Relapse is not a requirement - a client story

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A recovery story by Sean O.

It was February 2001 – the first day of my first rehab experience at Carrier Clinic in Belle Meade, NJ.  I walked into in an open room, chairs arced in a circle.  I chose one and sat.  As I watched the wind carve snow drifts through the window, a man came in a greeted me with a smile.  “Hey, I’m Nick,” he said.  Nick, a driver for Fedex, used to snort lines of cocaine off packages in the back of the delivery truck.  “This your first rehab?” asked Nick.  I paused, not understanding the question.  Yeah, first and last, I thought.  “People do this more than once?”  I asked out loud.  Nick made with a you have a lot to learn snort, “Yeah, man,” he said, chuckling, “third DUI for me, third treatment.”  I hoped the shock and disgust I felt didn’t show on my face.  I just couldn’t comprehend it.  With the consequences of my diversion and abuse of Percocet from the hospital in which I worked as a registered nurse at the time still raining down around me and my family, I could not imagine going through all this again, let alone a third time (or a fourteenth, the most rehab stints I have heard one going through, to date).  And yet today, here I sit, gratefully I might add, in my third formal treatment program, nearly eighteen years later.

Like most of us in recovery, I had many reasons to stay clean and sober, even if I was focusing on the wrong ones.  When my addiction was first exposed, I was four months away from getting married and had been accepted into a prestigious master’s program in nursing.  I was in love and had the love, pride and trust of my family.  Everything was perfect.  For an addict, probably too perfect, I discovered (I’ll spare you, dear readers, my discourse on the habitual self-sabotage of addiction for now).  In an instant, that was a two-year opiate run, it seemed that was all gone.  But the pink cloud of sobriety rolled in and I settled into tenuous peace, confident that I could stay clean.  I had to stay clean.  But I didn’t want to.  Not that I admitted that to anyone, even myself.  Six years later I had gained it all back and then some – a happy, supportive marriage, beautiful daughter, a son on the way and I was beginning a career as a nurse anesthetist, a practical, if not spiritually satisfying dream come true.  So, of course engaging in “social” alcohol consumption seemed like a perfectly rational idea.

Obligatory Boring Stat: relapse rates for alcoholics and drug addicts are as high as 60%.  There are as many excuses for going back out as there are people, places and things, but invariably, every run starts with “I stopped.”  I stopped going to meetings, stopped calling my sponsor, I stopped believing I was powerless over my addiction.  The twelve steps, once the sturdy path to our salvation, crumble under the weight of our wills.  Who needs a higher power when we had the power of the high?  By 2014, I was pleading with gravity to deliver the last few drops of a fifth of vodka on the daily.  Seven years of progressive drinking and reckless behavior are crammed into the instant my wife drove me to my second drug and alcohol treatment experience, the Livengrin Foundation in Bensalem, PA.  I remember watching the landscape slide across the passenger window thinking there should be rehab passports in which we could collect colorful stamps of various treatment centers we visited.

An eye-rolling recovery aphorism we hear floating through the rooms and rehabilitation centers is that “relapse is part of the process.”  Disease propaganda.  Many of us relapse, but it sure as hell is not mandatory.  Our bottoms vary in depth, but we all touchdown eventually.  Some of us stay sober on the first try if we are truly willing and invested in ourselves, many others die in denial.  For most of my flirtation with recovery, my reasons for staying sober were my wife, my children and my career – not necessarily in that order.  I was nowhere to be found in that hierarchy of hope.  I just wanted my stuff back.  Another addiction adage is “we lose whatever we put before our recovery.”  Not propaganda.  I put together a three-year, four-month stretch of legitimate clean time en route to my third and present treatment program, Avenues Recovery Center in Jamison, PA; the Avenues logo, a stark white “A” etched on black, would be a beautiful addition to my passport.  Three AA coins worth of abstinence dropped through the sick slot, greased with reservation, resentment and entitlement.  If there is any doubt that our disease is banging out pushups while we kick back in sobriety, I put down a bottle and just over three years later, picked up a syringe full of Fentanyl.  I got my stuff back all right, and subsequently lost, or rather gave away, every bit of it.

Contrary to popular belief, as addicts, we do have a choice… when we are sober.  The relapse ends with picking up our respective vice.  It can begin long before that.  Relapse is about as sudden as growing grass.  Very often, we know it is happening - a missed home group here, an ill-advised relationship there, the bonds of addiction and its associated thinking are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to break.  It is during this insidious siege, when our disease whispers to us, when we still have a say, that we must shout back, we must choose not to pick up.  I made the wrong choice and paid the price.  But I made it back.  I have another chance.  Fourth time’s the charm?  I pray it is so.  But as we like to say (and shudder to hear), “faith without works is dead.”  We must put in the effort, stay plugged into our sober network, work with other addicts, to have the privilege of choice.

Obligatory Basic Text Quote:  We are in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions and death (Narcotics Anonymous, pg. 3).  You may notice this declaration stresses always, not sometimes, always.  The fallout of our actions may not affect us on the first use, or the second, or the fiftieth, but like a shambling horror movie juggernaut, it will catch up to us.  And on that day, the best outcome we can hope for is another circle of chairs, another group of addicts and alcoholics who just may save our lives, another rehab.  Embrace the chance.  Many of us will not get another.  --Sean O.

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