Relapse and Being Honest With Yourself

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

There's a term in recovery that I loathe, and that is "relapse."

I don't see recovery as a linear path. And the issue I've struggled with over the years with 12-step programs, counting days, ideas like "falling off the wagon" and relapse is that they assume we are on one: step one, step two, step three. Keep on walking, and you will reach the finish line. What that is - who knows! Some grand idea of being complete in some way.

But it's been my experience that healing is messy work. I'd even argue that just being a person who menstruates is messy work. We are on a natural time calendar. We are on spiralic time, Moon time. It wasn't really until I rejected the masculine, linear calendar and started honoring the moon cycles and my cycles that I started healing for real. That was, for me, the actual first step. Honor my body, honor the cycles, both inner and outer. And this is not to say that male bodies are on a different time than we are. No. Our bodies are slightly more in tune with the monthly cycles, and when out of sync, they may suffer more, but anyone can benefit from letting go of linear time. It's limiting.

So let's return to this idea of a relapse. You've collected a line of days, a row of checkboxes, and then one day, you fuck up. You relapse. And that negates all the work you've done, and you're back to square one.

This belief is harmful. It was harmful to me. It still is actually. I still fall into the trap of lining up days, one after the other, little checkmarks and feeling shame that I can't keep them going. I do it with exercise, with food and all sorts of habits. I am exalting the gods of consistency, perseverance, discipline.

A path to nowhere

Right now, I have 700 days of sobriety from alcohol. Seven-hundred days alcohol-free, but in those 700 days, I've been addicted to social media, I've eaten crazy amounts of sugar, I've gotten in countless fights with loved ones, I've drunk potentially harmful amounts of coffee. But no alcohol. It's a big deal, but it's also not.

I thought that by removing the substance I would solve the "problem." I believed eliminating alcohol would be my key to being healed, to being done.

When I gave up alcohol, making a promise under the full moon two July's ago, I wasn't stepping onto a new path. I was promising to continue walking the same spiral path I have always walked. And I would find myself again in situations and feelings that were similar. The beauty of the spiral is that each situation is different, you may feel like you're right back where you started, but you are not. You are a completely different person. Even if you only stayed sober for three days. You learned something. You're not the same person you were three days ago.

I had SO MANY of those days. Quitting for three days, a month, 100 days, even two years, back when I was pregnant and a new mom. I learned something each time. I was never back to square one, back to day one. That idea is bullshit, and it's not helpful.

If you commit to one day of reflection on the impact a substance has on your life, you are on the path to recovery.

A challenge

Once you've made that commitment, you enter the challenge phase. Now you will be faced with circumstances, relationships, environments where you would have used a substance to get through. You are naked and vulnerable, and it's scary and hard.

Start by making a list. When do you need your crutch? Here was my list—the list of the times I couldn't IMAGINE not having a drink. I encourage you to make your own. Whether you've been sober forever, or haven't started yet. Just make a list.

  • Social gatherings

  • Dates

  • Fancy dinners

  • Evenings when I'm stressed

  • Dinner parties

  • Family gatherings

  • Book club

  • Vacation

  • Brunch

Now, take a look at it. Each one of these is an opportunity for growth. It's an opportunity to face something. It may not be apparent at first that these situations have anything in common, but they might.

If you're just starting in your recovery journey, pick one of these things and try it sober. But do it mindfully, with a clear intention. You are going to watch your cravings, watch all the stories your mind creates. Watch the way that it bargains, and tries to undermine your decision. No judgment, just watch.

Rather than the idea of making it through a day sober, or a week - think about making it through a wedding sober. Or a cookout. Or a beach vacation, or an evening. Whatever it is that scares the crap out of you. I mean let's be honest, this is what we do anyway. We say, "I'll quit after New Years, I'll quit after the pandemic, I'll get my shit together when I get back from vacation." The truth is that these times are where the actual work is!

Feelings are your friends.

Pay attention to your feelings. The mind will do its thing, but what are you feeling? The feelings are our compass. They are our true North. The mind is just grasping, it doesn't want you to feel, so it's trying to come up with reasons to give up.

One day I noticed that I had the thought, "I don't want to go to this party if I can't drink." And I suddenly realized the truth - I just didn't actually want to go. At all. It was a feeling, not a thought. The feeling was just a "no" - do I want to go to this party? NO. That no was my truth. But the truth was scary.

What did that feeling bring up? So much brain bullshit. "I'll let people down, I'll never get invited back, word will get out that I turned down the invitation, they'll be angry at me, they'll never speak to me again, no one will like me."

What's more comfortable, dealing with all that garbage or just going to the party and having a drink? I'm sure for many people, just saying no to the party is not hard. Plenty of people live their lives with healthy boundaries. I was not one of those people. I am now. It's still hard, but I'm getting better.

What is that thing for you? Let's say it's vacation, let's say you're thinking, "I can't go to the beach and not have a margarita" - why not? Sit with it. Why not. Maybe you find yourself thinking that you don't know how to relax otherwise. That you CAN'T relax without it. Now, can you sit with that? Can you go deeper and ask yourself why again?

Staying on the spiral path

There are still times when I find myself in a situation and wonder how I let it get to this point? Healing is not a one-and-done thing. It's not a light switch. It's a spiral. I find myself back in a situation that feels similar, but I am not the same. I have changed. I can recognize what's happening and right myself. But I could never have come to that point without all the work that came before it.

Yesterday, I was upset and found myself driving aimlessly, crying. I wanted desperately to talk to someone, but my brain was creating a story that I was a burden, I'd be too much, I'd upset my friends, they have their own shit to deal with right now. I should be grateful for what I have, and on and on. How easy it was in the past to just crack open a bottle of wine. How easy, and yet, would it help me? Instead, I recognized the stories my brain was telling me, and I reached out to a couple of friends anyway. They gave me support. They listened and validated my feelings. I felt less lonely, less sad, and ultimately uplifted.

I only have these friends because I've done this work. The friends I had when I was drinking would have just gotten drunk with me. They would have commiserated, but they wouldn't have held space for my feelings. They would have encouraged me to drown them out. They would have fed my rage, but not my grief.

Every time we honor our feelings, we have a little opportunity for growth. We have the opportunity to expand the spiral.

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