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Relapsing When You Have Longterm Sobriety

While most relapses occur in the early days, some people put together years before finding AA’s revolving door. What makes someone go out after finding solid sobriety?

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By Nina Emkin

02/09/12

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In Alcoholics Anonymous, relapse within the first year can be as common as pack-a-day cigarette habits and ill-advised tattoos. There’s a good reason that most meetings honor short increments of sobriety like 30, 60, and 90 days with chips: that first stretch of abstinence is often the hardest. You’ve finally given up alcohol and drugs, but you haven’t had the time to replace them with healthy tools and habits.  

After the first couple of years, though, addicts have sat through hundreds, if not thousands, of meetings; worked the steps; had commitments; and maybe even picked up a sponsee or two. Many might think they’ve got the problem all sewn up. So what drives someone to pick up a drink at five-plus years, long after the initial cravings have died down and well into the process of clearing away the wreckage of the past?

Ed Wigg, a licensed addiction therapist and the Executive Director of the Curran-Seeley Foundation in Wyoming, offers this explanation: “Oftentimes we see people who have achieved sobriety fall away from continuing to do those things that they did to help them get clean and sober in the early stages—like going to meetings.  They think that they’ve been sober for years so they don’t need to go to AA, work with a sponsor, or see a therapist anymore—all the things they did diligently in their early days. They slip back into a pattern of trying to do it on their own, without support.”

That was certainly the case for Ariana, a 35-year-old paralegal from Los Angeles. “I still had sponsees and a couple commitments, but I was not working my steps,” she admits. “I wasn’t showing up for myself.” Ariana had no desire to go back to drugs—she just wanted to drink. “I had been fantasizing about what drinking again would be like, but I never thought it would actually happen, and never in the way that it did,” she says. So, after five years of sobriety, she ended up chugging vodka from the bottle in a parking lot with two other sober friends, one of whom was her sponsee (who also drank).

You hear people in recovery say, "I screwed up and got a couple DUIs, but I really had fun drinking, and I think I’ve learned my lesson. If it gets like it was before, I’ll get some help, but I think I can do it again."

Despite her relapse, Ariana—who now has six years back—stands by the fact that her early sobriety was bulletproof. “The amount of work I did in my first year is pretty incredible,” she says. “I worked all 12 steps, had a sponsor, had commitments, worked with others, spoke at meetings, joined a committee, and was of service as much as possible.” 

Jessica, a 34-year-old business owner in Silverlake, had a remarkably similar experience. She originally got sober at 23 after becoming addicted to heroin and cocaine and stayed clean for nine years. But she found after a certain amount of time that she just didn’t have the fervor for sobriety that she did in the beginning. “At five or six years, I’d go to meetings, but begrudgingly, and I’d go mostly to see friends,” she admits. “I figured [I had been] a young, angry kid who ended up doing drugs, and that I never really drank that much, so I wouldn’t have a problem drinking.” After nearly a decade of sobriety, Jessica made the decision to drink.

The fact that she’d been diligent about maintaining her sobriety in the beginning—“I worked all 12 steps with two different sponsors, sponsored people, went to meetings and had a good support group of sober people,” she says—and that she was in a happy relationship and was building a business didn’t keep her from relapsing.

Chris, a salesman from South Carolina, also found sobriety when he was young: at 19, after battling meth and crack addictions, he went to a month-long rehab, and then a Sober Living house for six months. Once out, he attended meetings regularly for five years and 10 months, and had a sponsor, but he never worked the steps.  Of his choice to drink again, Chris says, “I convinced myself I wasn’t an alcoholic. I knew I was a drug addict, but I convinced myself it was stuff that happened in my teens. I was 26. I said, ‘Hey, I can drink—I can’t do drugs, but I can drink.’”  

Dr. Dale Archer, a board-certified psychiatrist in Louisiana, sympathizes with addicts who build up years of sober time, and admits that cutting back on the amount of work around sobriety is only natural. “You should not need the intensity of support from the AA community at 10 years as you do at one year,” he says. “You’ve recognized your problem and you’ve dealt with it.” Still, he points out, “denial being what it is, you can forget that you had this severe problem that caused you to lose everything.” 

Furthermore, Ed Wigg explains, “Repression is a normal human defense mechanism that softens the bad things in our lives so we can deal with them. What was traumatic five years ago isn’t that big of a deal anymore. On the other side is euphoric recall, which exaggerates the good times. You hear people in recovery say, ‘I screwed up and got a couple DUIs, but I really had fun drinking, and I think I’ve learned my lesson. I can enjoy the good times and control my drinking. If it gets like it was before, I’ll get some help, but I think I can do it again.’” 

Oftentimes, it doesn’t take people who had long-term sobriety long to come back after a relapse: Ariana, for example, returned after only four days. “I woke up the next morning [after the first drink] and knew that I had fucked up,” she remembers. “I knew exactly where I was heading and where I would end up, and I knew there was more to life than that.” The shame she felt about relapsing was a powerful motivator as well: “I didn’t lose friends, but I lost respect from other [program members],” she says. “That was devastating. I was someone that people looked up to in the program, and knowing that you let others down is a terrible feeling.”  

Jessica, on the other hand, drank for about a year and very occasionally took Valium. She sobered up again after a bender with her neighbor—between the two of them, they downed 16 shots of tequila—woke up the next day with a debilitating hangover, and had a glass of wine to take the edge off.  She’s been sober since, with the support of her old friends and a new boyfriend, who’s also in the program.  While her drinking seemed innocuous at first, she eventually realized she was, indeed, an alcoholic, and not just a junkie, as she’d first thought—and what’s more, that alcohol could be just as dangerous for her as hard drugs had been.

Chris used for a total of five years. “The first year was fantastic,” he admits. “I made tons of money, had a good-looking girlfriend—the house, the car, parties. And then it gradually progressed, until I was drinking every day, punching a co-worker, [developing a] bleeding ulcer, [facing] assault charges, crashing cars, and losing jobs.”  The turning point for Chris was his 30th birthday: he had a fight with his girlfriend and ended up grabbing her wrists so tightly that she came away with bruises. The next day, he got in a fistfight with a stranger and was charged with two felonies and five misdemeanors. Via Facebook, he reached out to friends from his sobriety to help him find a Sober Living, and he’s been clean now for the past 120 days.  

All three are going about their sobriety differently than they did before. “I didn’t have the ability to see the truth that I do now,” Ariana says. “Before, I was constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself. Getting loaded woke me up to how dishonest I had been with myself. Now, if I’m feeling a little squirrely or on edge, I know what to do.” 

Jessica, who has eight months back, says that this time around, humility is key—“If you’re going to let swallowing your pride or anger get in the way, you’re impeding yourself”—while Chris attributes his four months clean to the fact that he made sweeping changes. “Find a new group— a new herd,” he recommends to others in his situation. “I had tons of friends [from before], but they’re all 10 years sober now. They’re in different places than I am right now. And finding a home group is really [important]. Work the steps.  Find a sponsor who doesn’t co-sign your bullshit.  Find a sponsor that’s going to be tough on you.”

Since Jessica and Ariana simply went back to meetings and Chris checked into a Sober Living house and not a rehab, it’s clear that there’s no one right way to regain sobriety. “The determining factor is, how long did the relapse last?” says Archer. “Let’s say you drink wine and beer, and then six months later, you’re back where you were 10 years ago. You realize, ‘Wow, I have to stop this.’ That individual doesn’t need to go to treatment again. If you [use] for three years and all the same negative consequences build up, it’s almost like you’re back to ground zero, and treatment could be necessary.” He notes that there is one advantage to relapsing in long-term sobriety: “The longer sobriety you were able to maintain the first time,” he says, “the greater the likelihood you can do it again.”  

Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence and has written for The Fix about relapse and coming out as an alcoholic, among other topics. She lives in Los Angeles.

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