Carry on My Wayward Son (Relapse Traps Pt. 2)

I relapsed

Just now.

Literally.  Relapse.  Not ten minutes ago I completely screwed the pooch.

I was unkind to my wife.  I lost my temper.  I was mean.

I was wrong.  And I was mean.

We had just gotten into bed.  She with the Mac on her lap (working on the taxes) and me with the PC on mine (to write this post).  Additionally, to my right, on the bedside table, was a green plastic cup filled a quarter of the way up with water that I may take my pills when I was ready for sleep.  Lorri looks over and mentions that my iPhone ought be removed from the table as it is quite expensive and would most probably be ruined were the water to spill.

“The water is not going to spill.”

Lorri takes a moment to remind me that the wood coating covering the top is raised and warped in multiple spots as a result of my leaving many glasses of water (many) to be pushed over and spilled by one of our three cats.

“I understand that.  This is why I have only put a little water in the glass which I will summarily swallow previous to turning in for the night.”

Lorri tells me that this is not really the point.  She attempts to be clear that it takes only a second for one of the cats to jump up and create a genuine problem which could very easily be solved by my removal of the iPhone.

I relent and move the phone, but not without grumbling that I am not a child and am quite capable of seeing to it that an inch of water does not spill over while I sit, very wide awake, not six inches away from it.

She again begins to tell me that I am missing the point, at which point I cut her off:

“I am not missing the fucking point!  The point is that I don’t need to be infantilized by your baseless worries.  I know I have made some bad choices with water.  I got it.  I know.  Having learned from those mistakes, I have made a point to bring only the little bit of water I will need to take my damn pills, which will not be there to be knocked over.  There is not going to be some covert cat sneak attack in the meantime.  You wanted me to move the phone, I moved the phone!  Get off my ass!”

Selfish.  Rageful.  Impulsive.


1st step: We accepted we were powerless over [insert addiction here]- that our lives had become unmanageable

I am powerless over impulsivity, rage and selfishness because they most definitely make my life unmanageable.

The reason I avoid drinking alcohol is that I never know where one drink might lead me.  It might lead me to a few drinks, a buzz, and my bed- it might lead me to a three-day binge which has me waking up in Winnipeg without any idea of how I got there.  It’s always Russian Roulette.  It’s a bad bet.  So it’s one I try to avoid making.

Similarly, once I make a choice to be selfish and rageful, I don’t really know where they will take me.  They might lead me to five minutes of uncomfortability followed by an amend or they might lead me to days of misery with a deep need to harm myself.


Much like my recent dance with painkillers, I came out of this one mostly unscathed.

After my little rant, and a short discomforting silence, I apologized to Lorri.  I told her that she was right to be concerned, especially considering my past behavior and that my temper was uncalled for and inappropriate.  We kissed and tenderly went on with our respective work.

Here’s the thing.  This was not my first relapse today.

I got on the scale this morning.  I also got on the scale late this afternoon.


I am powerless over the scale.  It makes my life unmanageable.

When I am in scale abstinence, which is the ideal state for me and the scale, the scale is hidden somewhere in the house.  Lorri abides that request.  She also gets that she is not responsible for my craziness and lets me have the scale back when I ask for it.  For me, the scale is no different from a shot of Makers Mark.  Once I get on, depending on the data the scale chooses to share with me, I might not get on again for a month or I might get on every other hour.


Further, I began the day with a cup of coffee.  I am powerless over caffeine.  I’m not entirely sure how unmanageable it makes my life, but it most certainly affects my mood.  I am unequivocally addicted to the drug caffeine.  Once I have that first cup, I never know how many more there’ll be.  Could be just the one.  Today it was five.  Down time, boredom, tiredness and social custom all participate in dictating the numbers.


Then there are the number of hours I spent on the internet today.  Just logging on can be paramount to a vodka martini or a Kit Kat.  I might just check my email and jump off.  I might end up staring mindlessly at Facebook for two hours waiting for someone to check that they like the new Iron & Wine video I posted.

Those are the relapses I can recall.  There were probably more.  There were a few yesterday and there will undoubtedly be some tomorrow.

My sponsor has oft stated, “In my active addiction, I had one relapse a day- and it lasted all day long.  In recovery, I relapse multiple times a day for far shorter periods.”

I am quite sure his point is that he used to be in denial and now he is not.

He was blind but now he can see.

I tend not to revisit the subjects I introduce via The Approvalholic.  Hell, I have an endless array of subjects to address and time is running away.

And yet, there is something about the way the previous two posts appeared to inform each other for some readers which brought me back to the notion of relapse.

This is to say that my last post detailing a genuine dark night of the soul may have mistakenly given the impression that I had come to understand my ideas concerning relapse as ego-fueled or some kind of convenient justification.  This is not so.  I mean, my ego and my denial are often bed partners and it is always possible that their alliance shows up uninvited and unnoticed.  But since I can’t presently be conscious of my subconscious,  I’m sticking with what I can overtly feel.  My bottom around authority did nothing to shift my feelings concerning relapse.  In fact, much to the contrary.

I was especially charged by a conversation I had shared with my father who has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for many years.  Dad was very concerned about my use of painkillers.  And let me be clear.  He had every right to be.  I am certainly powerless over painkillers and they clearly make my life unmanageable.  And he’s my dad.  So his worry certainly seemed entirely appropriate.  What is most fascinating to me is that he understands the use of pain pills as relapse, but not the caffeine, the scale, the internet, the rage or the selfishness.  Yes, I think we can all agree that the pain pills could probably take me down faster than the others.  But is that really how we define addiction?  Is there a hierarchy based on what can kill you most efficiently?

Now another factor is that dads 12-step membership is limited to AA whereas mine extends to Overeaters Anonymous (OA) and Al-Anon.  Without attempting to take Dad’s inventory, he has copped many times to having “earned a seat” in both those programs but has not frequented either to my understanding.  I am not suggesting this to be good or bad- simply pertinent.  Because I’ve got to imagine it informs the way a person views notions of addiction and relapse.

If we were to attempt to split all the 12-step programs into two camps, we might do so by designating the “stop doing it” camp (that is the programs where we are told that abstinence is the complete absence of the behavior- such as AA, GA (Gamblers Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous)) and the “do it differently” camp (that is the programs where we are told to define our own notions of abstinence by shifting the way we engage in the behavior such as Al-Anon, OA and SA (Sex Anonymous)).

For the dually addicted, this can become confusing, trying to keep track of what actions or inaction set me up as a success or failure in the eyes of each particular program.

Also, in each program, we have what is referred to as “the singleness of purpose.”  This tells us to that in AA we stick to dealing with the booze and in OA we stick to dealing with the food, etc and never the twain shall meet.  This is not only practical, but critical for many newcomers who perhaps don’t yet understand that, to a large extent, an addict is an addict is an addict.

Again, this brings us back to how we understand addiction.

I would offer up that addiction is an attempt at finding an “outside answer” to an “inside problem.”  A desire to squelch uncomfortable truths with exterior anesthetics.  Consequently, whether I am running from my issues via the use of booze, drugs, sex, food or whatever is, to a large extent, beside the point.

The newcomer crack addict might believe that he can only get help from another crack addict.  We want him to understand that he is safe among his own, so we create this environment for him.  That same crack addict may find himself two years sober with sixty extra pounds on his body as a product of a newly found sugar addiction.  He can then seek out the singleness of purpose in Overeaters Anonymous and bond with the foodies.  He finds a different sponsor and goes through the steps again.  A year later, he has dropped the weight only to find that he has maxed out three credit cards as he charges his way toward debtor’s prison.  Well, Debtor’s Anonymous (DA) is a powerful program with step work and sponsors as well.  He starts tracking his spending and constructing a budget.  He realizes that he spends an enormous amount of money on internet porn.  He shifts to using the free sites and quickly finds himself in an SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) meeting and then, upon visiting an Al-Anon meeting with his wife, realizes he needs their help as well.

So by the time this addict wraps his brain around all the substances that make his life unmanageable, he is trying to figure out how to get to the individual meetings of five different programs, manage call times with five different sponsors and finish up several in depth fourth steps.

Perhaps for this man, and many like him, the singleness of purpose begins to become less than useful, if not a bit crippling.  Perhaps a widening of the net becomes necessary.  Perhaps the best bet for this man is to let go of the need to compartmentalize every addiction (and maybe even consistantly restarting four or five different day counts)- and begin to experience himself as an addict.  An addict who, when engaging the things that he is powerless over, finds himself edging closer and closer to unmanagability.  An addict who is constantly relapsing.

And constantly recovering.

With the backing of Alcoholics Anonymous, I went ahead and started a new fellowship called Shame and Secrets Anonymous (SSA).  Yes, beginning a new program didn’t make the authoritative ego challenges any easier.  This is why SSA, as an organization, is presently on hiatus.  I need it to be for my own well being.  And, barring someone else stepping forth and volunteering to start up a new SSA meeting, it will be for a while.

With that said, I believe in the concept more than I believe in almost anything else.

John Bradshaw said that all addictions are essentially addictions to shame.  And shame is driven by secrecy.  For it would seem that the only reason to keep secrets about anything is because you are telling yourself that whatever you are keeping a secret about is, in some way, bad or wrong.

But, see, that is an illusion.  Good and bad and right and wrong and best and worst are simply adjectives that humans put on things.  They are judgments about choices.

Choices, though, are, in truth, neutral.

Think of it this way.  Can you name a single thing… a single action… a single choice… a single anything that every human being on the planet would agree is bad or wrong?  You can’t.  It’s impossible.  Therefore what we understand as bad or wrong is not about truth, it is about perspective.  If you let go of the perspective, just long enough to grasp that it IS a perspective, than you are left with nothing but a choice and it’s consequences.

Because consequences ARE real.  Choices are not innately good or bad- but all choices come with consequences.  Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, as it were.

If I don’t find the consequences of my choices enjoyable, I am free to make different choices.  In the 12-step rooms we are often told that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.  That is denial.  The delusion that things will change without our changing our choices.  As addicts, we come to see that without help from a power greater than ourselves we are doomed to repeat the same choices until we perish.  With the steps, we open up a portal to that power which in turn empowers us to make different choices.

Not all the time.  Just more often.

Progress not perfection.

When we make better choices, our lives seem to go more smoothly.  We spend more time manageable.

That has been my experience.  With Gods help, as a result of my work in The 12 Steps, my life has gotten increasingly better.  With each passing year, while my many relapses continue, I become happier more of the time.  I spend less time as a prisoner of my addictions and more time walking in the sunlight of the spirit.

When I approach addiction from this vantage point, as an overarching entity (my addict self)- I do not find it useful to keep careful track of how many days it has been since my last drink, my last drug, my last binge, my last spending spree, my last cigarette, my last cup of coffee, my last sexual escapade, or my last tirade.

I stay mindful.  I stay aware.  I check in.  I stay honest.  There’s nothing wrong with me getting drunk today.  There’s nothing wrong with me gorging myself on McDonalds today.  That’s my shame talking.  I don’t attempt to refrain from these behaviors because they are naughty.  I attempt to refrain from these behaviors because I don’t care for the consequences that they generally seem to come with.

When I yelled at my wife, I didn’t like how I felt afterward.  I will ask for God’s help to not do that again.  When I got on the scale this morning, I did not like how I felt afterward.  I will ask for God’s help to not do that again.  When I spent a week on painkillers, I did not like how I felt afterward.  I have asked God’s help to not do that again.  This does not mean that I will not do all of these things again.  I very well may.  One thing I can most certainly tell you about me is that I am a painfully slow learner.  I generally need to crash fairly hard into the sidewalk before I surrender.  it doesn’t serve me.  It seems to be how I am built.

But less today than yesterday.

The shaming consequences that have become par for the course in the rooms of recovery (detailed in part one of this post) are not the point.  A few have chimed in with the idea that not every person or meeting puts the same price on the concept of “clean time.”  Of course they don’t.  With that said, the notion that accruing time as a prime measure of wellness is not pervasive in the 12-step world seems, to this author, like the height of naiveté.  But it’s beside the point.  I am not interested in changing these programs.  They are not mine to manage, and I highly doubt they would improve under my leadership.

I simply have found that notions of relapse (as we generally understand them in the world of recovery) hold no weight for me.  I haven’t supported someone in counting days in years.  And I have no plans to start soon.

In this last phone call with my dad, he closed the conversation by asking:

“So one more thing.  Should I call to congratulate you next year on your anniversary?”

I replied, “Which anniversary?”

“What do you mean?”

I said, “Dad, I haven’t drank alcohol or used street drugs in a little over thirteen years.  I haven’t binged on fast food in about three years.  I think it’s about a year and a half since I smoked a cigarette.  I haven’t engaged in infidelity in twelve years.  I haven’t maxed out a credit card in maybe seven years.  I drank coffee this morning and have been an asshole in the last few hours.  Any of those you care to keep track of and call attention to would be fine.”

That’s not exactly what I said.  It wasn’t that eloquent.  But that was the basic idea.

Oh, one more thing.

After posting part one of this rant, one reader accused me of hubris.


That was a first.

Made me feel very Shakesperian.

  1. #1 by Daniela on February 14, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    Yup. Me thinks this is what it’s all about Charlie Brownski. Finding the center, or the neutral doesn’t seem to have as much appeal to some. Addiction, immaturity, shame & related psychological issues can prevent a person from quietly tolerating ones feelings & riding the wave knowing that this too shall pass. Finding that inner internal quiet is valuable beyond belief in allowing gentleness & a perhaps formerly unfelt easy neutral, one that doesn’t need to be fixed or stuffed or in some way obliterated in order to feel safe. It’s powerful stuff, this stuff of which you speak.

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