Relapse is a well-documented, normal, and even expected part of recovery from alcoholism. In the medical and recovery community, “relapse” is a fancy euphemism for going on a bender, a spree, a
slip, a multi-day binge, pulling a Charlie Sheen … you name it.
I experienced a relapse this past week, ending a three-month stretch of total sobriety. In a matter of days, I lost all my money, my job, and embarrassed myself by sending odd, out-of-character emails and voice messages to friends and family. This strange phenomenon of relapse can sneak up out of nowhere.
Why did you take the first drink, people ask. Where did you take it? As puzzling as this may sound to a “normal” person, the answers to why and where are almost never apparent. In this case, the why piece of the equation was because I had made the mistake of investing too much emotional energy into a fledgling relationship (n = < 5(dates)). I kissed her one time on our last encounter and she ended it with a text two hours later.
Three hours later, I was at a bar. Having been so deftly blindsided, I learned why they tell those in recovery not to seek out physically intimate relationships until they’ve achieved at least six months of sobriety. We’ve grown so accustomed to dealing with negative emotions by using a substance, that we haven’t learned to cope in a health way when ordinary, but challenging life events occur.
That first cocktail in a hotel lounge sent me into another multi-day path of sodden isolation, loneliness, and paranoia. John Barleycorn* and me were back on the same side of the street. Once I find him, he’s everywhere. By the next day, he was in my apartment and my soul, wreaking havoc on my sanity. A few days later as my Sponsor gave me a ride home from detox, he did what good sponsors do, told me he’d bring me back to my meeting when I’m ready. I was right where you are, for a lot of years, he said. He also asked if I still had alcohol in my house, and I told him yes. Will you dump it out as soon as you get there? He asked. Actually, I know you can get it right down the street whenever you want it, so that whether it’s in your house or at the store waiting for you, it doesn’t really matter. My wife used to make me dump it out in front of her, and I always had a way to find more.
I didn’t dump it out, of course, as he knew I wouldn’t. And I ended up even sicker, this time in the hospital. I went to visit Dr. Q with a small duffle bag packed – the usual, three pairs of white socks, three shirts, three underwear, books, quarters, my handwritten list of phone numbers, pens, and a journal. Dr. Q glided into the waiting room as usual, wearing her colorful hijab and smiled at me with a deferent posture. I returned the spark of familiarity to the extent I could, given how sick I was. My blood pressure was sky-high and I was just beginning to go into withdrawals again. After filling her in on the relapse, she provided the glowing reassurance that not only was I doing all the right things in the moment.
I was too sick to complete our session, so she and I agreed I should go upstairs to the Emergency Department. To those who haven’t been to an E.D. in real life, it’s surprisingly dull and not nearly as exciting as T.V. portrays it. There’s no dramatic music in the background, and even if there were, there would be no Nurse/drama producer in a control room dialing up the music’s intensity as patients bleed out. And the residents don’t “sleep” together in the supply closets. They don’t have time.
As I lay there hooked up to an IV, blood pressure cuff, and pulse oximeter (little device that calculates your blood oxygen level literally by looking at the color of your finger tip with an electronic eye), I started getting bored. So like a bored kid, I started ruminating on how I could make laying there more exciting – how to pass the time as they brought me back to life, 1 drop of saline and 1 milligram of Ativan at a time. I didn’t want to get into too much trouble. But a little trouble, for good measure.
So I glanced over at my navy blue duffle bag, which was sitting on a chair just out of reach of my bed, open. On top of my detox survival supply kit sat my iPhone, turned-off, of course, because I generally try to follow the rules.
The opportunity was there. It was a private room, so I couldn’t see whether or not a nurse was coming. I had to listen carefully to the hallway chatter. I gauged the distance between the bed and
my phone and looked at the instruments connected to me. If I made a lunge for the iPhone, the cords connected to the BP cuff and pulse ox were not going to reach. It did look like there was enough extra IV tubing. I had seen enough TV shows that I knew I’d have fewer than 30 seconds after disconnecting myself from the monitor before a nurse would arrive and catch me in the act. So I scooted as far down the bed toward the chair as I could, then made the move. I sat up, cut loose from the machine, and dove for the iPhone. I snatched it as I was flat-lining. Then scooted back into position, just as the nurse came into the room.
“Mmm must have slipped off my finger somehow, huh?” “Oh yeah happens all the time,” she said something like that, obviously having seen the contraband in my other hand. They might have thought it was amusing that I thought I needed to hide my phone, because they didn’t ask me to shut it off, but I still put it down every time they came in the room, as if I were surfing for porn. During the next hour, I texted a second-year medical student friend who I met a few weeks ago as she was studying for the dreaded “Step One” exam, a difficult 8-hour test that is a rite of passage into the second half of med school.
Despite all probability, and even knowing I’m in recovery, she met me for lunch the next day and we talked about it, along with a plethora of other geeky medical things, ranging from the scary paralytic agents anesthesiologists use, to delivering babies from million-dollar robotic mannequin patients that bleed realistic blood, talk, and excrete other realistic body fluids (not even kidding, apparently).
People supporting my recovery have told me to have faith that sparks of joy come at the most unexpected times, and having faith that they will, even though we have no control over when they will, can make our worst days a little better. Today, over lunch, I came to believe that must be true – even though my scientific brain can’t explain it.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke
*Editor’s note: I am making a reference to John Barleycorn, the 1913 novel by Jack London, not the British folk song.