Editor’s note: This story openly discusses drinking alcohol. Please beware if this is a trigger for you.
I was 29 years old when I realized that my drinking had gotten out of hand and I needed to seek help. With the help of my Latino parents, I entered a rehab center with the goal of getting sober. During my month-long stay there, I made friends, attended daily 12-step meetings, and was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. I also heard many stories, over and over, of people who had returned to rehab after a relapse or who were starting over from Day 1 in meetings. I vowed to myself that I would never be one of those people.
And then, I was.
A few months into my newfound sobriety, I was back home and feeling pretty good. But I had stopped going to 12-step meetings because they never felt right to me and I hadn’t yet begun to do the hard work of rebuilding some of the friendships I had messed up during the darkest days of my substance use disorder. Add to that the fact that I hadn’t yet found a new therapist to talk about my anxiety disorder with and, well, I had a relapse the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Add to that the fact that I hadn’t yet found a new therapist to talk about my anxiety disorder with and, well, I had a relapse the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Almost immediately, I felt ashamed. I also hid my 3-day blackout bender from everyone I knew because I was afraid that my sober friends would judge me for being “one of those people,” afraid to face up to the failure of relying on alcohol to calm my anxiety once more, and afraid that this meant I would need to go back to rehab. Instead, I moved on… But it happened again.
Over the next six months, I had several more 3-day relapse episodes.
Looking back, the pattern of my relapse was always the same. At the time, I was still living in New York City (my home of 12 years) and had not yet developed any healthy coping mechanisms for my anxiety. So, when something stressful came up again at work, I would ignore it for a while until the urge to self-medicate with alcohol became too strong.
And every time, I would tell myself that it wouldn’t happen again. I would also not tell anyone else what happened. It was as if the fact that nobody else knew about my relapse meant that it didn’t really happen or that it wasn’t a big deal.
It was as if the fact that nobody else knew about my relapse meant that it didn’t really happen or that it wasn’t a big deal.
But what I was really doing was ignoring the problem (my anxiety) because I feared what it would mean if I admitted that I had a relapse. Mostly, I remember feeling so ashamed that I couldn’t possibly walk into a 12-step meeting and say that I was starting over again. It not only felt terrifying to do so but it also didn’t quite feel like the truth. So, instead of talking about how my relapse made me feel like a failure but didn’t make me feel as if I was starting from Day 1 again, I kept ignoring the issue until I had a relapse so bad that it couldn’t be ignored anymore.
So, I got help again. I moved out of New York to focus on my recovery. I finally found a therapist to help me deal with my anxiety. And, eventually, I opened up about my recovery to friends and family.
Still, the lingering fear of failure over my relapse stayed with me. I didn’t know what it meant that I got sober for a few months, had a few rocky months of recurrent relapses that still nobody knew about, and then was finally able to stay sober. It felt like I had done something wrong or that there was something wrong with me, but I also felt like maybe this was kind of normal. Maybe having a relapse wasn’t so bad, despite what I had heard at 12-step meetings?
When I finally opened up about my relapses to my therapist, she assured me that relapses were, indeed, an expected part of the long recovery journey.
When I finally opened up about my relapses to my therapist, she assured me that relapses were, indeed, an expected part of the long recovery journey. She told me that rarely do people get sober and stay sober for the rest of their lives on the first try. She assured me that having a relapse didn’t mean that I would have another one again in the future. And she reminded me, over and over, that I needed to let go of the shame I felt over my relapses and instead focus on the state of my sobriety today.
Eventually, what my therapist said began to sink in.
It had never felt right to me that I would have to “start over” from Day 1 if I had a relapse, so I didn’t. After all, I was not the same person the day I entered rehab as I was on the day after a relapse. Sure, there were some similarities but, at the end of the day, experiencing a relapse felt like a small step back when I had already taken a giant leap forward. I could, and did, recover. It’s not as if I lost all of my knowledge about recovery and sobriety during the relapse; merely that I had a lapse in judgment. You can’t really have a second Day 1. At best, you can maybe have a Day 1.2.
And so, I embraced the fact that my relapse story is part of my overall recovery journey.
These days, I celebrate two important days in my journey to get and stay sober: My real Day 1 (a.k.a. the day I entered rehab) and the day after my last relapse.
When it comes to The Temper readers we polled on Instagram, 61% of us admitted to having at least one relapse in our journey to sobriety.
The reason I choose to celebrate these two separate days is that they were both an important step in my recovery. Both of those days hold special meaning to me because I learned something very different on each of those days, the days in between, and all of the days that have come afterward.
In the end, the biggest thing I learned about relapses is that they happen to many of us — and yes, those feelings of shame and failure are totally normal, too. But, at least when it comes to The Temper readers we polled on Instagram, 61% of us admitted to having at least one relapse in our journey to sobriety. And you know what that means?
I’m not alone. You’re not alone. And we’re not alone.
The only way I was able to heal from my relapse is by embracing that it is a part of me and a part of what I have been through in recovery. It wasn’t easy but, with some work on my mental health, I was able to embrace and finally admit to those outside of my therapist that I had a few relapses before finally getting sober for good.
And you know what I heard? Only love and support. Because when we’re honest with ourselves, and with others, we can truly find and be our true selves. I guess my true self is someone who had a relapse, learned from it, and got sober again in the end.