This post was originally published on January 12, 2018.
The other night I got a call at about 1 am from a guy that I sponsor. He was a little frantic because he had just taken a bite out of a cake that was soaked in rum that his girlfriend’s friends had brought to her birthday party. “I took one bite and knew right after I swallowed it that it was loaded with booze, and I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “I know this sounds crazy, but should I change my sobriety date?”
It was late so I was (thankfully) too tired to laugh out loud, but instead just told him that since he didn’t do it on purpose, and didn’t woof the whole fucking thing down after realizing it was a booze cake, he was probably okay. (Besides, there isn’t much more than a good bar drink in “rum-soaked” cakes anyway.) Although I thought his thinking was a little extreme, I would rather have him react that way than have the cavalier attitude that some chronic relapsers do.
One of my least favorite things I hear people in AA say, usually with a straight face and a sanctimonious tone, is that they don’t want to pick up a drink (or drug) because they “don’t want to change their sobriety date,” as if the worst possible scenario of picking up a drink or drug would be the “humiliation” of picking up a newcomer chip. To which my knee-jerk response (to myself) is always: “Who says you’re going to get another one?” How about losing your job, your relationships, your living situation and your self-respect and dignity if you can’t get sober again? If you’re really an alcoholic, you usually don’t get a lot of choice about when you’re going to stop once the drinking starts.
Maybe this is just how I need to think if I want to stay sober. While not everybody who relapses has fatal or disastrous consequences, that’s what I’ve seen in both people in my recovery circles and in the detox units that I visit on a weekly basis. Relapses have significant consequences, especially for people who have put a couple of years of clean time together. Not everyone dies obviously, but a lot of them enter those hellish loops where they just can’t put together enough significant time to see their lives improve, so they just accept their shitty existence and keep on using and bouncing in and out of sobriety.
At the detox that I visit on Wednesdays, it seems that every other week there is a patient who has had significant time (two-to-25 years) but is now in their 10th, 20th or 50th rehab. The story is usually the same: they got sober, life got good, they stopped going to meetings, forgot about the hell of active addiction and now they’re living it again. One guy in my group was in one of those “60 days, relapse, four months, relapse, three weeks, relapse” cycles for nine years before finally putting sobriety in the number one slot (as they say in my group) and getting clean. He now has about 16 years clean and sober.
2014 was a tough year in my meetings, with a lot of folks who used to be regular attendees dying from alcohol and drug overdoses (yes, you can overdose on booze) or by suicide after struggling to get sober again and finding it was a lot harder than it had been before. Most of them weren’t the stereotypical low bottom types either. They weren’t homeless people living under the bridge. They were just people who failed to do what I heard from an old timer when I came back, namely: “Defend your sobriety date as if your life depended on it, because it’s not always a revolving door. You might not make it back through.” And those folks didn’t.
Defending my sobriety date was not something I did the first time around, even though I was not technically sober in the first place (I was still smoking weed and self-medicating with Xanax). I had stopped drinking for 49 days when a friend asked me to cop some blow for him from my dealer (he is, perhaps not coincidentally, now three years sober himself). Once I got him the coke, he offered me a line, and when I snorted it in the bathroom of the bar we were in, I immediately ordered a drink. I thought, “I can just start that AA shit again on Monday” and ordered a couple more. I was okay for about a week or so, but then my drinking and drugging reached a new low, a four-year stretch of utter misery. I think I thought getting another sobriety date would be like signing up for a class or something, but I had sorely underestimated the power of addiction. During that stretch, I developed cirrhosis, went into huge debt (from lawyer fees for DUIs and financing drug deals with a credit card), became suicidal and nearly drank myself to death.
That isn’t, of course, the case for all people. Someone very close to me recently started drinking again after 18 years of sobriety, but doesn’t appear to be having the kind of problems that I’ve had after resuming drinking (although he has made at least one trip to the ER). There are also people who have picked up enough newcomer chips to hold their own poker tournament, and they just keep bumping along in life. Based on my track record, I know I’m not one of those people.
Lately I’ve been observing the struggles of a guy that I sponsored about three years ago when he first got sober. Last spring he and I had a conversation, mostly about his reluctance to go to meetings on a regular basis. Life was good, his career was taking off and he was even dating a girl who did not drink. “I just don’t see myself going to four meetings a week for the rest of my life,” he said. And then he pretty much stopped going to meetings entirely.
He picked up a drink at the end of the summer and the drunken texts started, mostly about how much harder it was to stop this time. But he still didn’t want to go to meetings. He hit his first detox on Halloween, totaled his car and got his first DUI at Thanksgiving. Then he went to another detox and drank the day he left. Right before New Year’s, we had this text exchange:
Me: How’s things?
He: I give up.
He: Booze is easier than dealing with life.
Me: When it stops being so, call me.
He: I don’t know how to stop the second time.
And I understood, because it was exactly the same for me after I picked up the drink and drugs again.
The next day, he went to the emergency room for suicidal thinking and spent 10 days in a locked psychiatric ward before getting out yesterday and coming back to the group. I don’t know what’s going to happen next for him, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect it to be this way when he decided that his sobriety date was no longer important.
As for me, my actual sobriety date (September 10th 2003) itself is not important to me at all. I got sober late and no one will ever be impressed by the number of years I have, particularly considering that my groups are loaded with younger people who have a lot more time than I do.
What is important is that I know that if I pick up a drink or drug, I may not ever get another one.