Relapse as a Tantrum

Relapse as a Tantrum

By Amy Dresner 06/26/15

Not so much deep psychological issues as much as being a toddler having a fit.

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I thought about relapsing the other night…like I really thought about it. I laid in my narrow bed in sober living in the pitch dark, staring at the ceiling, silent tears rolling slowly down my cheeks and I planned it. Who did I know that could get me coke? Who had relapsed? What comics from my previous life still did blow? Could I say I had a friend coming into town who wanted to “party?” Would they believe me?

It just occurred to me that threatening to relapse is pretty similar to the tantrums you used to have at two.

Maybe I just could roll into The Abbey or Goldcoast or (insert any gay bar here) and charm the bartender and inquire about where I might score some…um…party favors. What do they even call it these days? And what about syringes? Maybe I could get my doctor to prescribe vitamin B shots again. I am sort of anemic and then I could just ditch the vitamin B and have the needles. My British junkie friend used to go into the pharmacy and just say he had a diabetic friend coming into town who’d forgotten his needles. But he was British and my British accent isn’t all that great. Hey, there’s always the needle exchange. I’d never been but I’m sure they’re not going to say, “Hey you look two-and-a-half years sober. We’re not giving you any.” (Not that they would know because I don’t have that weird “I found the Lord” light in my eyes and I don’t wear one of those creepy recovery pendants that look straight out of Logan’s Run.) 

The next morning I called my mother and confessed.

“I’m 78 years old, Amy. I can’t go through another relapse with you.”

I was silent.

“It just occurred to me that threatening to relapse is pretty similar to the tantrums you used to have at two when you were at the market with Ernie and me, and you couldn't have the candy you wanted. Is there candy you want that you can’t have?”

Whoa. Her statement was an epiphany, a shameful and mind-blowing epiphany. She was absolutely right. What had prompted my desire to get high the previous night? I don’t have and am not getting what I want and I’m pissed about it. So then I thought back. Not all of my relapses (and I’ve had quite a few) have been “tantrums” but many of them certainly have been. And I don’t think I’m alone.

In the film The Business of Recovery, Dr. Lance Dodes says that “in humans, the resuming of an addiction is usually from psychological stresses, feelings of being trapped or helpless.” Hardcore AA people will say that a relapse comes about because you stopped going to meetings or weren’t spiritually fit and your daily reprieve was rescinded. Or that your life got really good on the outside but you still felt like a piece of shit on the inside so you tore it all down so the two would match again. But I have another theory to present: relapse as a tantrum. And having a tantrum is certainly connected to not being grateful (“Grateful never relapses.”) but it’s bigger and more infantile than that. 

It is no revelation that alcoholics are selfish and emotionally immature. I dare say we are also reactive, demanding, manipulative and entitled. We want what we want and we wanted it yesterday. We are all familiar with the term “King Baby” and there is actually a 28-page pamphlet by Tom Cunningham put out by Hazelden Publishing elucidating all the childish ego characteristics typical of the alcoholic. Some of these traits are “immobilized by anger and frustration and rarely satisfied,” “see everything as a catastrophe,” and “strong feelings of dependence and exaggerated fears of abandonment,” among other things.  

I’ve gotten loaded because somebody took my favorite toy (read: boy) away. Tantrum. I’ve gotten loaded because I didn’t have the job, money, relationship that I wanted. Tantrum. I’ve gotten loaded because somebody I cared about really, really hurt my feelings. Tantrum. 

Sure we can say, “Oh the pain of such and such was too much so I had to use and numb out.” But underneath it, isn’t it really “I don’t like this; I can‘t handle this; Things aren’t going the way I want; Fuck this; Fuck you; Fuck me; Fuck God”? I don’t dare speak for all alcoholics and addicts but personally I am not the best at handling uncomfortable “adult” emotions. Whether my emotions are stronger or more intense than other people’s, well…until they have the ability to put me inside another person’s body (no sexual innuendo intended) and feel what and to the extent that they feel, I have no idea. But I do know that life happens and things for which I should just grieve or be bummed about feel absolutely ego-shattering, catastrophic and overwhelming. Getting and staying sober has been about learning that although my feelings feel like they might kill me, they will not actually kill me. I can weep till I flood my room and still I will survive, though I may not want to.  

For years, I have used my rage and my self-destructive threats to manipulate people into doing what I want. I have been an emotional tyrant to my friends, family and lovers. It’s been Princess Amy’s reign of terror. Give me what I want or you will pay. Sure, it’s babyish but it’s worked brilliantly. So the foot stomping, screaming, crying and head banging are loathe to go away, along with the Kardashians, jeggings and my adult acne.

I’ve been living with a baby for the past 17 months. You take away or don’t give her what she wants and all hell breaks loose. Sometimes, you can pacify her by giving her something else to distract, but sometimes the crying is just too much and you cave and give her back whatever she’s convinced will make her happy at the moment. And what can I say? I relate. 

I have this belief, supported by “The Promises” and sober speakers who beam that their life is “beyond their wildest dreams” that recovery will not just give me freedom from addiction but also all the cash and prizes that I’ve ever wanted. I believe that I should be “rewarded” for being “good,” resisting temptation, living a spiritual, moral life. And when things don’t look like they’re going that way, I think, “Oh, fuck all this.” I don’t just push the plate off the table, I turn the whole fucking table over. 

I once heard somebody in the rooms say their alcoholism had three gears: "Fuck you," "Poor me," and "Where’s Mine?" The tantrum triumvirate. 

Morgan J., a 28-year old, with several relapses under her belt and newly sober again said,”When things do not go my way or when someone hurts me, I have a tendency to throw a tantrum like a toddler. The relapse is like watching a two-year-old have a total meltdown, unreasonable and frantic. I get caught in a pattern of self-pity and self-destruction. When things do not go the way I think they should, I decide I am no longer worthy of sobriety and demolish every ounce of good in my life. I play the blame game and accuse everyone else of being responsible for my actions.” 

Cindy R., a 25-year old relapsed in rehab because the owner refused to let her boyfriend spend the night. She remembers thinking, “Oh yeah? Really? Watch this. I’m gonna get loaded in your facility on your watch.” And she did. A tantrum is staged not just to show your frustration but to punish the other person. And take it from alcoholics and addicts to throw a tantrum that is wildly self-destructive and possibly deadly. 

I asked a friend who’s worked at a high-end treatment center for a few years if he’s ever seen this and his immediate answer was, “Only with 95% of the clients.”  

So next time I feel a meltdown coming on and I feel like getting loaded, I’m going to put my thumb in my mouth, crawl into the lap of a friend and have them sing me a lullaby of “Sister Morphine.”

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix.

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