Whenever I have the honor of telling my story to a large group of people in recovery —after I've expressed my gratitude and announced my sobriety date — I usually open with something like this: “I took my first drink at 11, I came to my first meeting at 31, I'm 52 now and 13 years sober. Do the math and you’ll see, I'm an AA retread.”
For the sake of the uninitiated in the room, I'm usually quick to clarify that it isn't necessary to relapse. In fact, I'm sponsored by a man who has been sober more than 30 years and never taken a drink since the day he walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous. Well, whoopee for him, I say. That hasn't been my experience. I spent nearly eight years stalking sobriety before I finally surrendered to it. During those eight years, I put together as few as three days of sobriety and, surprisingly enough, as many as three years. The only good thing that happened during those eight years is that I kept coming back, again and again and again. Mainly because all of you planted the seed deeper and deeper each time I left and returned.
This year, where I live, we had an unseasonably warm March and with it a seeming rash of relapses. I don’t think we had any more relapses than usual, and I certainly don’t think the weather had anything to do with it. (Real alcoholics don’t drink because the weather is good or bad; real alcoholics drink because the weather is what it is.) Nonetheless, in a tight-knit recovery community like the one I live in, news of a relapse (too commonly minimized as a “slip”) and speculation about the causes travels fast and prompts community consternation.
Where my experience comes in handy is when someone relatively new decides to drink or use again. Usually, within days of the news that they've “left the program,” someone will ask me, “What should we do?” This is not flattery. They don't ask me that question because I'm so wise in the ways of recovery. They ask me because they know I've been there. The underlying question is, “Hey, you got drunk a lot when you first came around. What could people have done that would've made a difference?”
The sad but true answer is “nothing.” I'm a real alcoholic. In the absence of a well-maintained spiritual defense, there's little that can stand between me and the insanity of the first drink. When an alcoholic decides to drink (and the decision to drink is a conscious, if not always premeditated, choice), those left behind, especially those who are also relatively new to sobriety, often forget or dismiss the most primal fact of recovery: That we are powerless over alcohol … our own addiction to it as well as that of others.
By the same token, I do remember the lasting impression of the calls and visits I would receive in the early stages of my lapses. Phone calls or visits in those first few days from those who truly cared sometimes brought me right back to a meeting — and if not immediately, then usually within days. It’s been my experience, however, that if the alcoholic doesn’t come back within the first week, he or she probably won’t come back for a good long while.
All we can do at the outset of a relapse is extend our hand and love up our brothers and sisters in recovery. If the still-suffering alcoholic refuses the hand, all we can do is hope we’ve planted a seed that will grow into a burning desire to live a sober life and move on to the millions of other still-suffering alcoholics who do meet the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous: a desire to stop drinking.
In her May 19, 2012, RenewEveryDay.com blog post, “Baby Chicks — Carry the Message, Not the Alcoholic,” Ashley Dane (Follow Your Bliss) opens with this stupendously apt analogy:
“I was thinking the other day of something I heard about years ago. It was a story about how important it is for a baby chick to fight its way out of the egg. It is quite a struggle, and the impulse for any kind-hearted person would be to help the little guy out. So someone did that, and the baby chick died shortly thereafter. Apparently, the struggle to emerge activated necessary muscles that the chick would need for survival outside the egg. It needed to strengthen its neck muscles with the pecking and squirming, its little legs with the kicking and scratching. It is the same for us. We develop muscles and skills in our emerging process in recovery that are critical to our survival in sobriety. That is why they say to carry the message, and not the alcoholic – if we carry the alcoholic, they may not gain the musculature they need for the future. It isn’t always easy to know the dividing line between being of service, and being an enabler for other negative behaviors.”
Ashley Dane goes on to talk about the errant desire to chase after the unwilling. It’s a post well worth reading.
So, when someone I know or, even more painfully, when one of the men I sponsor and genuinely care about leaves the program to drink, I call (once, twice, maybe three times) to remind them my door is open. And then I remind myself (again and again) that I’m as powerless over their drinking as I am over my own in the absence of a solution.
I remind myself that the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking. I remind myself that I can’t instill the desperation that awakens that desire, only alcohol can. I remind myself that far more people need help than want it, yet we can only reach the wannabes. I remind myself, finally, that they will either drink their way back when the pain is great enough, or drink themselves to the gates of insanity and death. Ultimately, relapse is a means to one end or the other, but it is always a means to an end.