My sponsor loves to remind me that trying to understand irrational behavior with a rational mind is futile. Relapse, by definition, is irrational (and when repeated often enough presents itself as certifiably insane). Think about it: Most of us do arrive at treatment or the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous kicking and screaming. It's the last place we want to be. It's also usually our last hope. The pain has become too great (or the law too persuasive), and we say, “Uncle.” We admit defeat. We admit the problem is bad enough that, despite our pride and prejudice (we are not like those people in there, right?), we do the unthinkable: We ask for help.
For a time, we get clean and sober. Some of us even like it. Some of us love being sober so much we stay sober from the very start until the day they bury us (the sober minority). Some of us like it a whole lot, love it really, but after a while, for reasons beyond reason, we decide that — even though we feel so much better and our lives have gotten so much better and our loved ones love us so much more (or, at least, become much more willing to tolerate us) and we experience all these plusses and very few minuses — we decide that maybe we've overcorrected and we should test the waters that have bathed us in pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization just one more time. Why? Because maybe, just maybe (and especially given the volumes of brilliant knowledge we have gleaned nearly overnight about our condition and ourselves), maybe things will be different this time. Now that, to be sure, is the epitome of irrational thinking.
For those of us who make it back, one day the insanity of our relapse may present itself as a source of humor. I often laugh at the comic irony of my last relapse (which resulted in a 90-day drunk). I had been bouncing in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for 18 months after once having stayed sober nearly three years. One morning, with about three months of sobriety under my belt and nearly two full weeks without a meeting (I planned to go later that day, I told myself), I went out to the pool at the apartment complex where I lived to enjoy my coffee and the morning paper. I was the first to arrive and grab a chaise lounge. Around 10 a.m. a young woman arrived with an inflatable raft and one of those ever-so-quaint 6-pack coolers. She parked her raft at the other end of the pool and slipped a bright silver can out of the cooler before jumping onto her raft. A Coors Light, the Silver Bullet, to be sure.
Now, I want to clarify before going on that I'm a guy's guy and A Coors Light holds about as much appeal for me as a glass of ice tea. Actually, I'd prefer an ice tea, and I'd be most appreciative of a Long Island Ice Tea before all else. (Let's get all the white liquors on the bar into one glass; that, my friends, is a touch of class.) But something in my mind told me that a Coors Light might not be a bad idea. If this woman could handle a Coors Light at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, then why on earth couldn't I? It really didn't make any sense. She couldn't have been a day over 25 and probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet in a winter parka. I was a three-letter high school jock and a man who, at one time, could easily handle a fifth of the finest booze in the bar one night and still make it to work on time the next morning. Surely, I had not tried hard enough to make this drinking thing work.
And so, without another thought, and certainly without even a passing nod to my sponsor's phone number, I rose from the chaise (leaving my coffee cup, my towel and my newspaper behind because I'd be right back) and drove as quickly and directly as possible to the nearest convenience store where they sold beer, wine and spirits, and stocked up on all three, including a six-pack of my least favorite beer on the face of the earth: Coors Light. Less than 20 minutes after returning to the apartment, I had four of the watery beers down and two left to take out to the pool. No sooner had I repositioned my now mildly-buzzed ass in my previously reserved chaise lounge with the two remaining Coors Lights still in their plastic rings than my little inspiration came floating by on her inflatable pod of heavenliness holding, you guessed it, a bright silver can of Diet Coke.
Irrational minds see things irrationally, too.
I tell that story often at meetings mainly to establish that my Higher Power, for one, has a deliciously twisted sense of humor when it comes to playing tricks on an untreated alcoholic. And at that time, I was truly untreated and resisting everything about my sober life. Luckily, that relapse would lead to what I hope will remain my last surrender.
I wish all my stories of relapse could be so comic and ironic. Unfortunately they are not. About three months after that sunny summer morning by the pool in 1998, I returned to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the same time, two friends with whom I had both drunk and been sober for varying lengths of time, and who had also relapsed, returned to meetings. During the first six months of my sobriety, I drove one of them to a meeting nearly every day because his alcohol and meth habits had left him without a wife, without a job, without a car and living at his mother's house. The other, a woman whom I'd actually known in treatment five years earlier and drunk with on only one occasion because her drinking frightened me, refused to return to the same meetings we went to because she didn't wish to “be judged.” I share these facts because, although all three of us made some effort to return to a sober life, only one of us survived more than six months.
The young man, not yet 30, would eventually shoot himself in the chest in the front doorway of his mother's house. A few days later I was a pallbearer at his funeral. A week or so after his funeral, the young woman, not yet 40, would drink a bottle of windshield wiper fluid after being released from detox and never return from the coma it drove her into. I served as a pallbearer at her funeral as well. For reasons that made absolutely no sense, both had lost the one thing I was and am still able to find in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: HOPE.
It was at the young man's funeral that my sponsor (who also sponsored the now deceased younger man) first said to me, after I asked the questions why and what could we have done differently: “Don't try to understand an irrational act with a rational mind, Greg. If you stick around long enough, you'll see that some of us have to die so the rest of us can stay sober.”
Another one of those disheartening clichés that is so true as to become axiomatic. Some have to die so others can stay sober. If you stick around long enough you do begin to see it. And you become convinced that relapse is a means to one end or another.