Lacing up Your Boots: Picking up the Pieces After Relapse
St. Patrick’s day 2019, a bar in R.I.
“Hey, are you doing car bombs tonight?”
“Of course”, said the waitress, as I racked up another game of 8-ball for the four of us.
“Bring us a round.”
For the second time in a week, and in the previous seventeen months, I was drinking, attempting to drown my problems in a black sea of Guinness and whiskey, because, well, fuck it, I had already blown my sobriety on Wednesday, right? One more night wasn’t really going to make a difference. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
This is not a story about loss, though: of my sobriety, of my dignity, or of anything else. This essay struggles to understand the reasons behind the relapse, and how I might change the way I think about the events of the past several months in a way that helps me to move forward into the future. It will also be a story about what follows, about lacing up the boots, dusting off the muck and dirt and getting back on the trail and walking through it all.
As often happens when addicts relapse, there were external pressures with which I was failing to successfully cope. That is to say, there was no single instance of bullshit which made me say, “You know what? I need a fucking drink today”. A combination of problems at home, in my marriage and with my oldest son, at work, with a fucking train-wreck of a roll out of a pilot program the university is running with an area high school, and a renewed struggle with my mental health, all contributed to my fall. In retrospect, I believe I would have been able to deal with any one of these issues without drinking had it occurred on its own: combined, was another story all together. So, on the Wednesday March 13th, I made a choice; I went to the liquor store and bought two nips of Jack; then I went back and bought a half-pint; when that was gone, I went back and bought a pint. I did it again on Sunday, St. Patrick’s Day. How apt. It was seventeen months and a day since I had had a drink.
Before that, my previous drink had been somewhere in the vicinity of October 12th, 2017. At least, I think that’s true. To be honest, I’m not really one for keeping track of such things but remember marking that date as the date that began my sobriety. And those last seventeen months have been a real blessing. The clear-headedness that sobriety brings, combined with my rediscovering of the outdoors and the creation of this blog have brought me productivity, a heightened sense of self-awareness and better health—mental and physical. On the one hand, drinking again might be viewed as having thrown away or lost all that progress. On the other, it might be viewed as one hell of a start of something new. The question for me was: “Am I willing to give up all those things, amazing things, sobriety has brought with it?”
The answer to that question is a resounding, NO! However, I have had to work particularly hard on reminding myself to view this relapse not as a loss, or as having thrown something away, but as a minor setback, like a broken lace on a boot, or a fall on the trail. Sometimes, when climbing or hiking, we get caught in the brambles, slide back a few steps, or even walk off trail. It’s easier than you think to walk off trail. One moment, you’re watching your feet and humming a tune, the next, you’re wondering where the hell you are and how you got there. This does not mean it’s time to pack it in and head back to the car due to difficult terrain. Instead, it’s time to stop, focus, reassess: pull out the map and compass and gather yourself. Then persist. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Those ‘seventeen months and a day’ have shown me that I have what it takes and that if I can muster the will to go seventeen months and a day, then I can go seventeen and two, or three, or eighteen months. Those seventeen months have not been lost, nor has that relapse signaled the end; those seventeen months are a stepping stone leading to even greater things and the relapse is a chance for a new beginning.
Outside of the external pressures that we all face, one thing I was not doing was sticking to my routine: waking up a little after four a.m., taking my daily walk/hike, writing for the blog, reading like mad. I’m not sure whether the falling out of the routine contributed to the decline in my energy levels and mental health or whether it was the other way around. I suspect a little of both, that these both play on and contribute to each other. Outside of the work stuff, the course prep and the grading, much of my routine focuses on self-care. (Note to self: I read an article recently on how self-care is a lifestyle, not just something you do from time to time. I’ll have to check that out again.) Over the last couple of weeks I have gotten back into that rhythm: Up early, coffee, read a little, sit at the computer and hammer out something that I hope passes for writing, get the kids up, pack them a lunch, get them out the door, head to work, teach, grade a little, read some more, hike, work, home, supper, bed, repeat. That’s what works. That’s what I have to stick to. I have found that I can tolerate small variations to my routine, but major shifts cause disruptions that I’m not yet good at processing. Also, I have to learn to cope with stress in a more healthy fashion. Even then, (and I wonder whether this is an excuse or simply the cold hard truth of it) no matter how well any of us cope with stress, there comes a point at which the amount of bullshit we may have to face exceeds our capacity to tolerate it. It is in these moments that we break down. Staying on point with my routine will help avoid unnecessary bullshit, and also increase my capacity to deal.
I’ve had to work really hard to get back on that horse. Primarily, in terms of coping with losing that sober time. Instead of telling myself I’ve, “thrown that time away”, or “lost” it, which is a real temptations, I have found that I’ve been trying to tell myself that those seventeen months were a huge stepping stone, and that this is the beginning of a longer journey, not the end of a shorter trip. I’ve been telling myself that it’s not the fall I need to focus on, it’s what I do with myself after I’ve fallen that matters. I can’t change what I’ve done, but I can change the way I think about those actions, those events, in a way that helps me to move forward in a positive and productive fashion. Dwelling on mistakes is not the answer. Failure can be good if we learn something from it. If failure, and the pain and suffering that often come with it, makes us wiser, then failure is a boon. If we allow failure to defeat us by refusing to pick ourselves up after we’ve fallen, or have been knocked down, then failure is a bane. So, I tell myself, “Get up. Dust yourself off, lace up your boots and persist”. As the popular cliché goes, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re going through, keep getting’ at it. If you fall 100 times, pick yourself up 100 times. Get out there and don’t give up.