Someone dear to me, a person important in my life, relapsed recently.
Some eight years ago, she was one of those active drinkers who almost lost it all by hitting the bottle daily, often to a blackout. Her ex prevented her from seeing her children. Her friends, after a while, severed relations because it was simply too hard to be with her, to see this sad. slurring clone of who she was, and not know whether she might be herself that day, or under the influence. Had it not been for a drunk-driving offense that put her in jail, then in rehab, and finally in a sober home for women, she would have died. In fact, all those years when she was drinking, most of us were sure that one day, we’d get a phone call saying she’d passed away. We anticipated an accident, rape or murder, cirrhosis, freezing to death in winter while unconscious in a car, any of the causes of a demise generally related to alcoholism. She didn’t die, and to the joy and amazement of most of us, she slowly rebuilt her life. Her kids came back. She found work. She got healthier. She spent weeks with her parents. She became once again the person she was meant to be.
About a week ago, the relentless logic of alcoholism and addiction returned and won her over. Addiction—and make no mistake, alcoholism is an addiction and not a moral shortcoming, or a matter of willpower—is a strange disorder, perhaps the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease. It’s an unfair condition, since the solace of a drink or two is available to normal people but not to the alcoholic. It’s a disease that requires you give everything you have to give, but offers very little in return. It’s a killer. Most of us familiar with alcoholics have gone to many, many premature funerals. We have attempted—and failed—to console families that do not understand how such a difficult and meaningless death could occur.
My friend stayed straight through seven-and-a-half years of good and bad times. I saw her smile and weather difficulties and rejoice in small triumphs. I don’t know what happened to her a couple of days ago, why she very deliberately chose to go to a liquor store and buy several tiny bottles of vodka that she carried with guilt in her purse. She drank them surreptitiously and, I suspect, with very deep shame. I don’t know what pushed her over the edge—anxieties, fears, worries—and it doesn’t really matter. The frightening and amazing thing here is that in spite of knowing the potential consequences of her actions, the almost-certain loss of most things and people she holds dear, she nevertheless opted to take a drink. The better part of her mind, still ill despite years of being straight, decided she might get away with it. Perhaps she thought to have a one-night stand without consequences, but that rarely happens. Relapses don’t really work that way. My friend drank because it was easier to do that than not, or so her ill-fated reasoning went.
Now we wait. Her drinking history provides little confidence. The holidays are bad times for alcoholics, practicing or not, but the truth is that any time of the year, when liquor hits a body that was once dependent on its effects, all bets are off.
She and I spoke this morning. She’s not happy and she swears she has sworn off, but that’s little solace. She did that a hundred, a thousand times before, back when she was using.
I’m hoping that the experience and knowledge gathered from her years of sobriety will prove more powerful than her desire to drink but, honestly and sadly, I’m not holding my breath.