Relapse is often a part of recovery. It doesn’t have to be, but it often is. And it’s not always a bad thing – sometimes it is necessary if one is to have quality sobriety. What’s frightening is that some people don’t make it back from a relapse. They die. I was lucky.
I had relapsed before when I was eighteen and nineteen. I’d put together three or four or six months sober and then relapse for a month or two.
But i didn’t imagine that I would relapse after a year and a half sober.
It’s important to catalog our time clean and sober in the rooms, but it can also be detrimental, because we can think that just being sober for a certain period of time means that we are now healthy and recovered. But it isn’t so. You could stay sober for ten years, white knuckling the shit out of it, but if you aren’t doing the spiritual work, you aren’t recovered. You’re dry. And a dry drunk is often worse than a wet one.
I certainly thought that because I had made it past one year, everything was fine and dandy. But in actuality, I had yet to truly address the sickness in my soul. I didn’t know it was there. I was too busy dating and going to school and being twenty years old to give it much thought. I thought I felt fear and anxiety and depression because “that’s just the way life is.” But you can only ignore the soul sickness for so long. It is begging to be dealt with, and it will manifest in all sorts of unpleasant ways until you finally have the guts to get down in the sop and the goop of it, all that rotting trauma and pain, and start cleaning it out.
Alcoholism is often referred to as a “cunning, baffling, powerful disease.” “A disease of insanity.” “An insidious monster.” “A progressive illness.” When we are not in a fit spiritual condition, relapse can sneak up on us when we least expect it and completely morph and manipulate our perception. It can convince us that we are not alcoholics and that drinking again won’t cause any harm. It wipes away all recollection of just how bad previous experiences were, or it whisper sweetly, but it will be different this time. Because the power of this is so great, so strong, so beyond human our will to defend, the core of recovery is about finding a Higher Power through which we can heal and eventually align our human will power. Left to our devices in an unrecovered alcoholic mind is risky business. And miserable.
This cunning baffling powerful illness snuck up on me after a year and half sober, and without even thinking about it I swallowed a Vicodin. I knew it wasn’t sober behavior, but I didn’t care and I wasn’t concerned. I’ll deal with consequences later. Insane.
Within weeks I was drinking every day, popping (and stealing) pills, smoking weed, snorting cocaine, driving drunk, and sleeping around. My usual platter of alcoholism. Because I was still only twenty-two at this time, almost done with community college and ready to transfer to UCLA, and finally free of that turbulent relationship with Mark, things looked okay on the outside and I was able to get away with drinking and drugging again for about a year. There were a few fun nights and some lucky escapes. But ultimately I ended up on my hands and knees praying for God to help me, riddled deeply with fear and despair and bewilderment. I knew in my heart of hearts that I was alcoholic. There was no question. But that’s just the beginning.
Thus began another attempt at sobriety and recovery through AA. I started again the way you always start – In late November of 2007, I went to a meeting and raised my hand and admitted I was a newcomer.
I was living back in Los Angeles and a full time English major at UCLA. I was in a serious relationship with a fellow sober alcoholic. In those first few months sober again, I was elated. I felt so thankful to have made it back to program without any serious wreckage. I was loving studying and wandering the beautiful campus of UCLA. I was deeply in love with Christopher and spent most of my time with him and his brother and various friends. We had fun. I miss those days, once in a while, those days of being a student and not following a 9 to 5 schedule and smoking at meetings and staying up late playing games and listening to music. It was a sweet time, and Christopher and I were very much in love. Well, we thought we were.
Around May 2008, something began to shift. Everything would be fine, and then all of sudden I would be filled with a rage so sharp and a pain so excruciating, I’d sneak into my shower to wail. Christopher was baffled. What was the matter? I didn’t know. I thought I had that mysterious form of severe PMS that girls whispered about. Maybe I had an anxiety disorder, or my depression was coming back and I needed to go on medication. Never once did it occur to me that I was spiritually sick.
I quickly began to fix myself from the outside in, at first in a lot of seemingly positive ways. I switched from coffee to green tea and quit smoking cigarettes. I stopped eating sugar and junk food and replaced everything with fruits and vegetables. I made myself go to bed earlier and not watch so much TV. Thus began a health obsession and an eating disorder and a period of hypochondria that can only be described as one thing: a substitute for drinking.
Alcoholics love to obsess. It’s built into the illness. We’re miserable, we obsess, we drink, we feel better, then we’re miserable again. And we can obsess about anything. We can “get high” on anything. Because I was still essentially a dry drunk who had not given herself a chance to recover through the 12 steps (see the blog on Inside job: Men) my illness transferred elsewhere.
I became obsessed with “healing” my body. Cleanses, diets, detoxes. Pure food, organic food, raw food. I was terrified of yeast infections and bladder infections and skin problems and all these invisible things I thought were in me. I worried about every single thing that went in my mouth or on my body. And I started to lose weight. A lot of it.
I didn’t set out to lose weight in the beginning. I mean, I assumed some weight would come off, and I was glad about this, but I didn’t expect to drop down to a size 2 in a few months. It was…exhilarating. It was the first time in years of making attempts to turn my curvy body into a thin one that it actually worked. I got thin. I weighed 115 pounds, which blew my mind. Even at my most fit in high school, I hovered around 125.
The exhilaration didn’t exactly last, because like any obsession, you are never fully satisfied and you just want more and more. Around the same time, the chronic pain that had been lingering in my body since I went to Boulder began to flare in a way I had never experienced. I had learned to ignore the sciatica and neck pains and I started to develop when I went off to college. I thought they were from sports injuries and the wear and tear of life. They didn’t bother me too much. But for whatever reason, during this time in 2008, the pain sharpened and increased and even seemed to spread.
Thus began another obsession: fixing my pain. I have always been a determined person, and when I set my mind to something, I dive in full force. I was determined to find out what was wrong with me and fix what felt like a broken body. I started going to countless doctors, chiropractors, healers, massage therapists, and specialists. I let them X-ray and inject and poke and prod and rub and bend and push and pull me. And I left every appointment pretending that I felt better. I never did. And they never found anything either.
You can imagine what a treat of a girlfriend I was at this time. I was literally incapable of being present to him. All I cared about was fixing my body, making it smaller and making it hurt less. I was under weight and malnourished. I was angry and scared. I was selfish and cold. Christopher hung in there with me for longer than he wanted to. We had loved each other so much for a time, had let each other so completely into each others lives, and it was devastating when he broke up with me. But I’m glad he did, for both our sakes.
Miraculously, I stayed sober through this entire time. I stayed sober through severe pain and coming to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder and all through breaking up with Chris and finishing my degree at UCLA. I made attempts to get better, and some of them let a little light into my world.
I stayed sober a whole year after breaking up with Chris, and though it had its moments of clarity and happiness, it was a rather miserable time. I was spiritually sick and unwilling to make changes. I saw myself as a victim. I was bitter that I was in pain and bitter that I could no longer control my weight and eating habits and bitter that I was starting graduate school so quickly. I felt trapped and helpless and locked up in my head. Most of all, I hadn’t built a foundation in recovery. My entire first year sober was spent completely enamored with Christopher and wrapped in fixing my body and focused on doing well in school. I had no center in my soul and no connection to God. So I started to blame God.
i thought God had abandoned me and that was why I was in pain and so miserable. I thought God wanted me to suffer. I thought God was the reason that I hated myself and my life and nearly everyone in it. I was lost. And I started to think about pills a lot. A lot.
That’s how alcoholism works. It creeps back in and plants itself in the center of your brain, and then it becomes the obsession to supersede all obsessions.
So I started thinking about pills. But I also started thinking about death. Suicide. Hanging myself. Overdosing. Driving my car off the road. I felt completely dead on the inside, consumed with self-pity and rage and fear and resentment. Completely blocked off from joy and light and grace. But I kept a happy face to the world. I’m real good at that. It was always one of my major flaws when it came to recovery since I’d first set foot in a meeting at 17 years old. I had no idea how to express my feelings and to ask for help. The sheer thought of being that vulnerable made me nervous. I was far better at pretending everything was fine and figuring it out for myself. Even with therapists and sponsors I gave off a facade of being in control and doing well. I was good at expressing ideas and articulating well and saying what people wanted to hear. But I couldn’t pour my heart out. It was too terrifying. This, however, is not an illness that we recover from by keeping secrets. No, no, no. And we cannot get better if we don’t start talking and telling the truth and sharing our deepest feelings.
I didn’t know how to do that. My whole life, I had never known how to do that.
And so I kept thinking about those pills. Kept thinking about dying some tragic drug-addled death. I thought and I thought and I thought, for months! Until my brain felt like it would explode.
And then I relapsed.