This post was originally published on March 13, 2014.
I’m not someone who grew up in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. I knew it existed, but I knew very little of what they taught and who belonged there. I knew a girl who I went to school with was jealous because her father paid more attention to his sponsee than to her. I remember watching a documentary in health class that said that most young women with drinking problems have had their first drink by age 14 so I let myself off the hook for ever being anything but an overachieving, perfectionist, periodically suicidal, self-injuring, depressive teen.
I had my first drink and drug at 18 and went to my first meeting at 23. When I raised my hand as a newcomer, people would ask, “Is this your first go of it?” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that anyone had gotten to the place of worthless exhaustion that I’d somehow trudged through for the past year and elected to go back there.
That’s when I got really scared. I thought I knew scared. I thought crying at how low my standards for myself had dropped and contemplating suicide in the bathroom at work and wasting my time and money on something that made me miserable but I didn’t know how to stop was scary. But the fact that I might go back—that the monster I’d been chasing could snatch me up once again—meant that I was still gripping the fears I was hoping to escape and had a new set to deal with.
Maybe if I’d grown up in the rooms I would have understood that relapse is not the end of the world, that it happens to a lot of people and that the important thing is to keep coming back. Maybe if I’d read the stories in the Big Book before taking a welcome chip and finding my sponsor, I would have had a better handle on what exactly I was signing up for. But I’d done it, I’d admitted to myself and a handful of sober friends that I was ready to do this and I wasn’t about to fail.
I found myself a sponsor with 11 years from her first day sober. I stuck with the winners and gravitated to the meetings where people had double-digit time. But over and over I heard, “Listen, if you relapse, it isn’t the end of the world.” I never bought it. I listened to them and nodded and didn’t get my sobriety date tattoo (yet) on their recommendation but I really just didn’t buy it. How can you go back to that world and have it be alright?
About 60 days into my sobriety, my worst fears were proven to be valid. My cousin relapsed and died. I barely knew she was in the fellowship. I remember when she started doing heroin and her father, who was in the program, relapsed from the trauma of it all. I’d heard she was in school to be a drug counselor. I made calls and went to meetings but my faith in the program was shaken. You tell me it’s okay to relapse, that I don’t have to be perfect? Then why did my family lose their 21=year-old daughter right as she started her seventh step? Meetings and calls didn’t keep her alive, why do I think they will for me? Sure I’m sitting in a room full of people for whom the program has worked, but why didn’t it work on her?
About 90 days into my sobriety, I had a very different experience with relapse. I went to a very boozy, druggy party (accompanied by my best sober friend with a contingency plan for if I felt triggered) where I saw what I used to look like and was thoroughly grossed out. As I walked out of the way of a cloud of weed smoke, I saw a friend who had only recently reached out to me that she was in the program and had been for longer than myself. I was excited for this chance to talk to her and brag to her about how proud I was to be surviving the party. Then as we were talking, a friend walked up to her and handed her a beer can. Which she opened. And drank from. I’m sure she saw my face drop as she excused herself and found a different conversation to be a part of.
I haven’t spoken to her since. Not because I’m mad at her, but because I just don’t know. I don’t know if that was a one-time slip up, I don’t know if she still identifies as an alcoholic. I don’t know why she got to keep her life and my cousin didn’t.
What do I know? I know that I know only a little. I believe that alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. I believe that an addict can never truly be cured. I believe that if I go my entire life without touching a drink or a drug, I can live the best life I possibly can. Do I believe that stays true if I do touch a drink or a drug?
I’m grateful that I don’t have to have an answer for that today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.
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