AA’s Revolving Door
I’ve relapsed more times than I can count. While it hasn’t been easy, it's at least taught me that what other people think really is none of my business.
I wouldn’t call myself the “relapse queen” but I definitely qualify as a princess. I’ve been new again and again and again. Initially I had seven years without the program—much to the astonishment of some of the Big Book thumpers I’ve met. I’ve had three-and-a-half years. I’ve had a year-and-a-half. I’ve had nine months. I’ve had 30 days. I’ve had 17 days. I’ve had 11 days.
No relapse has been the same. Some of the times, I was going to meetings regularly—in fact I’ve been to a meeting the very day I’ve relapsed. Other times, I had drifted away from the program and my stinking thinking had returned. Nothing enrages me more than when somebody says they don’t know why they are sober and that it’s “only by the grace of God.” I’ve had people say to me, “I’m just blessed—one of the chosen few.” So let me get this straight. God is keeping you sober but not me? Why are you so fucking special? The fact is, just like there are many different types of alcoholics, there are many different types of alcoholism and some have it much more severely than others. What works for one person does little or nothing for another. And let’s not forget the key element of timing. You have to be ready, in the deepest recesses of your heart: you have to want to stop drinking and using.
As I would relapse again and again, my sponsees celebrated years of sobriety, got engaged, had babies. They would remind me of the things that I had told them when they were new.
When I had the seven years of what AA people might call “dry” sobriety, I was hanging out at the Standard Hotel downtown. I was making out with a Cuban surfer who’d just taken a massive hit off a pot pipe when I was unwittingly shot gunned a mouthful of the smoke. I was suddenly high for the first time in years. And you know what? It felt amazing. I can still remember the roar of the monster of addiction as it woke up from its deep slumber. With no program to rely on, I decided smoking pot would be fine, as I’d always hated it and coke and meth had been my drugs of choice. Of course, I was soon smoking pot every day and drinking not long after that. In a short time, I was doing coke. It took me a brief eight months before I landed in rehab for the second time.
After that failed experiment, I managed to put together three-and-a-half years of sobriety. I was very much in the program. I was the secretary at meetings. I was a requested speaker. I had sponsees. But none of that kept me from wanting to kill myself and so, one fourth of July, I took a handful of barbiturates and ended up in the ER. Hours later, I was in the psych ward—where I was kept for a gruelling four days. My sponsees scattered, finding other, more reliable sponsors. My friends came to visit, bringing me gourmet snacks and crying. Some people thought it had been a psychiatric incident and that I didn’t need to start my time over. But my sponsor at the time asked me a very pertinent question: “Did you take your medication as prescribed?”
“No,” I answered. “I took all of it.”
“Then start your time over,” she said without pausing.
So I did. If you’re wondering what a greedy handful of barbiturates feels like—well, it feels like being shitfaced. The ER, however, is not the ideal place to enjoy a buzz: despite my protestations, I choked down a large cup of charcoal and spent the next 24 hours throwing up.
After that, I put together a tidy year-and-a-half of sobriety but I had stopped going to meetings again. The gossip of the rooms had driven me out this time. Or maybe that was just my excuse. I didn’t feel safe sharing and if I couldn’t share, I didn’t want to go. It was the perfect set-up for relapse. I developed an agonizing shoulder injury and was prescribed Oxycodone. Soon enough, I was hoarding them—chewing and snorting them whenever I got upset. Once I had broken my sobriety, I thought nothing of drinking here and there. Things began to snowball: I drank in the mornings, I drove drunk, my marriage crumbled, friends abandoned me.
I felt a hopelessness and doom I’d never experienced before. The relapse was in full force and there was no stopping it. It was a fucking freight train barreling full speed ahead and I was laying on the tracks. I can remember watching myself, as if I were outside my body, walking down to the liquor store, hippie moccasins scuffing along, leading me to the Promised Land of and booze and cigarettes. At no time did I feel like I could turn back. It felt like the right—the only—thing to do. My heart raced as I walked down to the store. I felt that eager excitement you get right before you score—hands shaking, mouth watering, heart pounding. I couldn’t get back to my friend’s apartment fast enough and get the poison—the elixir—in me.
As I cracked open a 40-ounce of Mickey’s malt liquor (I like to go down ghetto style) and began to chug greedily, I felt that fleeting sense of numbness and relief. Ahhh. My soul sighed. All too soon, though, it was followed by feelings of desperation, entrapment and remorse. And even though I had been down this road many a time before, it didn’t dissuade me from trying it one last time. That classic insanity. I put on some sad and angry self-destructive music. And the words and music made me feel validated—vindicated even±in my pursuit of total self-destruction. I put Nine Inch Nails' “Where is Everbody” on repeat and drank and thought and drank and thought some more, basking in my isolation and self-pity. As the booze rose to my demented brain, I began the all too familiar round of phone calls. People were angry, perplexed, saddened, impotent. I walked into the kitchen and picked up a large chopping knife and plopped back down onto the black sheets of the bed. My cat meowed in terror. I tried to console him. I took another long swig of the Mickey’s and began to cut: perfect symmetrical straight lines across my wrists. Blood began to ooze. I’ll show them, I thought. I’ll prove to them how much pain I’m in and how unbearable is it to be me. In my stupidity and drunkenness, I began to text photos of my slashed wrists to friends, lovers, husbands. I can’t make it on this planet, don’t any of you fucking get it?
Not 20 minutes later, I heard sirens in the distance and I knew they were coming for me. Deja vu all over agin. And then there was that ominous knock. I opened the door to four cops. I had put on a long-sleeved sweatshirt to cover my fresh wounds and attempted to compose myself and keep from slurring. I’ll talk myself out of this, I told myself. I might be lacking in many life skills but I certainly have the gift of the gab. But within minutes they'd hand cuffed me “for my own protection” and in the process, they saw the gashes on my wrists. The gig was up. Within minutes, I was taken to the hospital against my will. 5150’d. Again. This would be the fourth time. Four days later, I was in treatment. Again. This would be the fifth time.
As I have relapsed again and again, my spondees have celebrated years of sobriety, gotten engaged, had babies. They now remind me of the things that I had told them when they were new—that if they stayed clean, anything was possible. It's humbling to be a newcomer and to have my life in shambles—to go to meetings where I’d once been the secretary and introduce myself as a newcomer. People chant, “Welcome.” Old acquaintances look shocked. Some ask what had happened. Others would just say, “Welcome back.” I sob in the arms of old friends. It’s so easy to judge the relapsers but it can so easily be you. Believe me.
I’ve seen people with double-digit sobriety relapse and wonder how that could happen. But now I have a different perspective; with this many relapses under my belt, I often think it’s a miracle that anybody stays sober. We are alcoholics and addicts. Drinking and using is what we do.
Mostly my relapses have taught me not to judge. That ominous “It just hasn’t happened yet” has reared its ugly head in my life more times than I’d like to admit. I have now ended up in the psych ward, the ER and jail—all places I never thought I’d go. Nobody is exempt. And the biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to care what other people think. AA can so easily become like high school, complete with cliques and popularity and rumors. It’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re there to save our lives. I say, let people talk about you. Soon enough, they’ll be gossiping about the next hot mess, anyway.
Amy Dresner is a sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She also wrote about sex and dating in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.