Long-term, sustainable recovery from alcohol or drugs is not only possible, thousands of people experience it every day. Staying sober or free from alcohol and drugs for the long haul takes work. Recovery is a journey—and work. A journey that’s just as unique as each person who is sober. But what’s common to all recovery journeys is the fact that it is ongoing work.
Today, most people who are struggling with an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder (SUD) go to some type of addiction treatment facility or rehab. Many of those who leave rehab think that they are ‘better’ once they complete clinical treatment. This simply isn’t so.
There are also those, who after a period of sobriety, believe they can control their drinking or drug use. This was my story. While relapse certainly isn’t encouraged, there can be a lot to learn from relapsing. I know I did. Here’s my recovery and relapse story:
Was I Really An Alcoholic?
After years of using alcohol to cope with life’s ups and downs and hide from emotional pain, I was faced with losing my family if I didn’t get help. Deep down I had known for many years my relationship with alcohol was unhealthy, yet I continued to drink. After all, it was the only way I knew to cope with the pain, disappointment, and even good times that are all a part of life.
But I knew that I had to change or lose everything I held dear. I didn’t go into rehab but did attend a three-day detox. In my mind, all I had to do was get through the three days, get out, go home, and life would be back to normal. All I wanted to do was check the boxes and get out.
However, during my time there I was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). At an AA meeting at the detox, I listened to words from the AA Big Book. I listened to other alcoholics tell their stories. It was the first time in my life I identified with others and their drinking. When words from the Big Book were read and resonated with me I was in shock that a book written in the 1930s by men knew my story and my relationship with alcohol.
I left the detox and went straight to an AA meeting. I was scared. I didn’t want to lose my family, my job, my life. However, when I got home all of that was gone. Flooded with unbearable pain (and no alcohol to cope) I went to AA meetings. I listened and I knew beyond any doubt that I was an alcoholic.
Fast forward. I got a sponsor, worked the twelve steps of AA, and my life began to come together again. I found a better job, my family returned, and I had something I had not experienced in many years—peace of mind. My life was good. Really good.
Life was so good, in fact, that I slowed down my attendance at AA meetings, I became less involved when I did attend, I stopped calling my sponsor, and I started talking to my former ‘party’ friends. It all seemed innocent enough to me. After all, I had more than three years of sobriety. I was pretty sure I had this alcoholism thing licked by now.
Then began the insidious, cunning thoughts that almost every alcoholic has at one time or another.
“You really weren’t that bad”, I’d tell myself. “I think it was the anti-anxiety medications, not the alcohol”, my brain continued to lie to me. And I started to believe it. I had gone from completely convinced I was an alcoholic to questioning it and rationalizing (once again) my alcohol consumption.
I spent more time with my party friends. I started talking about drinking, thinking about drinking. And I made a plan. I convinced myself that I was okay to drink again. Not only that but I believed that this time would be different. After all, I was happy now, had a good job, a great family back, and had complete peace of mind. I would be able to drink in moderation.I knew what I was doing.
So I went to happy hour.
How Just One Drink Turned Into Years of Drinking
I imagined myself sitting outside at a cafe with friends, laughing, joking, having fun all the while sipping that one glass of wine I was going to have—just one I told myself. This isn’t what happened.
What I had planned as a one-hour outing, turned into a 14-hour drinking spree. Once I picked up that first drink I simply couldn’t stop. My old friend alcohol was back and we were gonna have fun—at least just once.
There are some people who go out and drink or use drugs and come back to AA immediately. There are others who go out and stay out for years. And still, there are others who go out and never return.
According to research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 20-50% of individuals relapse in early recovery. There is limited information on how many people relapse after a few years of recovery but NIH also reports that rate to be between 20-80%. That’s a lot of people relapsing.
For many, their relapse will end in death. For others, they will go on drinking until the end, back in the life of pain, isolation, and fear. And for the lucky ones, they will find their way back to AA or whatever support group they prefer and get sober again—often for the long haul.
My relapse lasted four long, lonely, and painful years. It was fate that brought me back to the rooms of AA to get sober again—and my Higher Power. I didn’t want to go back, I didn’t want to get sober—in fact, I had completely convinced myself I wasn’t an alcoholic. The list of things I had lost again, relationships, jobs, money, and most importantly peace of mind I wrote off as meant to be.
Addiction and alcoholism both come with deep denial. I was in such denial despite the facts staring me in the face, I still didn’t want to admit I was an alcoholic. This despite being sober for nearly four years before.
I am one of the lucky ones. Not only did I get a chance to escape the bonds of alcoholism and addiction once but twice. If you go to enough AA meetings you’ll hear people say, “I know I have one more drunk in me, I don’t know if I can recover again.”
Recovery is hard. Recovery is work. And in my experience trying to get sober after being sober and relapsing was even harder. I often think that if I knew how hard it was going to be my second time around I probably would still be drinking.
But I”m not.
I’m sober again. I gratefully celebrated four years of continuous sobriety in January 2021. So what did I learn? A lot.
1. I am an alcoholic and addict.
While the evidence clearly showed this for years, my denial wouldn’t allow me to see it let alone accept it. I didn’t want to be an alcoholic, I wanted to be able to go out and drink like the many others I saw do it without problems. That’s not me. I can’t now nor will I ever be able to drink alcohol. Gratefully, today, I don’t want to drink. The obsession has been removed.
Getting sober after my relapse was tough. My mind kept telling me different things. It took months for me to believe I was an alcoholic again. It took more than two years for me to stop wanting to drink. I know now, without a doubt, I am and always will be an alcoholic and unable to drink alcohol in a healthy way.
2. Recovery is a journey, not a destination.
My first time sober I did everything just right. I attended all the right meetings, got into service, called my sponsor, worked the twelve steps, helped others, etc. In my mind, I had ‘achieved’ sobriety. I treated it like my college degree. I worked hard at it, beat it, and now was good to go out and use what I learned to drink like others.
Recovery is ongoing. I don’t reach it or achieve it on more than a day to day basis. If I want to stay sober today I have to do the work today. If I want to be sober tomorrow I have to do that same work tomorrow and so on. In my mind, once I had completed all of the work, I was good. I could stop meetings, stop helping others, and stop doing everything that kept me sober. Now I know better.
I can’t stay sober today on what I did yesterday.
3. There are things I need to do daily to stay sober.
This list can change but I have learned that I need certain ‘pieces of the puzzle’ in place to stay sober—and be happy. For me these include:
- Regularly attending AA meetings
- Having a homegroup that I am active in
- Maintaining friendships with sober women and men
- Engaging in prayer and meditation on a daily basis
- Taking care of myself
- Enjoying life
These may be different for different people but this is what works for me. When I let up on one or more of these, my sobriety suffers. I may not pick up a drink, but I’ll start to become restless, irritable, and discontent.
I’ll start to tell myself that I can miss a meeting here and there. That I don’t need to pick up the phone when an AA friend calls. All of that takes me one step closer to taking a drink. And even after my relapse, I can still begin to think this way when I don’t engage in each one of the items listed above. If I want to stay sober, if I want peace of mind so elusive to me most of my life, then I need to do these things.
As the Big Book of AA says, alcohol (and addiction) are ‘cunning, baffling, and powerful. My experience taught me just how true this is. If I don’t keep up on my program of sobriety, I will relapse again. And I don’t know if I have another recovery in me.
For this alcoholic/addict, I will do the work. I will stay close to the ties that help me to sustain my recovery. These are small prices to pay for the wonderful life I have again today.
Life without alcohol or drugs is possible. A life full of good things will come to those who work for it. If you or someone you love is living with an AUD or SUD, Futures Recovery Healthcare can help. We have three programs suited for the diverse groups of individuals in need of treatment.
If you have relapsed and aren’t sure what to do, reach out. The Rise Program at Futures is a treatment program that has been successful for some who haven’t found success in traditional addiction treatment programs.
Asking for help for an alcohol or drug problem isn’t easy—the first or second time. However, in my experience, I was welcomed back with open arms and I have found my peace of mind again. To learn more about our treatment programs contact us online or call 866-804-2098.