How did I let this happen again? How did I slip up? I knew better. I was doing so well. I have no willpower. None. I’m never going to get this.
These words, or some variation of them, have gone through the head of everyone who has ever relapsed. While it doesn’t happen to everyone, most people who get sober long-term relapse before getting there. Sobriety is a skill. You won’t necessarily do everything perfectly the first time you try.
This is not square one
In AA there is a tradition of “counting days”. You count how many sober days you have, and people clap for you. You do this until you reach 90 days. This has pros and cons. I think it is valuable because it allows people to see that you are relatively new to sobriety and offer you support. It also gives you something to hold onto when tempted. You may want a drink but you really don’t want to lose those 45 (or however many) days you have managed to get under your belt. This is all very positive.
The problem is, it can get discouraging. If you slip up and all of a sudden have to start at day one again, it can be tempting to say, “Well screw it. I better really go for it now!” This can be incredibly dangerous. A relapse only has to last as long as you decide you want it to.
There tends to be a lot of self-imposed shame to going back into a room where you just had 45 days and saying you are on day 1 again. Let me assure you – no one is disappointed in you. No one is exasperated. Most of the people in that room have been there and will give you every bit as much support as they have to offer. Now, to be fair, if you have done this a few times, there are some who might shy away a little. Fuck em. They aren’t your people. Any one of us could end up on day one again whether we have two days or two decades. We never truly have more than these 24 hours. Those are what matter.
But the most important thing to remember here is that every single sober day you had under your belt before this still counts. Every lesson you learned, every bit of experience you had is a building block making you stronger. You are closer this time and you WILL get it.
Analyze what happened
The first instinct is always to berate yourself. It’s okay to be disappointed but try not to linger here too long. Because if you do, you can very easily end up in a loop where you believe there is no point and you might as well keep drinking. And that is 100% not true.
This is a data point. Use it to learn. Something happened – what was the trigger? If you are able to figure out what it was, great. Come up with a plan for how you will handle it next time that does not rely on willpower. Such as – when my husband is drinking around me, I will make myself a cup of coffee and go into another room.
Make a plan
You need to be a girl scout here and be prepared (Thin Mints optional). I am a big advocate of writing things down in these situations. With pen and paper. The act of thinking it, then writing it engages both hemispheres of your brain, and makes it much more likely you will remember your plan and put it into action. Even if you burn it immediately after, it’s worth doing. I get a little embarrassed by having these things in writing where others could find it, so I tend to write them down, then trash them. I still remember.
People places and things
So, what exactly are we writing here? A list of potential triggers. One column for people, one for places, and one for things. People – Do you have a sister who makes you feel like crap about yourself? She goes on the list. Places – The liquor store you always went to or an area of your house you drank in? On the list. Things – Your favorite wine glass, the sounds of ice clinking in a glass, whatever mixer you tended to use… you know where it goes.
Now the first line of action would be to avoid these things wherever possible. This is not forever. You are not cutting your sister out of your life or swearing off anything with ice. Just give yourself a month or two to make things a little easier. Yeah, you can probably manage it, but don’t create battles to fight. There will be enough for you to focus on. So tell your sister you are busy, take a different route home and put your wine glass away.
That said, you will not be able to avoid every trigger in your life. You can only control yourself, unfortunately. Think of some things that have been helpful so far in tough moments. Was it calling a sober friend? Posting to a forum online? Taking a bath? Going for a run? (A note on exercise – I hated it my entire life until I got sober. While it still is not always my favorite thing to do, it was a godsend when I wanted to get away from my thoughts. I could work out hard enough that I didn’t think for a few minutes and it made the urge to escape subside.)
Write on your list what you think will be the unavoidable pitfalls and write your plan – When my sister upsets me I will_________________. Do this for all of your people, places, and things, as well as any events coming up that you are concerned about.
This is an important tip for those new to sobriety. Don’t let yourself get too Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired. I kind of had to laugh at this when I first heard it, because I was pretty much always at least two of those things at any given time, if not more. But it’s an important lesson. Willpower is an exhaustible resource, and we seriously deplete it when we are experiencing any one of these.
Keep some trail mix in your purse, text or call at least one friend (who is either sober or is being supportive of your sobriety), and don’t stay up all night watching Netflix. Grab a cup of coffee if you are flagging.
As the parent of a toddler, it has become painfully obvious that neither of us does well when we need a nap or a snack. But due to the demands of said toddler, I am frequently frustrated and tired. I have learned to prioritize getting more sleep and doing yoga and/or meditation because it keeps me from getting pissed off about things.
Be careful of your brain
Nearly every alcoholic I have ever met has been incredibly intelligent. Granted they may not seem so while naked singing torch songs at your local Wendy’s, one of the reasons many people drink is to turn their thoughts off. There are studies that suggest that with intelligence comes the tendency to overthink. To analyze and ruminate, which is also a risk factor for depression. It’s easy to look at someone who is whip-smart and wonder why they would do that to themselves. But it makes perfect sense to me. Unless tempered with optimism (which can be learned), thinking too much can make you want to drown out your thoughts, just to have a little quiet.
Thankfully that big brain of yours may have noticed that drinking hasn’t been working out for you. So you decide to get sober. But after a while, the novelty starts to wear off. And you start justifying. For me, it was, “Well getting sober was so much easier than I thought. I must not really be an alcoholic. I just needed a reset. I bet I could drink normally now.” Spoiler alert – I could not.
This is how it happens. Your brain will come up with a thousand justifications, and because you are smart, they will actually sound logical. You need to be prepared for this. And then think like a scientist. Look at the experiments. A+B=C. You+Alcohol=Drunk and miserable. The variables yield consistent results. You don’t have to keep redoing the experiment.
There is a famous bit of advice in AA to “Think through the drink”. When you find yourself tempted, ask yourself what happens when you drink? Do you stop? Or do you have another? And another, etc. Don’t think about what that drink will get you, think about where you will be at the end of the night. You can destroy a lot in one evening. So no “What if…” no “Well maybe…”
One of the reasons AA tells you to go to 90 meetings in 90 days is to keep you busy. It’s a lot less tempting to get a drink on your way to or from an AA meeting than it is sitting at home in your normal routine. Being alone takes time to learn how to do properly. In the early days, I found it essential to pack my schedule. Volunteering for something can be good in that it motivates you to keep your commitment. So whether you sign up to make the coffee for the meeting, or offer to coach your kid’s soccer practice, just get some things on the calendar.
You can’t do it alone – and that’s good
It can be very tempting to isolate in early sobriety. The people you usually hang out with drink, and might make some stupid comments if you say you aren’t drinking. Alcohol seems to be everywhere. Plus, you aren’t even sure what people do if they are not drinking. Maybe alcohol gave you the courage to talk to other people, and now you don’t know how you will do it. Or you don’t know who you are if you aren’t the party girl any more.
The only way to answer all of this is by hanging out with other people who don’t drink. They will show you the other side of this life and all the fun and freedom it has to offer. Yes, you will discover some of that on your own, but it’s much more fun with other people.
This is one of the things I loved most about AA, though any recovery meeting will do. I have heard good things about Smart Recovery and Refuge Recovery, so if AA really bugs you, there are still other options. Going in, raising your hand and admitting that you are new or struggling is all you have to do to get more support than you ever imagined possible. If someone invites you out for coffee afterward, go. If people often go to a diner or something after the meeting – go. You will laugh more than you imagined possible, and start to discover that the sober you is still actually a good time.
Danger moments – relapse prevention
The next time you are having the urge to drink, or you have a tough situation coming up and aren’t sure to handle it, text or call these people you have met at the meetings. They really want you to, I promise. For those who have long-term sobriety, it helps keep them sober and makes them feel good that they could help.
If it’s in the middle of the night or you are feeling too shy, try reaching out on a sober message board or app. I am a fan of SoberMommies on Facebook, or on Twitter, you can tweet that you are struggling with the hashtag #recoveryposse and you will get some pretty awesome people who will talk you through it.
Sometimes just hearing from all these people who have been through it, knowing they have your back and believe in you can give you the extra push you need to make it through that one tough hour and into the next one sober.