What happens if I relapse? Do I have to start all over?
Fairly early in my sobriety my husband left unexpectedly on a business trip. The last time he did that, I drank. For two straight days and after 68 days of not drinking. A lot of other things were going on right then including a nasty visit from the IRS, out-of-town guests, the death of my uncle and I couldn’t go to the funeral because of the nasty visit from the IRS. Stress upon stress and I was stressed.
So then the one who most held me accountable left and I took full advantage of that. Drinking that first glass/tumbler/bottle of wine felt amazing and perfect and beautiful. For about five minutes. Then my addiction kicked in and my drinking became what it always does: a race to oblivion. And everything changed. What felt amazing and perfect and beautiful became sad and destructive and pointless.
That race always ends up in the same place. Shame, regret, self-loathing and another Day 1.
Up until those two days, my sobriety was humming along. 68 days of not drinking for me is huge. 68 sober days all in a row is a major accomplishment for someone who drank every day without fail for over a decade. Then one day I drank and someone got out the big Sobriety Eraser and took my 68 days away from me.
You are back on Day 1. Those don’t count anymore. You blew it.
Did I? Did I really? Why did drinking for two days somehow erase all the days I didn’t drink before them? Yes, I was disappointed that I drank but I was still proud of the days I didn’t. Do the bad days count more than the good ones? Why do we have to start back on Day 1?
There’s a big difference to me in a real relapse and a slip.
In January 2016, I quit drinking. I didn’t want to quit drinking but I backed myself into a corner, got caught and I didn’t have a choice. So I did, and honestly, not drinking was pretty easy. I didn’t have cravings. I felt great. I told people it was my New Year’s Resolution to quit drinking for a year.
And that was the problem right there. In my mind and my heart, I knew not drinking was temporary. I never really intended to quit FOREVER.
I kept a little flame alive in my heart, the flicker of my love for wine, and let it burn quietly and hidden until I wanted to set it free. I knew that flame lived there. I needed it there. My wine didn’t die or leave me forever. I had just packed it away for a little while. So my “recovery” didn’t seem overwhelming or difficult because my recovery wasn’t a recovery at all. It was merely a tiny break. And I knew that from Day 1.
I promised my wine I would come back one day. And I did. Even worse than before.
Then my body gave up and my recovery got serious. Quitting drinking stopped being a choice and became a necessity. But even then, sadly even then, saying good bye to my beloved broke my heart. I didn’t want to lose my abusive lover even though it hurt me over and over and over again. I would leave for extended periods of time but would come back just for a moment. Those moments became fewer and fewer with more and more days in between.
The process of leaving had begun. The beginning of the end of my romance. This time my mind and my heart knew the leaving was a permanent one. I didn’t count sober days or even spend much time contemplating this whole recovery thing. I just kept moving forward day by day and doing the best I could.
Eventually I wanted to make it official. My Recovery became a thing. I started counting my sober days, proud of each one I added. I met sober friends online. I put my toe into the ocean of sobriety and decided I liked it there. At times sobriety was overwhelming. That word FOREVER would loom large and in all caps. At times sobriety was difficult. I fought cravings and boredom and hopelessness. There were days I went from contentment to despair to excitement to defeat and back again. Even so, I stayed sober. I did it.
Until I didn’t. For two days. And suddenly all my effort and work and accomplishment seemed unimportant and invalid. Was I really back on Day 1 again?
I’ve relapsed before. I went from not drinking to drinking heavily every day again. That counts. To me, that counts. The Sobriety Eraser should be used for those non-drinking days. I forfeited those when I went back to my old routine.
But one day or two days and then back fully committed to sobriety? Do we really have to start over then? I don’t think so. I really don’t. And I see far too many people beating themselves up about that one or two days. Even getting completely derailed over them.
Having to admit you’ve messed up, even if it’s just one drink, contains enough power to totally throw a person right back into heavy drinking.
Some people say don’t count your sober days. Just stay sober. That’s what really matters. I love this. Staying sober is what really matters. The not using is what what really matters.
But a lot of recovery warriors are counting. That number is important to them. They wear it like a badge of honor from a hard-fought and life-consuming war. And they should. They’ve earned that badge. Wear it, warriors! Wear it with pride!
Then something happens and they lapse. They slip up. I read about it often on social media. I even had someone share her lapse with me on Instagram yesterday.
Then these precious and struggling hearts start this whole song and dance about their recovery.
I almost deleted my account.
I didn’t want to tell anyone.
I let everyone down.
I can’t believe I did it.
I’m starting all over.
I knew better.
It wasn’t worth it and now I’ve blown it.
This time I’ll do better.
I was (insert reason) and I used.
What was I thinking?
I’ll never be able to stay sober.
How did I let this happen?
I’m so embarrassed.
I‘m back to Day 1 again.
I’m back to Day 1 again.
I’m back to Day 1 again.
I don’t buy it. I don’t even accept it. Staying sober is hard. Every day hard. Sometimes every minute hard. Why do we need to carry around this huge bag of ugliness and defeat just because we stumbled briefly on this long road of recovery? Throw that bag down, kick it off your path and keep moving. Your recovery is not ruined if you lapse. A misstep does not do away with all the good and right that came before it.
If you were running a race and stumbled, would you just stop and not finish the race? No, you wouldn’t.
If you are on a diet and have lost 50 pounds and then eat a piece of chocolate, do you suddenly gain 50 pounds back? No, you don’t.
If you get a speeding ticket after 30 years of perfect driving, are you now a risk on the road and a bad driver? No, of course not.
If you prepare a home-cooked meal every night for your family and then order pizza one night, are you a bad mom? No, definitely not! Can you imagine?
If you commit to reading the Bible every day for a year and then miss one day in October, do you just give up and start over? Or worse, quit altogether? I hope not! I hope you would pick back up where you were and not invalidate the ten months you just accomplished.
One small slip in your sobriety does not invalidate or erase or take away all the sober days that came before it.
A slip is a slip.
slide unintentionally for a short distance, typically losing one’s balance or footing
an act of sliding unintentionally for a short distance
a minor or careless mistake
One day there will be no more slips. No more lapses or relapses. Just a lovely and unending string of sober days stretching out behind us. Until that day, let’s be kind to ourselves and each other. We all want the same thing: to be healthy and sober and happy.
Our individual paths will all look differently and that’s okay. Some of us will stumble more than others and that’s okay. We just need to keep moving in the right direction. No matter how many times we have to redirect or restart, as long as we do that and don’t quit (or worse, start moving backwards), we will be okay.
I believe it.
Recently my husband left unexpectedly on a business trip.
My first thought was “He would never know if you drank. You could and no one would ever know.”
My second thought was “But you would. You would know.”
I would too. I would know and I don’t want to know that about me anymore. I’ve come a long way. That day was not easy. I battled cravings most of the day. I stayed home and away from any temptation. I stayed sober. Praise the Lord! I stayed sober.
Battling cravings is like playing Whack-A-Mole. I spent much of that day with a big ole mallet in my hand whacking away at those cravings when they popped their ugly little heads out of their hole. Whack! Whack! Whack!
If you’re struggling today or if you’ve stumbled, I pray you can show yourself grace and forgiveness. This road we are on is a tough one but we need to finish it. We need to follow it until we reach our destination.
You can do it. Be well, friend.