Relapses don’t start when you pick up. They begin long before, when your mind leads you to a place where you can’t do anything but drink.
I’m sitting in an AA meeting. And I’m pissed. I’ve been crying and my eyes are puffy from tears. I don’t have a stitch of make up on, just a black fox fur jacket and big dark sunglasses. People must think I’m either high or blind. I don’t give a fuck. I hate recovery at this moment. I’m in the very last row in the corner behind a bookcase, digging around in my purse, trying to look busy so nobody will talk to me.
Suddenly I feel a hand on my shoulder and hear a high-pitched voice. “Hi, I’m Lena! I just wanted to say hi and welcome. I heard your share last week. It was so funny. You’re so bitter and angry. It’s hilarious.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I have no idea who this woman is and I don’t care. She’s just like every other Big Book thumper to me, reaching out to the newcomer like you’re supposed to. I go back to digging around in my purse, hoping she’ll go away.
“Well I’m glad you’re here,” she chirps. “Enjoy the meeting.”
“Yep.” I don’t look back up.
I’m not alone two minutes when my sponsor approaches me. She’s blonde and glowing, smiley. We are total opposites.
“Hi happy pants,” she says sarcastically. She gives me a warm hug. “Come sit with me.”
I know I’m just waiting for that one small thing, that flip remark to tip me off into a binge of self-destruction.
She drags me to the front row of the meeting. She is 31 and has nine years of continuous impressive sobriety. She’s happy and I want that.
“What is that?” she asks, concerned, when she sees where the cuff of my fur jacket has risen up to reveal a cross hatch of cut marks on my wrist.
“Uh, it’s my latest coping mechanism.” I smile nervously. “It’s stupid, I know.”
“My brother used to do that and it can become an addiction in itself,” she says. “Be careful. One time he almost died because he hit an artery.”
The visual pops in my head and I promptly push it away. “Nice.”
“No more of that. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I lie.
“And don’t forget: I’ll see you Sunday at my house,” she says, putting her hand on mine. “We’re going to do your third step.”
“Right. Get on our knees and ask God into my life. That doesn’t sound too creepy at all.” She laughs.
This meeting is a grueling hour-and a half Big Book study with no break. You’re allowed to help yourself to coffee or go outside and smoke and text—which I do.
I’m at this meeting because I have accidentally become part of a “lineage” or “family” of sober women that are very old school and traditional. Whenever you speak or take a cake at a meeting to celebrate your sober time, you have to wear a skirt or dress to show respect. I’m the most disrespectful person I know. Plus I never wear dresses. When I wear a dress, I feel like I’m being served up on a platter: open, vulnerable, ready to be eaten. So I just wear jeans and fly a little below the radar.
We read four or five pages of the Big Book and then people share either their experience on what we read or check in about where they are today with their alcoholism.
I don’t open my book to read along and highlight like a good alcoholic student should. I just stare at the clock and gulp Diet Coke. My arms are crossed defiantly across my chest. I’m shut down. I’m gone. My body is here but my head is already drinking.
A total stranger, some woman next to me, leans over and says, “Closed book equals closed mind” and then smiles.
I chortle but I really want to punch her in the throat. I do not open my book. My eyes are fixed on the clock: only 70 minutes to go.
Five minutes later, she leans over and whispers, “Don’t you follow along and highlight your book? I mean it is a book study.”
My patience has hit its breaking point and I turn to her and say, “Listen, it’s a miracle I’m even here. I usually bolt about 10 minutes into this hellish meeting and go blow some guy. So just give it a rest, okay?”
Her mouth is agape, her eyes big. She smiles stiffly, snorts and turns away. I want to get up and leave but I don’t. I’m on the verge of a relapse. I can feel it coming. I can feel it building inside of me, like a small quiet tornado of hopelessness tinged with anger. Every day I fight the urge to get loaded, to quiet those whispers in my brain and numb that aching in my sternum. “Not today,” I tell myself, and limp through another tortuous 24 hours. But the whirlwind of despair is growing and I know I’m just waiting for that one small thing, that flip remark to tip me off into a binge of self-destruction.
I can’t drink. I know this. I black out and get sick immediately and this time would be no different. I don’t know if I have some idealistic notion that this binge would be magically unlike all the other horrible degrading ones or if I just don’t give a shit. For people like me, drinking or using is a temporary—or sometimes permanent—suicide. We just don’t leave a note.
I am depressed. My new future as a poor, unemployed divorcee looms large and ominously. I try to reconfigure my viewpoint: I will be single and free to build a beautiful new life. This is what I tell myself but I can’t buy in. I am afraid and lonely and full of remorse and confusion. I have been thinking about drinking for weeks and I haven’t told anybody. It’s a secret I keep from my sponsor, my housemates, my therapist. I just need a respite from my head, a recess from my life and sleep isn’t cutting it. Neither is meditation or sex or eating. This is bigger and deeper than all of that. I need out—temporarily or permanently. I am starting not to care.
When you’re an alcoholic or a drug addict on the verge of a relapse, nothing “makes” you get loaded. You’ve already decided weeks before. You’re just looking for an excuse. You’ve already figured out your reason.
I have been cutting. At home, I pry apart a disposable razor and slash at my wrists—first parallel lines and then lines across so I end up making a grid pattern. My friend had thought I was such an idiot for doing it before that, to make a point, he played Tic Tac Toe on my arm last week with a marker. Afterwards, I re-slashed. Blood poured down my wrist, over the faded x’s and o’s, dripping onto my pants. I felt oddly vindicated. My therapist said cutting is about rage and that the little slices are mouths screaming. I do feel as if I am saying, “Fuck you” to everybody. Fuck you. Fuck him. Fuck me. Especially fuck me.
This is the only meeting I’m going to. The other nights of the week I lie, say I’m going to a meeting but I sit in my car with a friend and smoke cigarettes and talk about love, loss and philosophy. He swigs cheap vodka and I drink Mountain Dew. I sniff his bottle of booze. It’s $7 a pint and smells like isopropyl alcohol. He is a happy drunk. I wonder if I can be, too.
I have all the elements: resentment, self-pity, a slew of lies trailing behind me, the belief that it will be different this time.
I’m jolted back from my reverie by the meeting ending. Everybody stands and hold hands and says The Lord’s Prayer. I stand in silent protest. It’s a Christian prayer and, as a half-breed Jew, I’m uncomfortable with some of the sentiments. I look down at my feet and say nothing. I close my eyes and in my mind say my own prayer, which consists of just four words: “Please God help me.” I’m on my way out. I know this. I have all the elements: resentment, self-pity, a slew of lies trailing behind me, the belief that it will be different this time. Ahh, yes. Here comes the perfect storm.
Three days later, it happens. I get in a fight with a friend and I feel that switch flip. There was a bottle of expensive vodka in my trunk—a birthday present for that same drinking friend—and as I walk down the stairs to fetch it, a thought comes into my head: “Don’t do this. Call your sponsor.”
“Fuck that bitch,” I say aloud to no one and continue down the stairs. I pop the trunk and pull the elegant bottle from its iridescent birthday sheath. “Here we go again,” I think.
When I open the bottle and drink, it goes down smoothly; it’s chi chi stuff. I wait for that “Ahhh” feeling, for that moment when ease or numbness or pleasure clicks in. Nothing. I don’t remember the progression but the next thing I know, I’m shitfaced. And then the phone calls start. All those things I needed to tell all those people that I suddenly feel they really need to hear right now. I have no idea what I say but know for sure it was dramatic confessions of secret love or venomous spewings of hidden hatred. In other words, nothing good and nothing I shouldn’t have kept to myself.
My relapse didn’t scratch that itch of oblivion like I thought it would. It wasn’t a relief. It wasn’t even a release. It didn’t feel like I opened some valve and let out all the pent-up pressure. And most of it I couldn’t even remember. What I could remember was throwing up. A lot. No doubt I am powerless over alcohol and my life is unmanageable. Just had to prove it to myself once more—ideally for the final time.
Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called "We Are Not Saints." She's also written about sex and dating and managing chronic pain in sobriety, among many other topics, for The Fix.