I’m A “Chronic Relapser” Is a Ridiculous Excuse
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I’m A “Chronic Relapser” Is a Ridiculous Excuse


This post was originally published on July 28, 2014.

A couple of years ago when I was at an Al-Anon meeting, a woman shared something that has definitely had a huge impact on my recovery, and in a larger sense, the way I (try) to live my life. She said she had been reading Muhammad Ali’s biography, and when the author asked him how he felt after he lost a fight, Ali replied (and I’m paraphrasing), “I have to ask myself two things: One, did I train as hard as I could for the fight? And two, did I fight to the best of my ability that night? And if I answered yes to both, then the rest was up to God and I move on.”

For me, when I feel overwhelmed or get bogged down with self-pity because things are not going the way I wish they would, I try to remember this (emphasis on try). And I have to ask myself what I did to prevent whatever shitty situation is going on from happening. So if I’m broke, I have to ask myself if I worked as hard as I could this month (I’m a self-employed writer). If I’m lonely, how much did I reach out to other people? If I’m just plain fucked up in the head, what am I doing to alleviate it? And if I want to stay sober, what am I doing about that? Because if just wanting to be sober was enough, I’d never have to go to AA meetings or do anything else to maintain what I fought so hard to get.

I bring this up because one of my least favorite things to hear in AA or NA is when someone labels themselves a “Chronic Relapser”—mostly because I think it gives them a license to fulfill their own prophecy. This may sound harsh, but it has been my experience that most folks who continually pick up a drink or drug are those who simply don’t do very much to prevent it from happening.

When I first came around, a “chronic relapser” who sporadically attended my men’s meeting died from an overdose. The guys were understandably upset and were sharing about it at the meeting. Finally one old-timer said, almost angrily, “AA is not for people who need it. It’s not for people who want it. It’s for people who actually fucking do it.” After sticking around for a little while, I realize that if someone truly wants to be clean and sober, it’s a lot easier to do that if they’re willing to go to one quarter of the same lengths to stay sober that they did to get high.

Today I had a conversation with one of my group’s new guys (five months sober), one who used to describe himself as a chronic relapser. He admitted that when he had been to AA previously, he really only came for appearances—for his family, girlfriend and fellow sober addicts. “I didn’t really want to stop drinking,” he said to me, “so why would I do what people suggested I do?”

That changed, he explained, his last time out, when he came close to killing himself before checking into a detox. Armed with the gift of desperation, he’s now a guy who is going to any lengths to stay sober by attending meetings daily, taking commitments with two home groups, doing service and making a ton of phone calls. Will he stay sober? That’s up to him. But if he continues to do what he’s doing, his odds have improved astronomically.

I can identify with his prior self, even though I was not a relapser. The first time I came into AA 15 years ago, I took no suggestions and continued to smoke weed and eat benzos but I was able to not drink for 49 days. When I did start drinking (because I had no tools to not do so), I thought I could just stop, but that was not the case. I went through four more years of hell before crawling back into the program. But at least I didn’t die (like my younger brother, who drank himself to death a couple of years ago) and this time I was desperate enough to take suggestions. The truth of the matter is that, much like the new guy in my group, the first time I came into AA I liked the idea of being sober a whole lot more than I did actually being sober. So there was no way I was going to pull out all the stops to get and stay there.

Remember, one of the great things about AA is that you don’t actually have to do anything, but it certainly works a lot better if you do. So if you’re a “chronic relapser” and you’d like to change that, here are my common sense suggestions.

1) Don’t fucking drink. I’m serious. Because if you don’t drink, you can’t get drunk. Also, don’t get high. When I was finally serious about getting sober, a woman from my beginner’s meeting used to say, “Don’t drink no matter what, and no matter what leaves room for nothing.” It sounds simple, but early on, when I wanted to drink, I heard her voice in my head and it helped.

2) Build your day around a meeting. People who attend meetings frequently have a much greater probability of staying sober once they put the drink down. What I heard when I came around was, “If you drank every day, you need to be at a meeting every day.” Another suggestion was to get there early and leave late. That way, if you’re struggling, there are people there who have been through the same thing. Also, go even if you’re drinking or using. I went to close to 100 meetings drunk, and if I didn’t keep going, I probably would be dead (I’m not being dramatic; I have cirrhosis). Just don’t drive there like I did. At some point though, try going sober. It works much better.

3) Get a sponsor and actually call them. If you drank and used enough to end up in AA or NA, and you’re in early sobriety, decision-making is probably not your strong point so accepting a little guidance is really helpful. Also, when finding a sponsor, try getting one who’s been sober for at least a couple years and has an actual program. That way, they’re less likely to co-sign your bullshit when you tell them you can’t make a meeting because America’s Got Talent is on. Remember, you don’t need your sponsor to be your friend—you just need someone who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth.

4) Use the phone, especially if you’re thinking of drinking or using. I must admit that I sucked at this for a long time, because I hate asking for help. But when I did it I always felt better. I recently asked one of the guys who I sponsor why he didn’t call me before he drank the last time and his answer was brilliant: “Because I knew you’d talk me out of it.” Exactly.

5) Pray. I know, I know. For many, this is a deal breaker. But a lot of us (including me) couldn’t stop drinking until we prayed. You don’t have to believe in God or go to church; just try praying for a little while. How could it hurt? It certainly beats suicide or an overdose and it’s free to boot.

These are just a couple of things that help people stay sober, and my real suggestion list is a lot longer (join a group, do service, do the steps), but they’re also the ones that “chronic relapsers” often don’t seem willing to do. Are there people that take all the suggestions and still drink and use? Yes. But there’s an awful lot more of them that don’t.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.