Relapse 101

I have family members who have been flanked on all sides by their own addictions.

I have lost dear friends to the dead end of their unwanted relapse.

So today I’d like to participate in the current dialogue about addiction and relapse.  Perhaps, for a few, I might even manage to clear up some of the mystery and misconceptions about relapse. I will also offer some thoughts from a more personal space around my heart.

But first, I submit to you my definition of  “addiction:”

When one is truly addicted, saying “no” is not the same as, say, resisting the most awesome chocolate cake ever. It means the person can’t not do it.

It’s like dropping a ball, then asking that ball to fly. It can’t. The ball is “addicted” to falling to the ground.  The ball is “addicted” to gravity. The ball can’t not fall.

Can’t not.

And the reason the addict can’t not partake of their drug of choice is the same reason they reached for that substance in the first place. The drink/the drug/the pleasure is bigger than them.

Sometimes the pain of life is too big to be fixed by the mind that is seeking relief in the first place. So the person in pain hires a Giant to fix things. And, in some cases, the Giant hired to do the job then turns around and takes down the person who hired him.


My Mom, until very recently, was the most bad-ass Physical Therapist on the planet. And to this day, three things make Marsha’s head spin right off her body:

  • People leaning on their grocery carts as they walk down the grocery aisles. (Not really what this story is about, but she would certainly point it out if I missed that one)
  • People using their crutches incorrectly.
  • And very close to #2:  people using their crutches for longer than needed. Marsha says: “When you use your crutches too long, you forget how to walk on your own.

An addict uses the substance as a crutch, and forgets how to walk on his or her own.


After some time, the drug/drink/sex/sugar/gambling not only stops being an effective pain killer, it also creates new forms of pain.  Sometimes the new pain becomes even more intolerable than the original pain. Some people call this phenomenon "bottoming out."

Recovery happens when/if Something Even Bigger than the drugs/drink/sex/sugar/gambling takes over, and effectively numbs the ache.

I’ve seen people find “Something Even Bigger” in several ways:  The way of the 12-Step program is very common. I have also seen people fall in love, then find that their ensuing bliss dwarfs the healing qualities of booze and pills. I have known people who, in/because of their addiction, lived through unspeakable horrors. Their living nightmares cracked their souls open to allow for an almost supernatural power to come to their rescue. Once these people came back to the land of the living, they found their desire to use had evaporated.

In each of these cases, the addict found Something Even Bigger that they trusted enough to embrace with both arms until their searing emotional pain eventually subsided.


A relapse occurs when the pain returns, and the addict/alcoholic no longer finds relief in their new ways. A relapse occurs when an addict/alcoholic reaches for Old Faithful.


When we begin to second guess our friends, and claim to “know” why they relapsed, we risk an arrogance that betrays the fallen.  To simply wave our hands in the air and declare that “they stopped working a good program,” or “they didn’t put recovery first” implies we were somehow privy to the mysteries of their soul, even more so than he who suffered. We so minimize the tragedy to assume we know best how they could have avoided their fate.

Not every fall is soaked through and through with failure and defeat. On every great battlefield, the warriors on the losing side surely had moments of pure triumph that were eclipsed only by a decision to surrender. Some of the most beautiful pieces of music known to man have within them the most haunting movements. Every life has dignity, even in its darkest moments.

As frustrating as relapse is for those of us left in its wake, I’m sure it’s not even a tenth as horrifying as it was to the relapser.  At the end of every day on this big, bizarre planet, we are certain of nothing. And I suspect those of us who claim to know the truth actually know the least. The moment we have things figured out is the moment we have closed ourselves off to possibility and discovery.

Perhaps, for an addict, the first moments after death are an exquisite inhalation of a long-forgotten freedom. Perhaps, in their final moments, a lesson was finally learned.  Perhaps it was a cosmic choice, and pure joy was felt at being given the privilege of such a sacred decision.

Or not.

We are all addicted to something, even if that something is our idea about how others might live their best lives.  I say, perhaps, give the fallen their dignity, and leave their unanswered questions to the Unanswerable.

I say, perhaps, let the mystery be.

I say the best eulogy for Phil is to silently turn inward, and fight the good fight against our own demons.

If you have made it this far with me in this piece, I want to thank you: Thank you for taking the time to read my silly words. It means the world to me. Carry on...

Old Single Mom
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