for a marathon!

I thought I had quit drinking, that my sobriety was something I had accomplished. And I proceeded to spend the next decade accomplishing more and more things. . . My life was run entirely on self-will.

After some time, the cocktail parties stopped working. If I wanted to drink, I thought, why spend so much money and have so many people around? By now, all my friends drank (for the first 12 years of my not drinking, I didn’t have one friend who drank). I started meeting one of my new friends at a seedy bar on the Lower East Side. We’d meet during Happy Hour because drinks were cheaper and, if we started drinking earlier, I could be in bed sooner, which meant 1) I wasn’t really an alcoholic and 2) I wouldn’t feel as sick the next morning.

By now I’d decided I would only drink beer. No mixed drinks, no shots—just beer. Beer was safer than other drinks. I knew what would happen if I drank beer—I would slowly get drunk. If I had a shot or a mixed drink, I never knew what would happen. So on those nights at the bar, I’d drink four beers on tap, slowly.

But, as you can imagine, after some time, I started thinking, why drink at a bar when I could drink more—and without having to talk to anyone—at home? So I started drinking beers at home, as soon as I got home. Soon, I was drinking every night. I had to. If I didn’t, I couldn’t work. I was only able to work because I would tell myself, while working, that I could drink as soon as I got home. I needed the latch door that alcohol gave me.

For the last five years of my 17 of sobriety, I had no longer had a sponsor. I was barely going to meetings, and, though I had worked the steps several times years before, the steps were not, as they are meant to be, a part of my daily life. I had done them; now I was on to my life.

When I quit drinking, back when I was 20, I was homeless, I was a black-out drinker. I put myself into rehab and a halfway house. I got a sponsor, I learned to make my bed, brush my teeth, and I worked the steps. But I never understood, not in any of the years of my sobriety, that AA and the 12 Steps were not just for my drinking. That, in fact, it wasn’t even really that alcohol was the problem—it was my thinking that was all wrong. And through working the steps, and living in Steps 10, 11 and 12, on a daily basis, practicing the steps in all areas of my life, I could change—I could have, as the Big Book promises, a psychic change.

But, like I said, I never got this. And as a result, I didn’t change. The only thing that changed when I came into AA was that I stopped drinking. But I never turned my entire life and will over to a Higher Power. I thought I had quit drinking, that my sobriety was something I had accomplished. And I proceeded to spend the next decade accomplishing more and more things: I put myself through college, I went to graduate school, I became a writer, I ran marathons. My life was run entirely on self-will.

At 10 years sober, I ended up in a psych ward for an eating disorder. Also in sobriety, I slept with strangers I met on the street. I went into debt. I had a sprinkling of fair-weather friends. In other words, in sobriety, I did everything but drink. So on the night of my wedding, filled with anxiety and fear and years of resentments piled up, I had no choice but to take a drink from the glass of champagne sitting in front of me.

I was out for five years and for the first two of those years I no longer believed I was an alcoholic. I told myself I came into AA when I was young, that everyone drinks and does drugs when they’re young. I told this to myself just as long as I could, until one day I realized I didn’t want to drink and that I was not able not to. This went on for another three years. I tried becoming a hard core yogi, practicing ashtanga yoga at eight every morning. I went on the raw diet. I juiced, I went vegan, I went to church. But no matter what I did, I could not not drink. Finally, in September of 2011, I gave up; my life was a disaster. I came back to AA.

Today I have 18 months of sobriety. I worked the steps in my first year and am currently working them again with another sponsor. I have sponsees, I do service at meetings and, more than anything, I am trying to the best of my ability to live the steps in all areas of my life: my work, my writing, my marriage, my family and my friendships.

And I have no doubt I am an alcoholic.

I know how lucky I am to have come back. A man at my AA home group picked up after 90 days of sobriety and now he can’t get sober again. Every time he comes back, he drops deeper and deeper into the abyss. Detox, bar fights, psych wards.

Some people in the rooms tell me that the 17 years I had count. I disagree. If I were to believe that, I would also believe I know the answer, when, quite clearly, I didn’t and still don’t. As long as I can remember that I don’t know anything, that the thing that will save me is admitting that I don’t know, that I am powerless over my entire life and my thinking, then—and only then—do I have a chance of staying sober, one day at a time. 

Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a poet in New York.

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