The Reality of Relapse: “My Disease Is Always Waiting for Me”

The Reality of Relapse: “My Disease Is Always Waiting for Me”

As Veronica learned through her trials and tribulations, addiction never goes away—but it is something that can be managed

By Veronica L. Holyfield

Three hundred fifty days—that’s how long I made it into my latest stint of sobriety before picking up the drink again. In the land somewhere between awareness and dreaming, awake and nightmare, fantasy and reality, I found myself pondering what had happened. I swore I would never drink again, and at the time I made myself that promise, I believed it. So, what did I do wrong to end up here again? Another relapse. Another failure.

I’m lucky that this relapse only lasted three days, but it was exactly the reminder I needed in order to be 100% convinced that I am, in fact, an alcoholic. It started with a sneaky drink before dinner and then blacking out less than four hours later. I proceeded to drink myself into oblivion for two more days before I finally conceded that I needed help. Again.

In the days, weeks and months leading up to that relapse, I can honestly say that I was miserable in my sobriety. I was half-assed going through the motions of a program I didn’t totally subscribe to. I was meeting with a mentor and other sober friends on a regular basis, but I didn’t feel connected, and I didn’t really understand what made a life in recovery worth living. I didn’t seem to want sobriety as badly as so many others in recovery did. I started to withdraw from that community and was certain I could just sustain a life without alcohol by myself. And I did—for a while. All I needed was to get to that one-year milestone and things would get easier; I knew it. Or, I hoped.

I hoped every morning when I awoke that I would feel refreshed and eager to face the day, the downward spiral finally having ceased. Every day, however, the depression got worse and worse, and the dwindling grip I had on reality was waning.”

In addition to neglecting the work required to maintain my recovery from alcoholism, I also stopped taking care of myself in other areas. As a person with bipolar II, I had been struggling to find a combination of medications that worked well for me in sobriety; in a matter of nine months, I had tried 10 different medications. The ups and downs and the multitude of side effects became too much for me to manage, so after 336 days sober, I made the decision to stop all of the meds at once.

A Turn for the Worst

As I inched closer to that one-year anniversary, my mental health took a turn for the worst. My depression had plummeted to a new low—somewhere as bad as, if not worse than, when I was drinking the year prior. Suicidal ideation was permeating every thought, every motion, every second of my day, and I isolated myself from everyone and everything. I knew deep down it was the medication withdrawal, and I tried to remind myself all day, every day, that I truly wanted to live, but it was more and more difficult to convince myself that this was the truth. I hoped every morning when I awoke that I would feel refreshed and eager to face the day, the downward spiral finally having ceased. Every day, however, the depression got worse and worse, and the dwindling grip I had on reality was waning.

One week before I took that first shot of vodka, I had a family member take me to the Colorado Crisis Center so I could get help. The thoughts of suicide were too much to handle, and the desire to drink was like a magnet. I didn’t trust myself being alone. While it was suggested that I check myself into a 72-hour mental health inpatient ward, I knew I wouldn’t find the lasting relief I so badly needed, so I declined the admission. Looking back, I should have said yes.

It was exactly seven days between leaving the crisis center and buying that half-pint of vodka, and those were the darkest seven days I think I’ve lived through. My depression was so bad that I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t get out of bed to shower, and I couldn’t even feed myself. I told everyone that I was fine and just needed a couple days to rest and recharge from burnout, but the truth was that my body hurt, my head hurt, my eyes hurt, and my heart hurt. There was nothing I could will myself into, and picking up the phone to call my friends, family, therapist, psychiatrist or another person in recovery felt impossible, like trying to lift a million-pound bag of rocks with a toothpick. 

Veronica’s return to alcohol resulted in new realizations about her recovery needs.

I decided I was done writhing around in my misery, and I knew the only thing that would get me out of bed was the thought of having a drink. Just one, for just one night, and no one would have to know. Once I made the decision, I was out of bed and in the shower as if I had never suffered the last two weeks getting myself out of the dark dungeon that was my bedroom. I blow-dried my hair, did my makeup and drove directly to the liquor store. I felt all my trouble dissipate within that first drink, and I immediately felt like the person I knew I was, deep down inside. Capable; confident; secure; safe. All thoughts of self-harm had vanished, and my troubles slipped away. I knew I had crossed the threshold of recovery into relapse, but I didn’t care. It felt too good.

While the plan was to only drink that night, I drank nonstop for the following two days. My addiction had quickly ramped up to the place where I had left it less than a year ago, and drinking from the moment I awoke until the moment I passed out at night was already becoming normal again. Evaluating my life in sobriety versus the trap of a life in active addiction was the easiest contrast, and only being two days in, I made the decision to turn back to my foundation, my rock: my parents.

I detoxed in a bedroom in their basement for the following two days, and as reality slowly hit me with every sobering hour, I was in awe. How had things gotten so bad so fast? All it took was one drink, and I was already sneaking, lying and hiding. The obsession of where and when I was to get my next drink baffled me, and the fact that I was willing to put my safety and livelihood in jeopardy was already obvious to me. This has to stop, I thought. I was thankful that I had caught it as early as I did. Not many of us are so lucky.

Embracing Hard Truths

While there is a large part of me that wishes I had held on and made it to that one-year milestone, my sobriety wouldn’t have been honest and it wouldn’t have lasted. For me, I needed this setback as an active reminder that my disease is always waiting for me, lying dormant and just counting down the days until I don’t have the strength to fight the desire to drink. If I allow myself to step away from a program, away from a community, and away from the reasons why I choose not to drink every single day, then I am going to repeat this cycle over and over again, and it may not only be for three days next time.

I could have easily taken my life during this depressive episode, and now that I’m back on a medication regimen that seems to be working much better than any other before, I realize how much of a loss that would have been.”

I also came to the realization that my mental health is nothing to mess with, and that I am not my own psychiatrist. While I may not understand what is and isn’t working with the medications I am on, it’s not responsible or beneficial for me to stop them, cold turkey, without consulting a professional. I could have easily taken my life during this depressive episode, and now that I’m back on a medication regimen that seems to be working much better than any other before, I realize how much of a loss that would have been.

I am thankful to now have the clarity of mind to think through these things, to pull myself even closer to those whom I can count on most, and remind myself that a life in recovery is truly what I want. Even though I now have 26 days of sobriety rather than more than a year, I am thankful for every single day in a way that I haven’t been for a long time.

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