Friday, July 27, 2018

Everyone's talking about Demi Lovato's overdose, but maybe you don't have to be so devastated when you hear that someone has relapsed. Here’s why:

I thought that Demi Lovato was really brave to release that song last month about her relapse.  In my world, relapses are usually first revealed privately to one trusted person, then afterward, to a group, in the confidential confines of a 12-step meeting.  

I read Demi's lyrics out loud to Scottie and his daughter, Nora the night the song was released:

“Momma, I am so sorry, I’m not sober anymore/And daddy please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor.  To the ones who never left me we've been down this road before. I'm so sorry I'm not sober anymore…”


When I first got sober, a relapse packed all of the horror and mystery of the boogey man.

“Did you hear about so and so?” We would whisper to one another. “She (or he) seemed like they were doing so 'well.'  Do you know what happened….?"

We “newcomers” (those with less than thirty days sober) would huddle closer together in our meetings, scared of getting picked off in the night by this insidious disease (I picture the hooded grim reaper, complete with sickle) and losing the one thing we had been told that no one could ever take away from us — our sobriety date.

But over and over again, people that I knew -- people who’d taken chips for 30, 60, 90 days sober were back in meetings (usually in tears) standing up to collect a newcomer chip again — some more than once.  


Before I knew anything about recovery, before I’d ever heard of AA, I remember being fascinated with celebrity relapses.  In fact, I kept a file of People Magazine articles about celebrities who re-entered treatment programs for “exhaustion" or — my favorite explanation to be suspicious of — “maintenance," months or years after getting sober.

Maintenance, eh? Right.

It smacked of dishonesty and cover up to me. 

I tried to read between the lines of those articles and get the real story.  I think even then, I was trying to get the secret to preventing my own relapse. Even then, I was so scared of this disease that already had me in its grips, but had not yet consumed me.  If I had this thing (and I did and do), then I wanted to know precisely how, when the time came, to beat it. 

But (not surprisingly) the answers to why people relapse weren’t in those People Magazine articles. In truth, (and in my opinion) there may not be an answer at all. 

I’ll take a 10-year cake in two weeks, if all goes according to plan.  But before I ever got sober, I had many, many, many failed attempts at quitting (for good).  I know all too well the pain of swearing off (publicly and privately) and hating my image in the mirror  because one more time, I'd found myself with a bottle in my hand.  And although I haven’t had to change my sobriety date, I know that the feeling of "picking up" again — for me it was one of desperate defeat, followed immediately by an overwhelming sense of incomprehensible demoralization.  My instinct now, is to do whatever I can to "help" anyone who may be headed for a relapse.  I'm afraid to give them the dignity of their own experience.  I'm afraid, that like so many others, they may not make it back.

But a surprising truth that I've learned over the past few years, is that some of the people I admire the most in recovery have had to change their sobriety dates due to relapse.  Some more than once.  Some several times.  I love these people.  I am extremely grateful for them on a daily basis and know for sure that my life and recovery would not be the same without them.

And isn't it also true that I am "playing God" when I try to "protect" someone I love from the pain and shame of relapse?  And if I'm honest, I'm also trying to protect myself from the pain of potential loss, right?

So now, as I’m leading new women, (wide-eyed and usually shame-filled) through the beginning steps of our program, I try to also remember these admirable men and women who have relapsed and then come "back," willing to go to any lengths for their sobriety.

These new women are (like I was) terrified of relapse.  Each time someone "goes out" (or relapses) they ask, (frantically) "How could this happen?!" But I think what they're really asking is:

"How can I keep this from happening to me?" 

And I usually tell them something along the lines of, "Try not to take it too personally.  Sometimes people just aren't ready.  And there's nothing to be done until they are."

Demi Lovato announced her relapse to the world in June and then this past Tuesday was taken by ambulance (after an apparent heroin overdose) to get medical help.  But ironically (and, again, in my opinion), it is possible that this whole, horrible ordeal may the very thing that helps her the most (and much more sustainably, by the way, than the double dose of Narcan, she no doubt received at the hospital).

I have had to learn this incredibly painful lesson in recovery -- that there is sometimes no better teacher then the humiliation of utter defeat.  Sometimes priorities can shift after one of these lessons, and it can become very clear to the defeated (me) what is truly important (my life, my family, the people I love) and what, albeit painfully, must be left behind (drugs, booze and an extremely self-centered way of living).

So when someone relapses, you don't have to be so quick to assume the absolute worst.  It doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to failure.  It doesn’t mean that they’re not “strong enough”.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that 12-step programs don’t work.  Sometimes a relapse can provide the measure of desperation that is required (for those of us afflicted with this disease) to really look at ourselves and at the impact that we have had on other people. And then possibly, to live a happy, peaceful, useful life —  one day at a time, of course.