Have you ever noticed that the same issue sometimes bombards us from all angles for a while? It's funny how life seems to come in themes.
Lately I've been receiving a number of articles into my inbox, talking about addicts who relapse after they come out of treatment -- or even after many years of sobriety. Most of these writers are telling me that relapse is a 'normal part of recovery' from addiction. Some are even trying to differentiate between a lapse and a relapse, as if that jargon matters or is important. Basically, they're saying that relapse is to be expected -- and that we should not be too surprised or upset by it.
First of all, I don't agree with this premise at all, and secondly, I totally fail to see how it's helpful for an addict coming out of rehab -- or to their families and other loved ones -- to be armed with that kind of biased and ultimately untrue information.
When addicts of any kind have been abstinent from their addictive behaviour of choice for a time -- such as when they've participated in a structured treatment program -- a "relapse" becomes nothing more than a decision to use again. They know what it's like to be sober, to be living life on life's terms. They've been doing just that for a while, so they have already proven to themselves and to us that they can in fact do this.
But what appears to happen, for some addicts, is that when life becomes just a little too real for them and they don't feel like making the effort to shift, change, and grow in order to accommodate the hardships life can bring to any of us, they look for a way out -- and the way out they've used before starts calling their name. These addicts begin to "slip" -- another word for relapse -- which actually stands for Sobriety Loses Its Priority.
And that is when the choice point happens.
It's the same for all of us. None of us gets through this life unscathed, everybody has something difficult to deal with -- and for some, it's on an ongoing basis. I have Crohn's Disease, for example, which is a serious, often quite painful and debilitating illness. I've now struggled with it for over 40 years and have learned how to take much better care of myself, but because there is no known cure for Crohn's yet, I continue to live with the symptoms to some extent on a daily basis.
My own addiction began when I was diagnosed in 1973 and given as many prescriptions for Valium and strong painkillers as I wanted. Couple that with the pot I was also smoking several times a day (I do understand the lure of medical marijuana) and I became a full-fledged drug addict. Anybody's body would have become addicted to what I was putting into it day after day after day. My body definitely did.
Fastforward 15 years and I found myself at a pretty desperate bottom -- extremely depressed, suicidal and still very sick, physically. I'm so grateful that I reached out for help at that point and began to learn about addiction and recovery.
A huge part of that choice to get help and stay in recovery was that I had to be willing to learn how to face a life that wasn't very pleasant without the use of mind-altering drugs. I was still in really bad pain every single day, continuing to frequently experience symptoms not unlike severe food poisoning. I can tell you that it wasn't fun -- and now, 27+ years later, I still sometimes have days like that. And I'm still abstinent from mind-altering substances.
How, you ask? Simply because I make that choice every day.
What if I had been told all those years ago when I was in rehab, or later as I sat in meeting after meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, that relapse was a normal part of recovery and that I shouldn't be too surprised or worried about it? I'm pretty sure I would have used by now, given a free pass like that.
But I have never relapsed, one day at a time.
In fact, when I had my third major surgery for Crohn's in 1988, a mere eight months after choosing to practice a program of abstinent recovery, I recall waking up in my hospital bed connected to a morphine drip -- very scary stuff for a clean and sober addict. Of course I immediately knew I was already buzzed and that I loved the feeling. Pain? What pain?? The pleasure centre in this addict's brain was delighted!
But I also knew that it wouldn't take long at all for me to become addicted to this drug, it was just too good. So I made the decision that within two days after the surgery, I would stop using the morphine, instead keeping ice packs on my deep abdominal incision and controlling the pain as best I could with extra strength Tylenol. I remember that the nurses were often quite irritated with me as I lay in that bed, sometimes screaming in pain but refusing their addictive meds. Little by little, day after day, the pain subsided, as pain generally does when we give ourselves some time and learn healthier ways to deal with it. And I was still clean.
Now, I'm not trying to give you an "I walked to school for five miles in the blizzarding snow and you should too" story. Everyone is different, and we all know what we can handle and what we absolutely can't. And some people who struggle with severe mental health issues, and who are not receiving professional help for that, may have a more difficult time staying away from addictive behaviours.
I deeply believe that there is a line between use and abuse. Sometimes we need medication, and sometimes that very medication can be potentially addictive. We need to be acutely honest with ourselves at those times (and perhaps accountable to someone else, like a sponsor) and not use to the point of abuse. That was an amazingly difficult time in my life, but the inner strength and self-respect I gained from that experience -- as well as from a number of other physical and emotional hardships I've gone through during my many years in recovery but making the choice not to relapse over -- have made me the person I am today, a person who's proud of herself and knows she can handle the tough times. I'm grateful for that, and I'd love it if we could all feel that way about ourselves.
Aren't we taking that possibility away from addicts when we tell them that relapse is a normal part of recovery, and that it's essentially OK if they choose that instead of squarely facing themselves?
And aren't we basically cutting their loved ones off at the knees by giving them that message too, by virtually telling them that they just have to put up with it when the addict they love relapses?
I've been in recovery long enough now to know people who've been given diagnoses of cancer, or who have had to deal with the death of their child or someone else close to them, and who have made the choice to remain abstinent instead of trying to hide from some pretty brutal realities of life. And I also know others who have had the proverbial 'broken shoelaces' and have chosen to use these as excuses to get loaded.
I'm reminded of Robin Williams and how very sad I was to hear of his death by suicide. I do so fervently wish there had been more help out there that he could have accessed for both his depression and his evolving Parkinson's. But at the same time, as I heard the details of how he took his life, I was struck by how much his recovery meant to him. It likely would have been a much easier death for him, had he used enough drugs and alcohol to simply overdose and pass out, never to wake up. But he made the choice to be clean and sober to the end, and I respect that decision.
It's absolutely up to the addict, whichever way they go in terms of staying abstinent or not -- millions of clean and sober addicts show us every day that relapse is NOT a normal, expected part of recovery, while others use when they want to because it's the softer, easier way out.
But make no mistake, for the vast majority of addicts, at the end of the day relapse is a choice, nothing more and nothing less.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
"For a long time I thought I did too much damage -- drug damage. I was a bit of a drifter. A guy who felt he grew up in something of a vacuum and wanted to see things, wanted to be inspired ... I spent years f--king off. But then I got burnt out and felt that I was wasting my opportunity." [Esquire, 2013]
“Without cigarettes, I would be doing heroin, probably, on a daily basis.” [Blender, 2007]
"I am an alcoholic and a drug addict ... I'm relatively new to being sober, considering the scope of time that I’ve been an addict, but within that scope, this is also the longest I’ve been sober; since iI began using." [Tumblr, 2014]
“The things I was putting in my body, my tolerance got so high. I got to the point where I couldn’t even count how many pills I was taking... I had overdosed in 2007, like right around Christmas in 2007… Pretty much almost died... I scared myself, like, ‘Yo! I need to, I need help. Like I can’t beat this on my own. I think that was my biggest problem… I mean, I’m sure that anybody with addiction—the biggest problem is admitting that you have a problem. Nobody wants to admit that they’re not in control of something.” [Access Hollywood, 2010]
"All those years of snorting coke, and then I accidentally get involved in heroin after smoking crack for the first time. It finally tied my shoelaces together... Smoking dope and smoking coke, you are rendered defenseless. The only way out of that hopeless state is intervention." [Rolling Stone, 2010]
"I spent most of my life looking for the quick fix and the deep kick. I shot drugs under freeway off-ramps with Mexican gangbangers and in thousand-dollar-a-day hotel suites. Now I sip vitamin-infused water and seek out wild, as opposed to farm-raised, salmon." ["Scar Tissue," published 2005]
"When I was 10 ½, I was sitting in a room with a group of young adults who were smoking pot. I wanted to try some, and they said, 'Sure. Isn't it cute, a little girl getting stoned?' Eventually that got boring, and my addict mind told me, 'Well, if smoking pot is cute, it'll also be cute to get the heavier stuff like cocaine.' It was gradual. What I did kept getting worse and worse, and I didn't care what anybody else thought." [People, 1989]
"I kind of took matters into my own hands and was creating drama in a very dangerous way. I think I was just bored, and I had seen everything. Especially when you're young, you just want more. ... At 18 I had just been doing a lot of cocaine." [People, 2007]
"I was consumed by cocaine, booze and who knows what else. I apparently never got the memo that the Me generation had ended." ["Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS," published 2012]
“Cocaine was even in the budgets of movies, thinly disguised. It was petty cash, you know? It was supplied, basically, on movie sets because everyone was doing it. People would make deals. Instead of having a cocktail, you’d have a line." [Newsweek, 2011]
“I got into a scene. I started going out and taking ecstasy. From ecstasy, it went to crystal meth. With any drugs, everything is great at the beginning, and then slowly your life starts to spiral down. [I was] 90 pounds at one point.” ["Oprah's Next Chapter," 2012]
"I had what they call a 'high bottom, my life didn't fall apart before I got into rehab. I didn't lose my job or run over a kid or injure anyone when I was high. But the hardest thing I do every day is not take cocaine. You don't get cured of addiction -- you're just in remission." [W Magazine, 2010]
"I hit rock bottom when I was doing “The Brady Brides.” I was supposed to be at the studio, screen testing to pick the guy that would play my husband. At this time, I had been up for three days doing coke and was playing solitaire in my closet. My agent had to go to the sixth floor, climb into my place, tear off my clothes and get me in the shower. He said, “You have to get to Paramount right now, and you have a problem.” I couldn’t hide anymore. Everyone knew -- the producers knew, everyone at Paramount knew, the guys testing to play my husband knew. It was the first time I had to face that I really had a problem." ["Today," 2008]
"Withdrawal -- it’s the worst thing. I was freezing cold, then sweating hot, then chattering and in so much pain. It was excruciating. At my very core, I did not like existing the way I had been.” [Us Weekly, 2010]
"I was so hooked on opiates [at that point] that I couldn't even leave my bedroom." [Press Conference, 2013]
"I went through heavy, darker times and I survived them. I didn't die young, so I'm very lucky. There are other artists and people who didn't survive certain things ... I think people can imagine that I did the most dangerous and I did the worst-and for many reasons I shouldn't be here." ["60 Minutes," 2011]
"It's been almost 15 years since I smoked last from a crack pipe. It's been almost 15 years since I waited on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx for my drugs." ["Wendy Williams Show," 2012]
"There was about a year’s span that I did cocaine that I was doing it -- you could say -- more occasionally, on the weekend. Then my weekend became a three-day weekend, then it became four, then it became five. I would do so much at a time that I would snort the coke and then I would sit there, I would take my pulse [thinking]: ‘I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying.’" ["Howard Stern," 2013]
"I lost everything. It's serious. It's serious when you lose your kids, your children, your wife, your band, your job and you'll never understand why because you're an addict. You can't figure that out." ["Dr. Oz," 2013]
“People don’t take it as seriously as it really is, it’s a mental illness and it’s a disease …There’s no pill that’s gonna change it …People need to have compassion for it …Being a former addict looking at it as I had a choice, because at some point in my disease I didn’t, I physically and emotionally couldn’t live without it, that was my medicine to my pain.” ["Extra," 2014]
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