Don’t Give Up: Confessions of a Chronic Relapser

By Maggie Weeks 03/27/18

Believe me, if a wretch like me could make it one day at a time, you can too.

A woman with arms crossed.
We have to keep trying to get on that lifeboat before it’s too late.

I became an alcoholic in Japan 20 years ago. Not knowing it was a “geographic” at the time, I thought if I could just get back to California; if I could just get away from Haru, my philandering husband; if I could just be around my family, my drinking problem would sort itself out. But alcoholism doesn’t work that way. When I made my way back to California I noticed that my drinking problem remained intact. At the time I didn’t think alcoholism, I thought of it more as a nagging habit like biting my nails—something done unconsciously—but I was acutely aware of its aftermath. “Dammit, my nails looked so good, how did they become bloody nubs!” Or, “Shit, I was doing so good, how did I manage to get so hungover that I blew my exam?”

For the next 20 years, I went in and out of the sickness. I still have problems calling it a disease, but no problem calling it an illness. Drinking made me mentally ill: towards the end I was committed to six mental hospitals and three ICU hospitals for attempted suicide.

For years I cavalierly went in and out of AA rooms when things got a little out of control: a couple DUIs, a couple meth-fueled-drinking sessions of no food and water for several days, threats of boyfriends leaving if I didn’t get help.

In the first five years after my return to America, I’d sit in the back of meetings, and mostly laugh at what I’d hear, saying to myself that proverbially predictable line, “Oh, that would never happen to me!”

The one share that lingered in my brain more than most, probably due to its prescient nature, came from a sepulchral, grey-haired lady. Her skin was like wrinkled old dusty paper, her eyes a dull bluish grey. With cigarette in hand (this was when meetings still allowed smoking), she rasped, “At the end, I drank straight from the bottle, with the blinds closed, watching television. All alone.” All alone? My inner voice shrieked, WTF??? Oh my god! I would never drink alone! I drink to be with people—how bizarre.

At any rate, I just kept relapsing in AA. I’d get a month here, a month there, but I always had to come back, tell everyone, confess, and I just hated it. Being a walking oxymoron of the forever newcomer did not sit well with me. Partly it was my ego, but partly it was AA.

This was at a time when “tough love” had an alternate meaning. It didn’t mean loving someone from a distance, or not enabling, it was more like tough—as in bossy, domineering, by-the-book (no pun intended)—control. I remember getting called out by an old-timer. Cross-talking, pointing a bony finger at me, head shaking solemnly, he said, “AA is not a revolving door; come back when you’re serious.” And saving the worst for last, quipped, “You are what we call a ‘backdoor swinger.” This last comment hit hardest because it implied that I take it all in, then escape out the backdoor to conduct my alcoholism as usual. These comments re-affirmed what I secretly feared about myself, turning them into what sounded like concrete facts: I was a fraud, I didn’t have the gravitas or substance it took to get sober. Instead of helping me, it made me worse; every time I got fronted I’d use it as an excuse to go out and get rip-roaringly drunk. I’d drink at AAers. Yea. Be around my own peeps at the bar, take that mothafuckas! But, after a while of doing this, I had to finally call it quits. I stopped going to meetings.

Because I wasn’t in the last stages, not yet a chronic, I managed to get a grip on my alcoholism. I decided to take the reins, take back my power if you will. First, I stopped drinking for three months. When I decided to resume, it was on my own terms; nobody would make me drink at them again. I made a strict promise to never get drunk again. And by golly, I did it. I managed to not get loopy for five years. I’d stop at two, sometimes three; the rare times I had four, I’d get a terrible hangover and would not drink for a while.

I’d officially returned to “normie” status and was elated! Yay for me! I was filled with self-pride that I beat this . . . this . . .drinking quagmire all by myself! And, on self-will, something that AA discourages because it will eventually lead to, “self-will run riot,” and “running amok!” fucking everything up. I’d say, with a large dose of smugness, “Take that AA! I’ve proven I can run on self-will, still drink, and be successful and happy. Ha ha!”

But ultimately, the line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful,” proved to be true. It took a while to progress to the last stages, but I managed. I eventually became that person with the blinds shut, drinking vodka all day; only difference was I attempted to watch television but was too drunk to follow what was going on.

I, unfortunately, had to reach bottom.

However, I don’t think everyone has to reach a low point, or bottom (every time I thought I’d hit bottom I’d hit a new lower one) before they get on the lifeboat, and I mean that literally. For example: you’re tossed at sea, the boat is only a few yards away but you don’t know how to swim. Wouldn’t you at least attempt to move your legs and arms a certain way, where you start moving towards the boat? Or, what if you just flail, begin sinking, but then decide to make an effort to swim, but it’s too late and you run out of breath? Your last thought might be, “Dammit, why didn’t I try to swim earlier? Now I’m going to die.” The analogy holds true for saving our lives before we lose our last breath to addiction. We have to keep trying to get on that lifeboat before it’s too late.

Even though I thought I truly wanted to die in my last stage, I’m glad I didn’t. Not only because I want to live but because of how I’d die. Does anyone really want to die this way? Knowing you could have gotten help, knowing you were not a bad person—just a wasted one—who sacrificed yourself for a drug? I think when we sober up we have to concede that no one, even sober people with nihilistic tendencies, would want to die this way. It would actually be better to die by our own hands sober, because at least we’d know what we were doing. But dying drunk or high—our minds are too clouded to grasp the magnitude of what we’re about to do.

Nowadays, I go to myriad meetings all over the place and I can tell you with some certitude: I’ve never heard the comments said to me to a relapsing newcomer now. I think AA (in my humble opinion; no patronizing meant), has evolved, becoming far more tolerant and compassionate than it was years ago.

I’m not going to end this with slogans like: “If you’re new, stick around,” “The newcomer is the most important person in the room” but I will tell you this: listen to your heart; meditate on your relationship with alcohol. Believe me, if a wretch like me could make it one day at a time, you can too. And if someone gets in your face, tells you to come back when you’re serious, tell them to eat shit and walk away. If you’re told “you’re not ready,” don’t believe them. Just showing up to a meeting shows you’re ready on some level.

Who knows what it is that puts us in spontaneous remission? Who knows what will end our drinking? Who knows when that light will come on and stay on? If you’re a chronic relapser (like I was), but you keep trying, your day will come when you’ve had enough. You’ll stop. Things may be difficult for a while, but if you just hang on and don’t give up, your life—at the very least—will get much better. And maybe, after some time, you could end up with a life that is great. Believe it.

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maggie weeks.jpg

Maggie formerly lived in Japan, but now resides in Bonita California. She has been a Japanese translator, professional dancer, and salesperson. She has written for San Diego Reader, Memoir Magazine and The Fix. She has also written a book, Memoirs of a Dancer, in 2004. She enjoys hip hop music, dancing, hiking, her husband, family and friends.