Webster's defines relapse as "the act or an instance of backsliding, worsening, or subsiding OR a recurrence of symptoms of a disease after a period of improvement".
A friend of mine in recovery recently relapsed. She’s not the first person I’ve known who has relapsed and she won’t be the last. I relapsed (more than once) before this current stint of sobriety.
Beyond the importance of my expressing my lack of judgement and my love for her, my thoughts have been preoccupied with the language we use in recovery. Mutual friends expressed their dislike of the word relapse because they equate that language with shame. My initial reaction to those observations was to wonder if we are really all so sensitive that we cannot call things by name. Still, their observations have caused me to pause.
I started picking up 24-hour chips at AA meetings somewhere around 1992. From 1992 to 2009, I was never able to put together more than about 30 days of sobriety. Sometime in 2009/2010, I started moving into months of continuous sobriety before relapsing and picking up what I hope to be my last 24-hour chip on October 23, 2010. Clearly my path to sobriety was not a straight line and I’m not alone in that. I’m also very okay with that.
Please don’t misinterpret me. I do not believe that relapse has to be a part of recovery. I know that relapse can be very dangerous and that some don’t make it back. When I look back over my own story, the only explanation I have for making it back is my higher power. There simply is no other explanation.
But what about the language? Is it the language that causes the shame or is it the act itself? I believe it is the act coupled with the fear we have of telling anyone that it happened. We don’t want to tell our family and friends outside of recovery that we’ve relapsed because we’ve likely disappointed them before and we worry that we’ll lose whatever trust we’ve started to earn back. We don’t want to tell our recovery circle because we fear that they will be disappointed in us and we feel humiliated. But, if we’re honest, we’ve disappointed ourselves more than anyone else and the rest is just our ego talking.
I say this based on my own experience because, really, that’s all I have – my own experience. When I look back on my own attempts at sobriety, I don’t consider the time from 1992 to 2009 as a series of relapses. For me, I occasionally paused my drinking, but I didn’t make any sincere attempts at sobriety. I went to meetings and picked up desire chips to get my feet out of the fire or to pacify friends. In 2009, I went to AA because I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing and I didn’t know how to stop. In 2010, I relapsed because I wanted to escape how I felt. I went back to AA because my escape plan no longer worked. I knew too much about what sobriety could be to keep drinking and the rest is history.
Except maybe it’s not history.
Our liquor was but a symptom. Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64
In talking with my friend, I remembered that although I’ve not turned to alcohol or drugs in 9 years, I have turned to food and retail therapy. In the last three years, some personal trials and tribulations found me knee deep in a lot of unecessary spending and drawing on my old friend food for comfort. Shopping and eating are much easier than facing up to things and doing the work.
It’s only in the past year that I’ve started to realize the necessity of stepping out of the mall and away from the donuts. Why? Because, much like drinking, they stopped working. However, I hadn’t really been honest with anyone about the role shopping and food were taking in my life. Why? Because I was filled with shame. How could I, who has been sober for this long, find myself numbing with shopping and food? Don’t I sit in meetings and talk about my own sobriety? Don’t I know better? How could I, a Certified Whole30 Coach, be using food as a way to cope? Don’t I coach other people about their relationships with food? How can I talk about authenticity and vulnerability while hiding this? The list of questions goes on and on. So does the shame and the fear. Until it doesn’t.
Because we are only as sick as our secrets.
The shame and the fear started to subside the minute I was honest about what had been going on. I told my truth and started to realize that I had, to some extent, relapsed without relapsing. I didn’t pick up a drink or a drug – I changed my symptoms. Believe me, you can get away with bad food choices and shopping for A LOT LONGER than drinking lol. Shopping and eating don’t get me into the same kind of trouble that drinking or drugs did, but they still create consequences and a lot of secret-keeping. I also extended myself the grace that I would offer to anyone I know who relapses. I was numbing because I didn’t want to face my feelings. I couldn’t go back to my old escape plan so I found a new one. In the end, that one doesn’t work either. What works for me is working my program of recovery as an honest, open, and willing alcoholic and addict in recovery. My friend who relapsed taught me that.
NOTE: I still don’t know whether it should be called relapse or not….or even if you have to pick up to truly relapse….my guess is that’s not the important part of this discussion.