As a detox clinic nurse, Diane watched the revolving door of repeat drunks. Some she knew she’d see again, having failed at sobriety one more time. Others seemed so very promising. One patient, when ready to leave, so clearly talked the talk and walked the walk that she was sure this one would make it. The next day he committed suicide.
Relapse is the ever-vigilant hound nipping at the heels of people with addiction, often leading to depression and despair. But some addicts get past it and slam the door on relapse forever. They quit using, find relief from their compulsive thinking, and sustain their sobriety and serenity.
How do they do it?
It can take many trips through treatment and a fall to a very deep bottom. Then something changes, and real recovery takes hold.
Linn’s Recovery at Gunpoint
Linn, a high school student, felt his heart ripped apart when his brother died in a car accident. Handed a beer as comfort, he downed it and the hurt went away. Booze became his grief medication while finishing school and after he got married. “I drank away a wife,” Linn says. An alcoholic herself, she had kept drinking after he came home from treatment. She had also found another man while Linn was away, and he was desperate to keep her. “I tried to keep things happy at home, so I started drinking again,” says Linn. “It was a train wreck and we split up.”
Drinking sprees spiraled into troublesome behavior. A DWI got Linn back in outpatient treatment, but he drank through that too. Another DWI landed him in jail. He stayed clean while on probation, but then “my buddies didn’t like me being sober. They’d say, ‘C’mon. C’mon. It’s hot out.’”
Using cocaine made it easy for Linn to consume even more liquor. He even sold some so he could get his supply for free. But Linn’s new girlfriend didn’t like his bad influence on her children, so he decided to quit his using. Yet, on a trip to visit relatives, he stopped at a bar and drank again while shooting pool. His pool earnings became a target for thieves who followed him out of the bar. When a gun was pointed at his eye, Linn says, “I saw the bullets in the chamber.” After being robbed and viciously kicked, “I lay there in the slush in February and knew I would end up at the cemetery if I didn’t give up drinking. I knew I had to clench my teeth and walk away. I became determined. I just plain wanted to live,” he says. He has been sober for 24 years.
For Linn, it took his grim brush with death to get him to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and embrace its program of recovery. His resolve was severely tested, however, when he was sent to Stillwater for a cocaine sale he had made months earlier. While there, he says, “I kept getting offers to get high. But I turned them down. Then they wouldn’t talk to me, like I was a plant or something. I turned into a kind of gentle guy, and I didn’t want to use.” His days of relapsing into insanity were over.
Linn has now been married for 20 years to the woman he almost lost. One way he stays sober is by taking other drunks to AA meetings. They help him remember how he almost ended up early in the cemetery. “Life is precious,” he says. “If you have a breath left in you, there is always hope.”
Lea’s Best Bet in GA
Lea started casino gambling 12 years ago, then quit and relapsed again and again. She became skilled in deceit. She couldn’t let on to her dating partner that she would be taking a midnight trip to the casino at the end of their Friday evening together, and maybe stay there the whole weekend. She couldn’t tell anyone that she used her student loan money to feed her habit. She hid the fact that she maxed out a credit card on one weekend.
From time to time, Lea went to Gamblers Anonymous meetings but slacked off each time. Her first time in treatment, she gambled right through it. The next time, she worked hard to change, “but I still thought I could go to one meeting a week and stay clean. I needed a sponsor, but I wasn’t willing to do that.”
Along the way, Lea lost her job. She became so depressed that she was saving up pills for suicide. She stole money from her partner, who now lived with her. Her partner almost called the cops. When her partner’s sister was dying, Lea couldn’t offer support. Instead she went to the casino. Her partner moved out.
Says Lea, “I knew I was going to lose everything. My partner. My house. I didn’t want to go to treatment again. Yet it was clear I couldn’t stop on my own. I just couldn’t do it.” She headed to a GA meeting and attended GA’s annual conference. “I got a part in a play that we put on at the conference,” Lea says. “I really connected with people who have strong recovery and decided I would do whatever they were doing.” She set off to 30 meetings in 30 days.
Lea has maintained steady recovery by immersing herself in its Twelve Step program for the past two years. “It’s taken this long to have faith that the Twelve Steps work if you practice them,” she says. Lea attends 3-4 meetings a week, has a sponsor and is a sponsor, volunteers for meeting jobs, and takes on leadership roles for Intergroup and the annual GA conference. “If I hadn’t come back to GA, I don’t think I’d be alive right now,” Lea says. “I’m entrenched in GA, and that’s what it’s taken for me. My life has gotten so much easier now that I work the Steps. I’m a dependable person. People can count on me.” And that includes her partner.
Jeanie’s Last Bite of Self-Deceit Jeanie had a similar track record with food addiction. She rode a roller coaster of huge weight gains and losses, unable to follow through for long on diet promises she made to herself. “Ropes of sand,” she calls these promises. When her eating behaviors were becoming even more extreme and she heard her doctor’s warnings about heart disease and stroke, she knew something had to change.
Jeanie embraced the Overeaters Anonymous in Action program, a variation of OA with strict guidelines. She calls in her food plan daily to a sponsor, and weighs and measures everything she consumes. When she spontaneously bought a watermelon for her grandchildren one day, she took a few bites, rationalizing that it was mostly water. Her sponsor said no, she had broken her abstinence. Despite this dent in Jeanie’s pride, she knew she could no longer could afford to deceive herself in any way. By letting her sponsor make this call, she moved beyond relapse into an even more committed recovery. Now, Jeanie says, “Every day I wake up and know what I’m going to eat for the day, and I don’t think about it.” She has lost 78 pounds, and gained her freedom from compulsive overeating.
Pat Samples is a freelance writer and personal writing coach. She is the author of Self-Care for Caregivers: A Twelve Step Approach and other books. Visit her website: PatSamples.com
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