10 Lessons I Learned From My Relapse(s)

By Amy Dresner 03/10/15

"This thing we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down."


1. It doesn’t get better. 

It doesn’t get better, but it can get equally horrible in a brand new way. Sometimes, when I’ve relapsed it has taken a brief week to get back to the addictive grind of where I’ve been. Other times, I was lucky I didn’t end up back in the ER, or treatment again, for at least eight months! Imagine that. I didn’t always pick up my last drug of choice (I’m not that fucking stupid) but whatever I picked up—pot, coke, Norco, OxyContin or the very sophisticated Four Loko—I was abusing that shit like Ike Turner in no time. And yes, all those Y.E.T.s (You’re Eligible Too) started to happen—the lockdown psych wards, the neo-noir suicide attempts, the mortifying arrests, the ugly divorces. I stopped landing in cushy beachside rehabs with horny celebrities. Shit got dark and shit got real. Friends and parents began to get bored with my antics. Gone were the big groups of smiling friends visiting with care packages of Sprinkles cupcakes and Dior mascara. No more inspirational books and funny postcards in the mail. It went from “We believe in you. You can do this,” to “Get it together, Dresner. This is getting really old.”

Um, so everybody that relapses, like yours truly, just isn’t one of God’s VIPs? 

2. Don’t go to meetings drunk or high

I know “they” say you should go to meetings when you’re loaded because you “know where you need to be before you’re ready to be there.” I’m also aware that in the olden days of AA people were drunk in meetings all the time. But personally, I don’t recommend it. Nothing is as much of a buzzkill as being in a meeting when you’re trying to get your fade on. Evidently, I went to a meeting in a blackout on Ativan a few years ago. I don’t remember a single glorious moment of it, but word is, I kicked over some chairs and yelled, “I’m a princess, motherfucker!” My sponsor promptly grabbed me by the neck of my vintage t-shirt and drove me home.

This last relapse, I showed up to some meetings totally shit-faced. I was immediately greeted by the wife of the owner of the rehab from which I had just been released. She hugged me and asked concernedly, “How are you?” With boozy breath and glassy eyes, I enthusiastically replied, “I’m great!” I was then dragged to another meeting where I ran into a tech from the same rehab. “Beer or vodka?” he asked immediately upon seeing me. I smiled sheepishly and fell over. But my favorite memory is throwing up outside a church meeting into a plastic bag that had a hole in it. Vomit doused my pants, and in my plastered genius, I decided I HAD to take off my pants right then and there. So that was a fun meeting to revisit once I was sober…and dressed again.

3. Drinking/drugging only makes whatever you’re trying to escape worse

Getting loaded never made my problems go away. I try to make the same mistake at least four times just to be “sure.” Whether I was using or drinking to escape my self-loathing, or a heartbreak, or the fact that I was penniless and unemployed in a crusty all-male sober living deep in the armpit of Tarzana, getting fucked up never did make things better. Sure, I got to take a mini-vacation from reality and my uncomfortable feelings, but once I sobered up, all my same problems were there waiting for me, wearing smug self-satisfied looks that said, “You can’t get away from us, retard.” Plus, I had a hangover, or I was in jail, or I’d made some…um…poor sexual choices. The least offensive would be me drunk dialing every ex to tell them how I was the “raddest of them all” and what a huge error they’d made. I never remembered a single word of my fiery diatribes. Good times!

4. The feeling will pass whether you medicate them or not.

Feelings are temporary. They pass. The bad ones, and unfortunately, also the good ones. Everything is ephemeral. You can get high or drunk because you feel sad, or angry, and, yeah, you might not feel sad or angry anymore…or you might just feel sad and angry with the blurry veil of whiskey or the hypervigilance of coke. But guess what? The sadness or anger will pass whether you drink, snort, shoot or not. So cry it out, take a nap, take a bath, bang somebody on Tinder. Do something to distract you and pass the time till your feelings subside. Because some of the repercussions of picking up might not be so fleeting or temporary, like a DUI, or gonorrhea, or a grand mal seizure where you crack your head open like an overripe melon. Your feelings won’t kill you, but what you do to escape them just might.

5. Every sobriety is different

Some sobrieties are easy breezy, pink clouds, and all that rainbow, unicorn crap. Others are like walking on coals and broken glass while everybody laughs at you, like those dreams where you go to grade school naked. Sometimes, the obsession is removed immediately and you think, “What’s the big deal? I got this.” And other times, all you think about in every single meeting while people spiel about their Higher Power and the fourth dimension is the bitter taste of the coke drip, or watching the blood register in the syringe, or the heart-pounding excitement of going to meet your dealer. It’s like sex or an audition or a marriage. Every time is different and every time is the same.

6. Be nice to newcomers and your sponsees because they could be your next sponsor.

It’s easy to roll your eyes and judge that crazy newcomer who cries in every meeting or talks about angels and hidden messages. And it’s easy to get all preachy with your sponsees when they aren’t surrendering or working a real program, but holy shit, is it humbling when you come back from a relapse with your tail between your legs and those fuckers have more time than you. Like the Wilson Mizner quote: “Be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet them on your way down.” You were the secretary and now you’re a newcomer…again. They were the newcomer and now they’re the goddamn GSR.

7. Time isn’t a tool.  

Having time does not make you immune from a relapse. We all know people in the program with double-digit sobriety who relapse. Addiction can be like cancer…sure, it helps to be in remission for years, but that doesn’t guarantee that it won’t come back and have you on a cold slab in the morgue within a year. If you believe the saying that your disease is doing push ups, then realistically, if you relapsed after years of sobriety, your alcoholism would have morphed from a slender featherweight to a veiny heavyweight and will be doing a rope-a-dope on your ass.

8.  God or meetings don’t keep you sober.

Nothing enrages me more than when people say, “It’s only by the grace of God that I’m sober. It’s nothing that I have done.” Um, so everybody that relapses, like yours truly, just isn’t one of God’s VIPs?  We’re not allowed into the champagne room? God is some big black muscle-bound bouncer outside the cool club of sobriety  just randomly pointing to us alkies shivering in our mini-skirts in the cold night air, ”You in the red, you can come in.  No, not you, sir.” Sorry, but I call bullshit. And regarding, meetings—I’ve been to a meeting the day I relapsed, multiple times. Hell, I’ve walked out of a meeting, gone home, and cut lines with the chip I just took. You know what keeps you sober? YOU do. In your gut, YOU have made a decision that using is not an option for you anymore, that the cons outweigh the pros, that being sober is better, or more productive, or less expensive than being loaded. Period. 

9. What other people think of you is none of your business.

Was it embarrassing to come back and stand up as a newcomer after being a sponsor, a secretary, a beacon of sobriety?  Sure, the first or second time. But, after that I stopped caring. Who cares about being the king or queen of the drunks? It’s your sobriety and it’s not a competition. What matters is that you’re back and you’re trying again. Honestly, alcoholics are so self-absorbed that all they’re thinking about is their witty share or wondering who the hot newcomer is or if some asshole from the 'burbs took their special seat. There might be some brief, “Oh, did you hear? So and so relapsed” but then everybody goes on with their lives. And only in AA (and Hollywood) can the fuck up become the superstar (i.e. Robert Downey Jr.).

10. Your next relapse could be your last, one way or another.

If you relapse and you don’t die, you are lucky. When I’ve picked up after a period of sobriety, I’m so greedy, I’m so thirsty, I’m so gluttonous. It is ON. I mean if I’m out, let’s ride it till the wheels fall off, right? I’m not one of those people who has one drink, or one Xanax one night, throwing away years of sobriety and comes right back the next day for a welcome chip. Fuck that. When I relapse, I’m on a binge till the cops, or an interventionist, comes and hogties me, throws me in the back of a pickup and hauls my ass off somewhere. I’m off to Vegas to snort coke off the asses of gleaming strippers and drink $300 bottles of Chardonnay.

The problem is you lose your tolerance and that one first shot in your arm could be your ticket to meet Jesus. It’s like the gym. You don’t go for three months and then you arrogantly try to squat the same weight you had and end up limping around with sciatica for the next three weeks. But on the bright side, that next relapse could be your last and you could end up with decades of sobriety, become a renowned circuit speaker, a guru of the program with a story that is now even more salacious and relatable and miraculous. As Mary Pickford says, “If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

Sobriety is like rollerblading (which personally, I’m terrible at). Laugh that you fell down, dust yourself off, get back up and try again. Soon, you’ll be one of those weirdos in a skimpy bathing suit jetting around backwards on the Venice boardwalk.

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix. She last wrote about The Experience, Strength and Hope Awards Recovery and No New Years Resolutions.

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