Don’t Talk To Me About Relapse!

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.
Be Afraid… Be very afraid!

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.

Jim x

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?

18 thoughts on “Don’t Talk To Me About Relapse!

  1. meenawalia

    I smoke when I over eat and m feeling disgusting about .myself.or maybe that’s an excuse.I have seen it in serials like MOM,that they have AA meetings there.Are u planning to go?Reading your post I realized u r really brave.u left smoking on your own and even after the lapse u didnt succumb.m sure u will quit drinking too.U must be really proud of yourself.. I know we all are..

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    1. Jim Simmonds Post author

      Thanks Meena. No AA is not for me. I like to approach things in my own way but like everyone, I need support which this community provides. You shouldn’t feel disgusted with yourself, ever! If you smoke or overeat there are reasons and the eating or smoking fulfill some temporary purpose. First step, be kind to yourself. You have a lot going for you.

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  2. sobrietytree

    I love this post!!! Well said. I think *many* of us who attempt sobriety take issue with the language and the terms, and rightly so, and we need to use whatever works for us. I have been pretty strict on the no booze thing this time around since I’ve tried it other ways and it’s been a slippery slope from there. But I think your smoking example is perfect. It was a very rare occasion, one you haven’t repeated since 2006 (!!!) and so of course yes you’ve been a non-smoker since 2004. In the same situation with drinking it would indeed be very discouraging and thus self-defeating to call something similar a relapse instead of a lapse or to discount the two years of smoke-free time just prior to the “lapse.”

    I guess, thinking as I type, though, that the only tricky thing with lapse/relapse is that we might not know which it was until a good swath of time later.

    Anyway, again, great post!

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    1. Jim Simmonds Post author

      Now I feel guilty , I did have a cigarette in 2012 at a funeral. But that’s it, promise! Glad you like the post. It’s not completely rounded thinking yet but like you said, it’s about taking some ownership of language and terminology. It all needs to sound more positive I guess is what I’m saying.

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  3. Addy

    Try not to overthink things. I remember Greg being told when he tried to give up, “if you are told not to think of a black cat, you will think of black cat”. Try not to overexamine your release from alcohol. Just get on with (and busy yourself with) other things. You asked for more positive terms to describe what you are doing. To me it would be “a new dawn” or “new chapter” of the “new me”. I apply that in my life without Greg. I’m in a new chapter where I do things differently.

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    1. Jim Simmonds Post author

      Hi Addy, wise words as always. I’m aware of black cat example, I like to use pink elephant myself!. I do have things I’m going to busy myself including this blog. I like your positive terms and glad that you have moved on in new directions.
      Jim

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  4. drgettingsober

    Totally relate to this – the first time I stopped I felt deprived, left out etc etc all the negative things of having ‘given up’. This time round something changed after a few weeks – I did a course (sober school) and the light bulb moment was the addiction voice recognition (AVR) – it was the wine witch telling me all this bad stuff – I didn’t want to be hungover every day, have stomach ache and still drink a bottle or 2 and pass out – that was her! Once I separated her from me I didn’t want to drink and I still don’t so it’s no longer a battle with myself or a deprivation it’s a positive choice. I think reading books like the naked mind, and ‘the truth about women and alcohol’ (may be not be the one for you 😂) made me think we’ve all been had and it’s the states way of keeping us all compliant and non-complaining to have a load of us addicted. As a former punk with anarchist tendencies seeing sobriety as a rebellion works for me! I hope you find your lightbulb! 💞

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  5. Jim Simmonds Post author

    I think my lightbulb’s on a dimmer switch, so a gradual illumination. You grew up on punk I grew up on prog rock so I like a meandering journey! I’m already seeing sobriety as a positive choice rather than an enforced position and that’s partly why I’d like to see a change in some of the terminology. I want to be soberista (joe strummer would have approved of the name I’m sure) not an ex drinker. Rise up you Soberistas. The revolution starts here!

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  6. Keri

    You put quite clearly what I’ve been saying for years. I find it total bull for someone who has been sober for any length of time to feel they have to start at day one if they slip and have a drink one day. Even if they get trashed, it doesn’t negate all those days that they didn’t drink. That’s a huge issue I have with AA.

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  7. Jim Simmonds Post author

    Hi I agree, trouble is there is the whole psychology of throwing in the towel when we slip up at something, be it dieting or sobriety. It’s also a very individual thing- finding your way of doing things. Jim x

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