3 Reasons Relapses Aren’t OK

We Can't Fail Unless We Stop TryingWe tell our teenagers not to drink, then follow it up with, “If you do drink, don’t ever drive.” Leaving out the second part would be parental neglect even though it tacitly undermines the instruction to abstain altogether. Kids understand where we draw the line in the sand. Not drinking becomes a strong suggestion with limited consequences. As parents, we are in one of the many impossible situations inherent in loving teenagers.


I answer emails and texts and social media comments and phone calls daily from people dealing with temptations to drink alcohol and violate their commitments to sobriety. While each situation is unique, and thus my responses are individualized, generally speaking, I try to provide encouragement, information about brain chemistry, resources for pro-recovery nutrition and suggested activities that worked for me when I was in their exact same situations.


But I never tell them it is OK to give in and drink.


That would undermine their lifesaving efforts to quit. That would weaken their resolves. That would be tacit permission to tumble backwards – even just this once.


You should never drink again. But if you do, it’s OK. I would never say that because I don’t believe it is OK to drink. Alcoholism is a downward spiral, and early recovery is all about changing the trajectory of our lives. The transition from hopeless free-fall to climbing from the pit is arduous and painful and doubtful and lonely. The last thing we need to do is add the shame of failure to the burden we carry. Recovery is hard enough, and one night of relief will only make it harder. Here are three reasons why relapse is not OK:


Relapses Breed Relapses

Driving a stick-shift is hard until it isn’t. Playing euchre looks confusing until you try it. And you are only a virgin until you aren’t. Once we take the lid off the bottle, we can’t seem to get it back on, right? Once we relapse once, the second and third and fourth times become easier and easier to justify until sobriety becomes hopeless.


I have written about a half dozen of my relapses on my way to permanent sobriety. I’ve actually relapsed more times than that, but the details are foggy and hard to capture in writing. Early on, I relapsed because of temptations to drink. So, I learned and prepared for triggers and got better at dealing. Then, I relapsed because sobriety didn’t fix my marriage. I felt hopeless, and drowned that despair in the drink. I learned that my marriage needed to recover requiring effort and patience, and was better prepared the next time. Later, I relapsed because I made it six, and then nine months, and my life was not yet perfect. I didn’t understand that our brains take a year or more to return to near-normal neurological function. I learned that lesson, and lowered my expectations.  Finally, I relapsed because I had kept my affliction a secret. As a high-functioning alcoholic, I had hidden my affliction pretty well from most people. Without the accountability of my friends and family, it was easy to start drinking again with very limited explanation. Once I decided to recover out loud, there was no going back. I made it to permanent sobriety.


Each time I relapsed, I learned an important lesson that lead to my eventual success. But I also learned that I could change from drinker to non-drinker and back to drinker without drawing much attention to myself. I learned how easy it was to justify drinking again, and I bolstered my belief that we are all free to change our minds.


Each time I relapsed, the decision to drink came easier than the time before. Relapses breed relapses. And that’s just not OK.


You Can’t Control the Uncontrollable

I was a very arrogant human being as a drinker. I had experienced much success in life, and my failures were rare and easy to dismiss. Frankly, I thought I was better than most people. I certainly thought I was better than all alcoholics.


So when I would come up with new strategies to control my drinking, I was 100% confident I could accomplish my goal. Sometimes, I would commit to only drinking beer. I drank whatever was in my hand at the same pace, whether it was a glass of straight whiskey or a bottle of light beer. So, I decided to swear off spirits convinced I couldn’t possibly overdo it on beer alone. I guess I’m an overachiever, because I could make my life a mess even without hard alcohol.


Other times, I decided to only drink on the weekends. By having multiple dry days each week I was able to convince myself I could never be considered an alcoholic. I also tried drinking a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage. That made me a drunk who spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I counted drinks, ate before drinking and tried to slow my pace using the clock to regulate – it all ended in intoxicated disaster.


I was trying to control the uncontrollable. And I was just arrogant enough to think I could pull it off.


The painful truth is that the effects alcohol has on our life manifest in a progressive nature. If drinking is a nuisance now, it will grow into a problem. And if alcohol is currently causing problems in your life, it will destroy everything important to you if you keep trying to get it under control. No amount of willpower or confidence or arrogance can change the laws of nature. You can never be a drinking virgin again.


The Crushing Weight of Failure

Every single person who reaches out to me describes their relapse as failure. “I failed, I drank.” When we are actively trying to find permanent sobriety, we view our goal as a yes or no question. We can make it, or we deserve to be dispatched to the garbage heap of weak and despicable sub-human derelict drunks. That’s how it feels. I get it. I remember.


But the fact is that the quest for our permanent sobriety is like no challenge we have ever faced. Progress has to be our goal, and we must accept that, like with anything else, we will have good days and bad days. Some days, we eat right, get lots of sleep, learn a little about brain chemistry and defeat temptation with the ease of tying our own shoes. Other days, the world seems against us and we must lock ourselves in a hallway closet to keep us from venturing to the liquor store. And those days are just as necessary as the good ones. Struggle is part of sobriety. In fact, struggle is the foundation on which freedom is built.


If sobriety was easy, alcoholism wouldn’t be an epidemic.


And there is only one way to fail. You fail when you give up on your sobriety goal. Millions of people drink to their grave, so there is plenty of company if you aren’t strong enough to continue. But as long as you find the strength to pick yourself up and keep going – whether that means hiding in the closet or managing regret from a relapse – you are still in the fight and haven’t failed at anything.


I get emails every week from people who are excited about their first 30 days of sobriety. “Now what?” they ask. “What comes after 30 days?” Day 31. That’s all.


Sobriety is like trying to turn around an ocean liner in choppy seas when we are used to zigging and zagging in a speed boat. It takes time. It takes a lot of time. And the more comfortable we get with our progress, the more likely we are to drink.


Permanent sobriety is worth any sacrifices. The rewards I reap from cutting alcohol from my life are not the rainbows and unicorns as sobriety is depicted on social media. I’m talking about deep and meaningful relationships. I’m talking about chaos replaced by peace and contentment. I’m talking about listening instead of talking. I’m talking about humble confidence instead of ignorant arrogance. I’ll take self-love over self-loathing every single day. Won’t you?


I’m ready if you are. Please consider enrolling in our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery. It is free, because you shouldn’t have to pay for your freedom. If you believe in my mission and are willing to donate to keep SHOUT Sobriety going, please click the button below. If you want more information, or to enroll, that button is for you, too.

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  • Reply
    Jay Wilson
    October 2, 2019 at 4:37 am

    Good one Matt!! I especially like the speedboat vs. ocean liner analogy. Thanks Man!

    9 months this week!!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      October 2, 2019 at 7:33 am

      Great to hear from you, Jay. Congratulations on 9 months!

  • Reply
    October 2, 2019 at 7:17 am

    You obviously have tried it all, and your experiences resonate with me.
    I am struck by your honesty and humility. You truly are walking the path toward self-discovery, i e., doing the hard, deep work on self.
    Please keep going and please keep writing. You are a light for many of us – truly.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      October 2, 2019 at 7:34 am

      Thank you, ML! I’m glad my story resonates. I’ll keep writing if you’ll keep reading.

  • Reply
    Mark McSweeney
    October 2, 2019 at 8:57 am

    What drives me the most is fear. Fear caused by memories of how bad life was before alcohol left my life. Not really a great emotion, but helpful to stay away from something that led to nothing good in my life.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      October 2, 2019 at 9:04 am

      There’s nothing wrong with fear in my book, Mark. Fear keeps us on the pavement. I was reckless and dangerous when I was fearless. I love this point you make.

  • Reply
    March 5, 2022 at 11:00 am

    Great article Matt. A lot I can personally identify with. This helps and thank you.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 5, 2022 at 3:38 pm

      You are welcome. Thanks for reading and relating, Will!

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