I Was a "Real" Relapser, Until I Changed One Thing About My Program

By Louie Sabatasso 01/08/15

How did I go from starting meetings and sponsoring other men, to having one day back?


“Has anybody here actually worked all 12 steps and still relapsed?"

The question was asked of the entire meeting by the speaker. It was one o’clock on a Wednesday at the Log Cabin in West Hollywood. “If you have, raise your hand.” I squirmed in my seat, hand twitching to shoot toward the ceiling. “Nobody?!” I realized when he yelled "nobody" like my father used to when asking which of us kids had done our chores, that my 14-day sober hand was still in my lap.

I decided to drink three beers and within 2 hours I was shooting cocaine.

Fuck you.

I wanted to stand up and say, “Right here, and I was sponsoring people at the time and had gone to a meeting that day and called my sponsor!”

But I didn’t. I sat quietly and seethed.

I was seething over the fact that I had relapsed again after almost three years sober. And I mean sober. Steps, sponsoring, praying, starting meetings. In fact, this very meeting I had started five years prior to this day. This day that found me standing up as a newcomer.

Me! In this meeting I had started!

I was seething over all of the condescending, “welcome back” greetings I got and was anticipating all the additional ones that waited for me after the meeting.

I was seething over the fact that so many of the new people in the room that had walked in when I was secretary were now raising their hands to sponsor, having stayed sober all this time.

But mostly I was seething at myself. How could I have done all the work and still gotten loaded? Again.

What did I miss? Where did I fall short?

First of all, let me qualify what I believe a relapser, a real relapser, is.

Relapse is a term thrown around the rooms like "One day at a time," and "Don’t drink no matter what," without anybody ever questioning or giving much thought to them. A newcomer will be 17 days into their day count, come in and claim "Day 1," again and say, “I relapsed again!”

No, not really.

I believe a relapse occurs when when you have worked the steps, or are well on your way to a spiritual experience, and you get loaded again. The 17-day newcomer "slipped." A relapse is different. A relapse is more unexpected. More dramatic. I am not discounting the seriousness of the 17-day newcomer "slipping" because "slipping" can have a fatal consequence.

But a relapse?

Webster's defines relapse as the return of an illness after a period of improvement. According to the AA literature, such an improvement takes place after step work. On this point, the speaker and I agree. Where we start to disagree is if it’s possible or not to do the "work" and still relapse.

I believe it is.

Like I said, I had done all 12 steps including a thorough inventory and more than half of my amends. I had listened to 5th steps. I was self-supporting. I had commitments at meetings.

And now, I experienced the crush of raising my hand as a newcomer at a meeting I had started!

As I sat there, embarrassed, those were the questions going through my mind. How did this happen again? Am I pathological? Am I lying to myself? What didn’t I do?

The only answer I can come up with is that I am an alcoholic who never eliminated drinking and getting loaded as an option. It didn’t matter how many inventories I did, or how many amends I made, or how many meetings I went to! If getting loaded was still an option, if I was in enough pain, I was fucked.

I use to scoff at the "Just don’t drink or use no matter what" notion. If I could do that, I wouldn’t need to go to meetings, would I?

It has a new meaning to me today. I have to eliminate drinking and using as an option. Period.

I always knew what was to come if I relapsed. Always. I was never in denial and rarely would try and convince myself that things would be different.

Psych-wards. Overdoses. Seizures. Arrests. Homelessness. And countless ER visits. I just didn’t care. If I felt like I was in enough pain and wanted out that second, I didn’t care. It was still an option.

I had to eliminate drinking and using as an option.

Easier said than done. But then today, actually, yes today, I was in a Lyft and pulling into The Comedy Store parking lot to attend yet another 1pm meeting I had started in a sober past, and it came to me: I’m in a lot of fucked up judgmental toxic pain right now. A lot! Certainly, sufficient enough pain to go drink—to say fuck it and get loaded. That's been my default setting, after all, for years and years and years.

“But that just isn’t an option anymore. It doesn’t exist.”

I was startled.

Where the fuck did that come from? I had never, and I mean never, had that thought before. Sure, those words had popped in my head before, usually in some lame thought from a meeting's voice, but never like this…never organically. From within. Or without. Who knows?

I’ve always heard…"You can never be too stupid for this program, but you can be too smart." To which I would immediately think to myself, “Well, I must be at some immeasurable level of stupid because I’m missing something.”

Or maybe it’s just that simple.

I hope so.

Let's just dissect one of my more dramatic relapses.

I was two months shy of three years sober. I had recently relocated to the beach from West Hollywood. There were too many people going to meetings out there for the wrong reasons in my estimation. Did I mention that all of my relapses begin with a lot of judgment and resentment against those around me?

It began with the one o’clock meeting that I mentioned, that turned into the Log Cabin in general and finally the entire town of West Hollywood. They were all fucked. And I absconded to Venice Beach.

First, I moved into a condo I couldn’t afford. Then I sold my Jeep to pay for rent in said condo and to still have cash in the bank. I was working/volunteering at a church in Hollywood where we fed and clothed the homeless—I was waiting for my parade and Congressional Medal of Honor. I called my sponsor and told him I was having thoughts of relapse and he had the audacity to ask me what I was doing to be of service because I had (more or less) stopped going to meetings. Or, did I forget to mention that at the beginning of article? I was hurt and appalled that he didn’t remember the altruistic work, that I was being paid for, that I was doing for the homeless for Christ's sake! I had moved into a place called The Shores, two very tall white towers on the beach right on the borders of Santa Monica and Venice, with a beautiful swimming pool and a small convenience store separating the towers by the pool. The store was for residents-only.

I patronized the tiny little store often. They made wonderful sandwiches, and had soda and water and candy. And…a glorious glass ice-box with a small assortment of dark beer. And this was late August, after all. The sun would shine into the store and into that glass case and through that dark beer and cascade a wonderful psychedelic light show out onto the deck.

Impossible for it not to catch my attention.

After about two weeks of living there, I couldn’t take it anymore. Young women by the pool, topless, on each other's shoulders in the pool, having chicken fights. Drinking ice cold beer. It was too much. I came home from work one day around noon and decided to go down to the pool. I put on a pair of trunks and my flip-flops and headed down. I had decided I was going to buy three dark beers. Only three. And drink them by the pool with the young ladies like a gentleman of leisure.

I walked into the store and bought three beers. Only three, like I had promised myself.

I suddenly felt nervous. I asked the clerk to bag up the beers. I raced by the pool and headed up to my flat for now it felt a bit dramatic and over-the-top to drink by the pool. In public. I headed up the elevator and into my apartment. I still didn’t feel quite safe enough so I decided to lock myself in the bathroom.

I finally exhaled. I pulled the three beers out of the bag and put them on the sink. Just three beers. Perfectly normal. I cracked one of them open, adjusted the mirrors so I could see every angle of my metamorphosis into a monster, and I started drinking. I drank all three. I felt a nice buzz and from what I could see, no monster had emerged.

I felt so good I decided to walk down the boardwalk into Venice. I stopped at Venice Ale and drank an absolutely gorgeous tall glass of dark beer. I continued walking down Venice and I came upon a gentleman who looked like he may have some crack-cocaine. I inquired as to such and, indeed, he did! I purchased some and continued walking until I found another gentleman with some powder cocaine and some Oxy. My last stop was the pharmacy on the way home for some fresh syringes.

I went back to my bathroom and started shooting cocaine and Oxy speedballs and smoking crack. I looked at the time on my phone. It was 3pm. It was 12:30pm when I walked down to the pool. Two and a half hours to go from “I am absolutely just gonna drink three beers by the pool with the naked co-eds like a normal dude to shooting cocaine and oxy’s and smoking crack.” Two and a half hours. Not two weeks, or two months, or a year, but two and a half hours.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t think there ever were naked girls or even clothed girls by the pool that day. Just a couple of old men in swimming caps doing the breaststroke.

Did I forget to mention that I had stopped going to meetings and was riddled with resentment? You see, all I could see and hear and remember a couple years later in the one o’clock meeting was that I had done all of the stuff the speaker was talking about: worked steps, sponsored, and had commitments, and I still relapsed. He was full of shit.

Not really. But I was.

You see, I realize we hear what we want to hear when we want to hear it. For good or bad. For better or worse.

I realized I had done everything to stay sober. Everything. I had done more and did more and do more on a daily basis to stay sober than a couple people I know have ever done and they have 30 plus years.

So what the hell?

They removed drinking and using as an option. Period. All of them have worked a thorough and total and complete first step.

I have relapsed after a year, and after 18 months, and after two and a half years, and after almost three years. I have taken a one-year cake four times. I never once relapsed over a lack of trying, but I always relapsed over an incomplete first step because it was still an option.

In this sobriety, and for the first time, it's not an option.

Today, it is not an option.

I am totally and completely a real alcoholic. To my core and to my soul I know this. Everybody has their own journey. Some get it dramatically and quickly and stay sober for life. My journey has not been that simple or easy. But it's mine.

Finally, I can breathe.

Louie Sabatasso is an actor/writer based in Los Angeles.

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