Relapse. It’s such a dirty word to us alcoholics. When we first dip our toes into the frigid waters of sobriety, avoiding relapse is, quite necessarily, our singular focus. But it happens, and when it does, our failure can be brought on in a variety of ways. Sometimes it happens in an instant – a solitary trigger overwhelms us, and we are drinking before we can rationally process the situation.
But often, relapse doesn’t work like that. It isn’t instantaneous and unpredictable. Often, relapse is the last step in a series of events. It is a downward spiral spread out over some period of time. We try to fight it, but resistance seems futile. It is as if the universe or the devil is working against us in a diabolical plot to keep us mired in alcoholism.
If you’ve even considered joining us for our couples retreat in the Rocky Mountains – even considered it for a moment – even if you’ve decided not to attend, I hope you’ll read this. I’ve got some explaining to do, and I hope you’ll hear me out.
If you don’t fill the void left behind when you quit drinking, you’re not really recovering from alcoholism. You’re just a dry drunk, and if there’s one thing all dry drunks have in common, it’s that they all eventually relapse and start drinking again. This is very common knowledge in the recovery community, and something I’ve proven through my own failed attempts at sobriety dating back a dozen years.
But here’s the part that’s interesting to me. Where does the void come from? Is it really a void left behind when we stop drinking alcohol, or was the void there to begin with, and alcohol fit the emptiness just perfectly? I’ve written about it before, but my opinion is evolving as my experiences in recovery develop. I no longer think of it as a, “chicken or the egg,” conundrum. I believe when alcohol flows into our lives, it finds the vacant space and fills all of our nooks and crannies of our naturally occurring voided space. I receive a lot of emails from people struggling to quit drinking. The stories they tell me about the reasons they started drinking and became addicted to the liquid poison are as diverse and unique as your imagination. But when people tell me about their challenges with sobriety, it’s like their stories are squeezing through a funnel of sameness. Their lives go from different and unexpected, to predictably identical. Their stories are identical to my struggle to quit, too.
“Go to Dairy Queen and get your favorite flavor of Blizzard,” says my good friend and Untoxicated Podcast partner, Jason Polk. Jason is an addiction therapist who has for his entire career offered this advice to clients when they are dealing with cravings to drink alcohol or use. It is basic, fundamental advice given not just by Jason, but by most addiction recovery professionals and on every social media platform in early sobriety communities. The idea is that a sugar-filled treat will take the edge off the craving and be an alcohol or drug substitute. The associated phrase is, “harm reduction.” It makes sense, and it works in the short-run. The problem with this advice is it’s dead wrong and actually provides oxygen to the very addiction the sufferer is trying so desperately to suffocate.