Ok so I have come out the other side. My last day as a drinking person was on Saturday and I had a lovely meal with different wines for each course. I drank a lot on my final day almost hoping to make myself ill so that I could always remember one of the reasons I wanted to not drink. Trouble is my month of excess meant I’d really built up my tolerance levels so yesterday I struggled with just a mild hangover. Last night I started to get my first cravings but nothing unmanageable. Sleep was poor last night, again all to be expected. I’ve done dry months before so I know pretty much what to expect in the first few weeks. The important thing is I have arrived. The sober journey begins.
But there is a problem. Now that I’m someone who has given up I have to face the mythology and language of sobriety and I have problems with that. Typically people on this journey have a Day 1 that becomes day 2 and so on. Success is defined by the number of days sober and even those sober for years and years will talk in such a way that failure is haunting them; alcohol is just behind them ready to pounce and undo all their hard work. That fear of failure seems encapsulated I one word: RELAPSE. Technically relapse is a medical term meaning someone has deteriorated after a temporary improvement. Someone who has relapsed has taken a turn for the worse, has weakened, deteriorated, failed. In the world of sobriety I see this term, loaded with negativity, used by people all the time. People start the clock, one day, two days, then the “inevitable” relapse happens, self loathing and failure kick in and the sobriety clock has to be recalibrated. What a recipe for failure!
I need something more positive if I am going to succeed and the language we use seems to be key in how we define and think of ourselves. Even the terms used to describe people like me are negative in connotations; ex drinkers, former drinkers, dependent, alcoholic. No thanks. I don’t like any of them even though my blog address is former drinker. I have had to use the terminology that’s out there but I need new terms, new language. I need to perceive what I’m doing as positive not just a reaction to something. Job one then is to think of a new term for what I’m doing- I have made a choice to live without using alcohol and I need a positive, desirable, aspirational term for this state of being. I’ll give this some thought and I would welcome suggestions or terms that others already use.
That brings me to the word I really do not like in this sobriety world; the dreaded RELAPSE. When I gave up smoking 15 years ago I did not refer to day 1 etc. I just mentally noted that I stopped smoking in May 2004. 2 years later my son had to have an emergency operation just before his 19th birthday. He had the operation, came home and we had a party. A few of his friends brought a Shisa pipe. People started smoking something like rose petal tobacco in the garden. It was a special occasion. I had a few puffs. There were other things to smoke, I had a few puffs. Someone rolled me a cigarette. I smoked it. Next day I felt a bit bad that I’d smoked but it was an extraordinary situation. Oh well I was glad I was a non-smoker. My mouth felt terrible and I carried on being a non- smoker. If someone asked me when I gave up smoking I don’t say April 2006 I say May 2004. So was that occasion a relapse? No. It was a momentary and fairly insignificant episode that did not deter me from my decision to be a non- smoker.
Now if that had been alcohol I’m sure many people would say, “I’ve had relapse! Oh God, I’ve failed, may as well pack in a bit more drinking then because I am going to have to start all over again.”Relapse is failure, failure saps your spirit, resetting means failure, failure means self esteem is lowered and that’s a door alcohol loves to walk through. So how can we define those times when maybe a drop or two of alcohol passes our lips without feeling that the whole weight of failure, recalibrating our sobriety clock, and bruised self esteem have to come crashing down upon us? It seems to me we already have a term, a word that would change how we perceive such episodes and ourselves and the word is “lapse.” Get rid of the “re” and you are left with lovely little “lapse” and lapse means a brief or temporary failure of memory, concentration or judgement. The key word in the definition is “brief.”
In my smoking example I had a lapse. I smoked a few over the course of a couple of hours. I didn’t see it as a major failure I saw it as a lapse, a brief misjudgement. Did I need to recalibrate my non- smoking clock? No. I was simply a non- smoker who had had a brief lapse.
People starting out with sobriety seem to live in fear of relapse and I do not want to start what for me is a positive lifestyle choice by living in fear. I know alcohol is addictive, I know it’s going to be in many of the social situations I enter and I know that there may be triggers out there that make me feel I want or need a drink. If I do and it’s a one off the that will be a lapse. I do not intend having a drink but if it happens, if for example I have a glass of champagne at a wedding to toast the bride because that was all there was, if I drink only that and carry on next day as my new sober self then all that’s happened is I have had a lapse, not a relapse, a lapse. My sobriety is intact and I am not going to label myself as a failure. If, one the other hand I have that glass of champagne and then drink the bar dry and go on a week’s bender then I will consider that a relapse. Giving myself that permission to possibly lapse without seeing it as failure means I should hopefully rid myself of that all or nothing mentality that often crushes other attempts at change whether it be exercise, sobriety or dieting.
I have spent a fair few words looking at one word but words frame how we perceive the world. I need words and meanings that will help me change, not words that will drag me down and make me think less of myself. Importantly I am not reframing the language I use just to give me permission to sneak in a few drinks. I’m a soberista (or whatever new word I can think of to describe this positive way of being) and I may not always be perfect but I’m giving myself the best chance of success. I stopped drinking yesterday, day 2 today but who’s counting.
And Finally something to think about. A few years ago the BBC did a programme about losing weight. They had two groups in two separate rooms. In a little experiment they gave both groups a huge chocolate cake with identical calories in it. The groups were invited to have piece of the cake and the bulk of the cake was left in the room. The groups were then told to look under the cake to see how many calories were in the cake. Group 1 were told it was a low calorie cake. That group of dieters stuck with having just the one piece that they had already eaten. The other group with the identical cake were told it was very high calorie. Most people in that group went on to eat two or more slices. For me that was a powerful experiment. Group 1 perceived that eating the cake had not ruined their diet and stopped at one piece of cake. Group 2 perceived themselves as having failed and adopted a, “oh well we’ve blown it may as well have another piece of cake” mentality. Interesting no?