Relapse in Paradise

By Seth Ferranti 06/01/15

Longtime Fix writer Seth Ferranti on his recent relapse after more than 12 years.

Seth and Diane on the beach author

After being sober and drug free for close to 13 years, I did the unthinkable: I had a beer. It wasn’t something I thought about, or planned, or even wanted to do. It was just something that happened. I was with my family on vacation in sunny, beautiful Puerto Rico. My first vacation since being released from prison last August. A family reunion of sorts, as my brother was there with his new wife, my parents were present, and my sister made the trip with her husband and my 15-month-old nephew. It was a time for my wife and I to unwind, spend time with our family and catch up.

Recovery is a rough road that was actually much easier in prison, where drugs were available but could be avoided. Not like now. Alcohol is everywhere.

But it was so many more things than that—a celebration of my return to society, a chance to meet my nephew and sister’s husband for the first time, a faux-honeymoon for my wife and I, and the opportunity for my parents to have all their kids and extended family together in one place for the first time in 21 years, due to my incarceration. It started innocently enough, lots of eating, walking around Old San Juan and spending time on the beach, then my brother-in-law was like, “Hey dude, have a beer.”

I declined at first, but then I was like, "You know what, what is one beer?" It can’t hurt me. And besides, I am a grown ass man. Out from under the yoke of authority for the first time in decades. I felt like breaking loose. I wanted to party with my family. I wanted to toast my freedom and re-entry back to society. “Cheers!” I said as I clinked bottles with my brother-in-law.

I wasn’t under the restrictive conditions of the halfway house anymore. I had completed my term and was now on federal probation. At the halfway house, I was subject to regular breathalyzers every time I entered the facility from a work or recreation pass, in fact. I was also subject to random swab tests for drugs. Any violation of the halfway house policy of no drugs and no alcohol meant going back to prison. So, of course, I practiced abstinence. It wasn't anything new to me; I had been doing it for over 12 years. Clean and sober was how I lived.

But when I met my probation officer for the first time, she laid out the conditions of my probation and abstaining from alcohol was not a term of my release. I was scheduled to take three random urine tests a month. I had to call into a drug testing facility daily to see if it was my day to give a sample. So, immediately in my addict's mind I knew doing drugs wasn’t an option, but alcohol? My brain was spinning. If I wanted to drink, I could drink. I even wrote about my temptations numerous times in my pieces for The Fix

I had just been through the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) during my last 10 months in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and six months of aftercare at Gateway in downtown St. Louis during my stay at the halfway house, but for all effects and purposes my drug treatment commitments were over. I was relieved in a way. Happy to be done with it, but now I have to question if I need to continue my treatment. It's not as if I am cured all of a sudden. Though, I wish it were so.

My PO and aftercare drug counselor both concurred that AA or NA meetings, or any other type of continuing treatment, weren’t necessary. And who was I to argue? They could have made it mandatory, but in their professional opinions I was good to go. I had a career to start. I had a life to live. I was hungry and ready. I had things to accomplish, on top of everything I had already accomplished during my incarceration—an AA, BA and MA degree, founding a successful publishing house and website, getting eight true crime books published and getting regular work as a journalist. But what appears good on the outside looking in, isn’t necessarily the case.

Essentially, I have only been free since February. Though, technically I am on probation, besides reporting to the three random urinalysis and sending in a monthly report to my probation officer, I don’t have any restrictions. That is, as long as I stay in the Eastern District of Missouri. To travel outside the district, I have to put in a travel request and get it approved. But my PO has been very open to travel requests. 

I’ve been to Chicago twice on business, writing an article on an art opening and going to the C2E2 Comic Con. I’ve been to Kansas City for Planet Comic Con, in which I penned a piece for The Fix about my entrance into the world of comics. (I am adapting two of my true crime books into graphic novels.) All without incident, but then came Puerto Rico. And now I got the dirty word in the addiction world hanging over my head—relapse.

Because I can’t deny it, I relapsed and I find myself questioning if I really am an addict. I am sure that is what every recovering addict that relapses does. It's a justification we use to give ourselves an out, a pass, a way to do what we want. And being totally honest, I am hurting inside. I am out of balance and in a danger zone. The alerts are going off in my head.

I am not going to lie either, I have continued to do what I want. I have continued to drink. Not excessively. I like to fool myself and tell myself that I got it under control. That I’m a social drinker, but I know that isn’t true. I want so much to be normal, to be cured, but I am prone to fits of rage and anger. I tell myself I am OK but maybe I’m not.

I just want to be able to go out to dinner and to have a drink. Or to have a beer with the guys. What can it hurt, right? I mean drinking alcohol isn’t going to send me back to prison. I try to tell myself that drugs—namely marijuana and LSD—led to my criminal lifestyle. I know being involved with them will lead me back to prison. I am addicted to the criminal lifestyle, the money it brings, and the power and prestige. I loved that. I craved it, but look where it led me: Wasting away my prime years in federal prison. I can blame the War on Drugs, but I blame myself. So if my drinking leads to marijuana use and more, who can I blame? No one but myself. My ego wants that escape from reality. I struggle with my downfalls every minute. I am my own worst enemy.

I know I have a love affair with marijuana, I always have. But I can’t use it now. I want to, but I won’t. It would be detrimental to my chances of staying free. A dirty urine test sends me right back to prison. I went through the RDAP program, there is a zero tolerance policy for drug use. But since alcohol isn’t listed as a restriction on the terms of my release, I kid myself and tell myself it's OK to drink. But what will I do when I am off probation and I live where marijuana is legal and available? Will I use that as a justification to start smoking again?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that today, as I am writing this, I didn’t drink. As an addict who struggles with my addictions, I can only do what I do for today. Tomorrow, I don’t know. I have drank alcohol a number of times since that first innocent beer. Not once have I got out of my head, but all it takes is one too many drinks and then I revert to form. And when I am wasted and my inhibitions are down, who knows what I will do? 

If some weed is around and I take one toke and subsequently get a dirty urine, I am done. It's a dangerous path I am treading, and to make matters worse, I have no desire to go to an AA or NA meeting. Never liked them, never thought they were for me. I had an associate ask me the other day what I was doing for my recovery. Actually, he was concerned. He saw some of the pictures I posted on Facebook from my Puerto Rico trip and said he thought he saw a beer in my hand and wanted to know what was up with that.

I gave him some half-ass excuses about how alcohol wasn’t my problem, drugs were. I told him that I remain drug free, but he pointed out that alcohol was widely considered a drug. He suggested I go to a meeting or talk to someone about it. I am still considering his words. But it was definitely a wake-up call for me. Here I am thinking everything is so insular but it's really not. It's a public world and I am very active on social media. I am grateful for him reaching out to me. Another fellow addict checking in on me to make sure I am not going off the rails.

For me, writing out my feelings and observations and being honest with myself and my assessments is a kind of therapy. I have to look at myself and see if I am balanced. I have to ask myself, “Are you feeling the way you want to feel? What is making you want to drink? Is there something unbalanced? Something I am not catching that will make me dive off the deep end?" I know myself; I know what I am capable of and I have an addictive personality. I am an "all in" type of person. Can I balance alcohol use and be a social drinker? My heart screams no, but my mind says yes.

All the studies and experts will tell me I am playing a dangerous game with my life. If I had a sponsor, he would tell me the same thing. My associate, who I talk to every now and then about documentary ideas, brought this issue to my attention and now I am checking myself and writing this to bring it to the world. I don’t know if this is a cry for help or just an admission of guilt, but I know in my heart that I struggle with addiction. I know that I want to smoke marijuana. It's like I am waiting for the day, but I have to ask myself where will that lead. Is alcohol just a substitute for me right now?

What about sugar? I am known to go on sugar binges. My wife tells me I am addicted to my iPhone and I can be a workaholic, too. So even though I would like to think that I am cured, I know I am not. Recovery is a rough road that was actually much easier in prison, where drugs were available but could be avoided. Not like now. Alcohol is everywhere.

I am finding it is much harder to maintain my sobriety in the real world. And I keep saying to myself, "What if? What if? What if marijuana is legal? What happens when I get off probation?" But that is my struggle. I am just sharing my innermost thoughts with the world. I guess that is the way I deal with it. I have been around people smoking marijuana and I have not indulged but I know those are danger spots to me but it's almost as if I want to test myself and my resolve. Would I really give up my freedom for a marijuana high? I am certain I wouldn’t, but I had no intentions on consuming alcohol and I did. 

I know that a relapse starts way before the actual drug or alcohol use. So I have to ask myself how long was I planning this in the back of my mind? How long was I craving that beer and making justifications and excuses in my mind before it actually happened? And furthermore, am I doing the same thing now with this marijuana thing? I know I am. But I realize it and that is the first step to beating my addiction. I have decided not to drink today. Because it doesn’t matter if I consider alcohol my drug of choice or not. It doesn’t matter if I have never considered myself an alcoholic. Living sober is complete abstinence. And, for the first time in a long time, I have to say, that is not true of me.

Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. He most recently wrote about being sober after 21 years in prison and how to recover from recoveryHe also writes for Vice. He has a book out—The Supreme Team.

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