When I first began my journey of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I didn’t do it because I wanted to get sober. Sure, I agreed to go to detox, I agreed to go to rehab, I agreed to go to my first 12-step meeting, and agreed to try to live without alcohol and drugs, but it wasn’t a decision I wanted to make. It was a decision I had to make. My body was falling apart. My mental and emotional health was almost nonexistent. Everyone in my life that I cared about – my family, my friends, my employers, my romantic partners – had told me that if I didn’t get sober, they could no longer support or enable my behaviors. People told me I was going to die. Doctors told me my liver was failing and my body was experiencing an onslaught of the physical symptoms of addiction. Psychiatrists and therapists told me I was slowly going insane from ever-increasing alcohol and drug use. Hell, even my drinking buddies told me I was a little out of control.
So I decided to give “the whole sobriety thing” a try. I didn’t want to live a life without substances, but I did want to regain the love, trust, respect, and support of the people in my life. I wanted to be part of my family again. I wanted that old relationship back. I wanted that old job back. I wanted my old life back, the way it was before alcohol and drugs became a real problem. I knew the only way to achieve these goals was to do what people had been urging me to do for months and years: stop drinking and drugging and get some help. But deep down, I didn’t feel like I was truly finished with alcohol and drugs.
Despite my hesitation to end my relationship with alcohol and drugs, I began my journey of recovery. My therapist and doctor helped me get into a detox, the people at the detox helped me get into rehab, the people at the rehab helped me find a reputable sober living in NYC. I learned about long-term recovery and how to find meetings. The people at the meetings showed me, well, everything. Within mere weeks of my last drink, my life began improving almost immediately. I started sleeping better. My appetite came back and I started eating again. My mood stabilized and I stopped having uncontrollable emotional outbursts. Perceived sleights and annoyances didn’t bother me quite so much as they did when I’d been on a months-long bender. I started working again and I earned money that didn’t disappear the moment it was in my hand. My life began drastically improving, and the only substantial change I’d made was quitting alcohol and drugs.
A reservation for one
Yet even though my life was improving because I’d gotten sober, I still had reservations. I had secret thoughts and fantasies about one day being able to once again drink and drug successfully. I wanted the proverbial glass of champagne at my daughter’s wedding – even though I didn’t have a daughter and I don’t like champagne. I wanted to be able to have a few beers while watching the ballgame with my friends. I wanted to have a glass of wine at dinner or a cocktail or two to loosen me up on a first date. I wanted to be able to take a pill if I was having trouble sleeping or feeling a bit anxious. I wanted to be able to live like what I thought a normal person was.
Over time, my reservations became more intense. Even though these fantasies existed purely in my head, the more I entertained the thought of having a glass of champagne at my daughter’s wedding, the closer I came to doing harder drugs at imaginary parties. The more I fantasized about one glass of wine with dinner, the closer I got to calling the dope man. The more I thought about situations where it would be ok for me to drink or drug, the more situations I found where it would be acceptable. I didn’t know it yet, but I was already on the path to relapse.
We’re only as sick as our secrets
My first mistake was keeping my reservations to myself. Instead of talking about my reservations with my sponsor, I held them in. Instead of asking my friends in recovery if they’d ever had these feelings, I bottled them up. Instead of sharing about my reservations in a meeting, I tucked them away in the back of my mind. Mistakenly, I didn’t think anyone in my recovery community would understand the way I felt. I thought if I talked about having a desire to use, people would think I was weak or bad at being sober. I was afraid, full of guilt, shame, and remorse over the thoughts and feelings I had regarding my own sobriety. So I kept my reservations a secret. And secrets, if left untold for long enough, begin to fester.
Over the next few years, I built an invisible army of reservations about my own recovery. I had a laundry list of imaginary situations that would allow me to drink and drug without guilt, and started putting myself in situations where I knew drugs and alcohol would be present, as well as situations where no one knew I was in recovery. Eventually, after tiptoeing up to the line here and there, I finally decided to step across it. I relapsed. And with my relapse, my reservations turned into rationalizations.
“It’s not a big deal” and other lies I told myself
I didn’t think of my first relapse as a big deal. It was just a couple beers at a party. I barely got a buzz on, and I took a taxi home, so I didn’t even drive under the influence. I told myself it wasn’t a big enough relapse to tell anyone about, and certainly not a good enough reason to change my sobriety date. I told myself it was a one time thing, even though in the back of my mind I was already planning the next one.
The curious thing about the way alcohol and drugs affects us addicts, is that it turns us into liars almost immediately. I had relapsed, or slipped, or whatever you want to call it, and I didn’t tell a soul. That lie by omission (still a lie) sat in my head like a thorn in a lion’s paw, and soon enough I started feeling the familiar pangs of guilt, shame, and remorse. And what better way to deal with guilt and shame over relapsing in secret? More secret relapsing, of course!
Over the next few months I dipped my toe further and further into the sea of alcohol and drugs I’d escaped only a few short years ago. Ironically, I promised myself that I would only drink and drug in situations I deemed to be “safe.” I only used when I was out of town, on vacation, or around people who didn’t know I was in recovery. I took taxi cabs home from bars to avoid DUIs, and carefully protected my secret relapse. I fell for addiction’s greatest trick: not once did I think about any consequence beyond that of being found out by my peers and loved ones. My only concern was that I not get caught. I wasn’t worried about my health, safety, legal status, or emotional wellbeing.
Right back where I started
Without realizing it, I found myself right back in the same mindset I’d been in all those years ago, before I made the decision to get sober to make other people happy. I didn’t believe I was suffering any negative effects from alcohol and drug use. My secret was safe, and I was having fun. Or so I thought.
Over the next few weeks and months, the sober life I’d built for myself began eroding at an alarming rate. The money I’d saved from working began to disappear. My behavior and emotions became more erratic. I stopped going to meetings and started hanging out in bars. I started calling in sick to work. I would excuse myself from family functions, claiming to not feel well when really all I wanted to do was go to the bar and hang out with my friends. For years I’d been fighting my addiction with half measures, and now my addiction was once again winning.
Then, on a night where I’d gone out only expecting to have a couple of drinks, my relapse went from my dirty little secret to a matter of public record. After a series of increasingly bad decisions, I found myself waking up from a blackout in a jail cell. The truth was now undeniable: I had relapsed, and found an even deeper bottom than I had reached before.
Getting sober for myself this time
As news of my relapse and subsequent arrest reached my family, friends, and recovery community, waves of guilt, shame, and remorse came crashing down upon me. I felt a wave of self-pity and fear, and for a moment I thought about giving up. Luckily, I also had a few years of experience in recovery, and I knew how good it had felt to live a sober lifestyle. So after 24 hours on the pity pot, I called my sponsor and asked him to bring me to a meeting.
I was scared to go to that first meeting after my relapse. I worried that my fellows would shame or ostracize me for relapsing. I was afraid, but I knew what I needed to do. I went to a meeting, raised my hand, and shared about my relapse and the events leading up to it. After the meeting, they told me I was brave for sharing what I’d been through. They told me lose the guilt and learn the lesson. They told me that relapse is part of recovery – but it doesn’t have to be. They told me they loved me. They told me to keep coming. And so I did.
Recovery begins when we make a decision to change, and I decided I wanted to feel good again. Not the false, fleeting numbness of alcohol and drugs that I’d mistaken for happiness, but the true happiness and self-esteem that I’d felt living a life in recovery. I still wanted the trust and respect of my family, friends, employer, and romantic partner, but this time, it wasn’t the reason I got sober. This time, I wanted it for myself. I changed my life because I wanted my life to change. I was no longer getting sober for other people, this time, I did it for myself.
Renewed spirit, renewed recovery
Following my relapse, I gained a renewed spirit in my recovery. My reservations had been lifted, my rationalizations were defeated, and I was on the path to true physical, spiritual, and emotional recovery. I learned the dangers of keeping secrets, and the damage those secrets can cause. I accepted that there’s no way for me to drink and drug safely. I learned that I can’t control my addiction, no matter how hard I try. I learned how to deal with life on life’s terms. I learned that my recovery community is there for me, no matter what. I learned that my recovery is mine, and mine alone.
Today, my life isn’t perfect, but it is amazing. A life without alcohol and drugs has freed me from the death grip of my addiction. I don’t rely on any outside forces – alcohol, drugs, money, or romantic partners – to make me happy. Today I know that happiness and my recovery are an inside job. When I feel bad, I talk to someone about it, when there’s an issue that threatens my recovery, I share about it in a meeting. No more secrets, no more reservations, no more rationalizations, no more relapses, one day at a time.
— Anonymous for Avenues New York, 2018
For more information about Avenues New York sober livings and recovery services, please visit www.avenuesnewyork.com
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please seek the help of an addiction specialist, alcohol and drug counselor, case manager, medical detox center, inpatient rehab, or sober living residence. If you are experiencing withdrawals from alcohol or drugs, please seek medical attention or dial 911.