Relapse

downloadAfter 4 years of Alcoholics Anonymous, and yet another relapse over this summer, I feel that I have very little to show for all my efforts. And I have made a gargatuan effort in my eyes. I have attended over 1,000 meetings of all different types. I attended Hazelden’s 30 day inpatient program which is 12 step based. I go to 5-7 meetings per week. I have a home group. I’ve made coffee, and swept floors. I have a sponsor. I’ve worked the 12 steps with a men’s Big Book step study group. I did a long and comprehensive 4th and 5th step with my group and sponsor. I also see a private therapist, and do boxing several times a week for exercise.

I’ve had over 1,000 days of sobriety, so it’s not as though I’ve been a total failure. But in the eyes of AA, I’m at day 1 and have to get a 24 hour coin.

Is it time to switch to SMART Recovery up and leave AA? Maybe.

As an atheist (and otherwise intelligent, educated, and logical human being), I have never bought into the dogmatic foundations of the AA program — that you need a Higher Power (preferably God) and have to pray everyday to get sober; that you have a multitude of “character defects;” that you are powerless and have to surrender your will to God, and that if you slip, you have to humiliate yourself, head down, shoulders sunk, in front of a roomful of people by getting a “24 hour” coin (which I’ve done several times much to my chagrin). I’ve written about these struggles here.

Indeed, at virtually every AA meeting, I often cringe at what I hear from people and read in the literature. I just cannot relate and buy in to AA’s fundamental principles. I feel that a lot of people, especially the old timers, lecture the newcomers or people who are struggling under the guise of “these are only suggestions” (which is total b.s.) And no, I’m not going to take the cotton out of my ears and stuff it into my mouth, as they say. I have a right to speak my mind and say what I want to say. I’m also not going to accept a Higher Power as a tree or “Group of Drunks.” That makes no sense to me.

If addiction is truly a mental disease (as it has proven to be) on par with any other mental disorder, why would someone need to accept God to recovery from it? Makes zero sense to me. Do people with bipolar or OCD need to accept God in order to get better. Show me a peer reviewed study which shows that. In fact, show me a real study which proves that AA has a higher success rate than spontaneous remission? On second thought, let’s not go there.

Often, I leave AA meetings feeling worse than when I came in. I often spend half my time at the meetings disputing what I’m hearing, and that’s not very productive. Granted, I often feel better too at certain meetings.

I consider myself a fairly educated and intelligent person, and truth be told, I believe in science over God. I believe in facts, research and data over the Big Book. I’ve always felt that over the last 4 years.

Now I’m not saying that AA does not work. In no way am I bashing AA. It definitely works for people. I’m just not sure it has worked for me. I’ve given it 4 years now.

It’s my program and my life. I want something that’s going to work, and yes, I’m willing to put the work in. I also take full responsibilty for my relapses. I’m not blaming AA. I’m simply looking for the best solution.

This past week I attended the local SMART Recovery meeting. I went to this same meeting a few years back when there was only a handful of attendees. At that time, I concluded that it was too small and could not replace AA. Well, to my delightful surprise, the meeting had grown to about 40 people. It was a fantastic meeting.

We did an actual whiteboard exercise (right up my analytical alley) about triggers and cost-benefit of drinking. I still have the image of the cost-benefit analysis in my head, several days later.

During “check-in” no one was forced to first “admit” they were an “alcoholic” or “addict” or other derogatory description. People just said, “I have a problem with alcohol and I’m here to get help.” (Ironically, I did identify myself as a alcoholic out of habit!). Where the meeting got interesting was during this discussion, where a certain level of cross talk is allowed. One woman fresh out of rehab had relapsed and people were asking her questions about it, what triggered it, etc. Anyways, after several back and forth’s, and peeling back of the onion, it turns out that the woman had been abused and that’s been the root cause of her drinking — she never really put one and one together. That could never happen at an AA meeting.

After the meeting, I was talking to another AA ex-patriot who has been transitioning out of AA from SMART. We both commiserated about the same issues we have with AA, and he said he has never felt so much relief now attending Smart.

All I know is that I felt great after the meeting. I didn’t spend half the time arguing in my head about how illogical the principles were (because…wait for it…they are based on actual science and research) and most importantly, I felt a huge sense of hope and relief, that I’ve found a program that will work for me.

I don’t know whether I’m going to quit AA cold turkey. I have so many friends there and there are some “liberal” meetings I attend where people aren’t so dogmatic–it’s almost like a SMART meeting without the whiteboard. But I’m going to start attending more SMART meetings and getting into their workshop materials, website, etc. Hey, maybe some day I can apply to be a facilitator. I think I would really enjoy and get a lot out of that!

Anyways, I would love to hear any of your thoughts and similar (or different) experiences.

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Program-Spotlight-Relapse-Prevention-Program-RPP-Summit-HelpsI’ve been in recovery for about 4 years now and have dealt with several relapses, even though I’ve done the Steps, go to 5-7 meetings per week and see a therapist.

Fortunately, my relapses have been very short lived and I’ve gotten right back into the program. However, each relapse has caused major problems and most importantly they have destroyed the trust I’ve worked so hard to build with my wife and family. It’s like taking two steps backward for every one step forward. It sucks. Big time.

Why did I relapse? Why do people in recovery relapse? Addiction scholars have written books on this subject. There are no easy answers to the question.

For me, I’ve usually relapsed when I was feeling very good, and often to celebrate and reward myself for some job well done — usually after a big win in court or a big closing deal. For normal people, this sounds completely insane, but for alcoholics and addicts, they understand. I’ve relapsed because the cravings to drink have taken up way too much space in my brain, and I did not “rat myself out” to my AA group, sponsor and therapist, allowing the cravings to become overwhelming. I would try to ride them out myself, and “out-think” them, but eventually they got me. I’ve relapsed because my disease tried (successfully) to convince me that my drinking wasn’t that bad and that I did not deserve to be an alcoholic. We call that the “built-in forgetter.” I’ve relapsed because I’ve slacked on meetings and didn’t make my recovery program the #1 priority in my life. I’ve relapsed because I made the conscious decision to pick up a drink, despite all the negative consequences.

People in meetings often say that at some point the obsession and compulsion to drink has miraculously gone away. Well, that has not been my experience. The craving to drink has never gone away, and I can tell you that I think about some aspect of drinking just about every single day. But it’s not like the craving itself is going to kill me. Yes, it’s distressful and frustrating, but it does go away eventually (and returns as well).

The most important thing about relapse, in my humble opinion, is to learn from the mistake and try not to make the same mistake again. It sucks big time to have to get a 24 hour coin (a topic for another post), but you don’t lose all those days of sobriety, and your foundation, while temporarily cracked, can be rebuilt, even stronger. Keep on getting back on the beam. Don’t quit!

I would love to hear from any of you who have dealt with relapses. Why did you relapse? And how have you come back and learned from them?

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holiday-drinking1

So here we are two days after Thanksgiving. Did you make it through in one piece?

For many people in recovery and who are actively drinking, this is the hardest time of the year to get through. Thanksgiving — Christmas — New Year’s. Hey, it drives “normal” people to throw punches at Walmart over big screen TVs, so we can only imagine how hard it can be for people in recovery! That said, here are some of my thoughts about getting through the holidays sober:

  • Load up on recovery meetings. Now is a great time to increase your recovery meeting attendance, whether it’s AA, SMART, or other program. I am currently going to one meeting every day and it definitely helps!
  • If you have not attended a recovery meeting yet, there’s no better time than now! In AA, we see quite a lot of newcomers coming in this time of year, so you are in good company and there are people who will welcome you with open arms and understanding.
  • Don’t be afraid to make tough, unpopular decisions. In my family, we typically go to two Thanksgiving events, one for lunch and a long drive to another for dinner. This year, I opted to skip the dinner event. I went to an all day Alkathon meeting instead to get some recovery medicine. It was the right choice for me. Don’t be afraid of saying “no.”
  • Take your own car to events so you can arrive late and leave early.
  • Have your sponsor and recovery friends on speed dial in case you need to make an emergency support phone call. 
  • Be very cognizant of the emotional toll of the holidays. I’m a big fan of the saying “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” In recovery, we cannot underestimate the emotional toll the holidays take on us. You are not immune from the stress. Respect it.
  • Work on your spirituality. The holidays are a great time to focus on your spirituality. Isn’t that what they are all about anyways? Attend Midnight Mass. Go caroling. Spin dreidels with the children. Get comfort from being with another human being.
  • Watch out for the post holiday relapse effect. Just as dangerous as the holidays is the emotional hangover which often occurs after the holidays are over. I have personally relapsed after the holidays because I thought to myself, “I deserve a drink after getting through all that stress!” Don’t do this! Stay on the beam, keep going to meetings, working on your recovery, straight through January until you feel back on solid ground.
  • The best gift you can give your family for the holidays is staying sober! Remember this. Your recovery comes first!

For more reading, here is a great list of articles from Hazelden about staying sober through the holidays.

Good luck!

P.S. my apologies from going AWOL from this blog. The truth is that the last year has been a struggle but I never left recovery, never stopped going to meetings and working on my sobriety. I just had too many more important things to do both in my recovery and personal/professional life than write on this blog. But I would like to make the effort of getting back to blogging because it does help my recovery.

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philip-seymour-hoffmanWhen I saw the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman lost his long-time struggle with addiction to a heroin overdose, I audibly gasped “Oh, no!” at my Twitter feed. Lost in the unanswerable why, things were a blur for a few minutes after that.

I posted on my personal Facebook feed about how sorry I was that addiction had claimed another victim. One of my alleged “friends” made this asinine comment:

Guy had a net worth of 35 million. Had access to the best facilities in the world. Feel bad for his children but at some point in his life he made a conscience decision to stick a needle in his arm. No one chooses to get cancer. It just happens but you can choose not jabbing a heroin filled needle into your vein.

My blood started to boil. Like millions of others and some of the media, my “friend” just didn’t get the disease of addiction.

Let me set the record straight. Addiction is not a choice. It has nothing to do with fault or blame.

I know this from personal experience, and from hearing the stories and watching the successful (and unsuccessful) recovery of hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts in various recovery programs of which I’ve participated.

The addict or alcoholic does not choose to be afflicted with the disease of addiction. When the addict is a child, he doesn’t daydream and say to himself, “When I grow up, I want to be a heroin addict and stick a needle in my arm everyday…” No one in their right mind would choose to become a drug addict or alcoholic.

And there’s the rub. No one in their right mind…

Addicts and alcoholics suffer from a mental disease of the brain — as accepted by the American Medical Association, National Institute of Health and American Psychological Association. Our brains are not “right” or “normal” when afflicted with this disease. Although there is a scientific debate on this issue, I believe that the vast majority of people who suffered from addiction were born or predisposed to the disease. Some alcoholics knew they were alcoholics from the very first drink. Sometimes the disease is triggered by trauma. Sometimes it’s just a long progressive process. But for some reason, people like Philip Seymour Hoffman are more susceptible to the effects of the addictive qualities of alcohol and drugs and will continue to use despite the negative consequences including the specter of death.

That said, the question of choice does enter into the equation. I believe that anyone suffering from addiction can choose to get clean and sober. There is an element of personal responsibility which comes into play when one makes the decision to get sober. But when the addict is in the throws of addiction, dope sick and cannot think straight or rationally, he doesn’t necessarily have a choice of whether to use. He uses to stay alive and to become “normal” again, or so he thinks. And that’s the insanity of the disease and how it makes talented, educated people like PSH do insane things.

But getting clean and sober is a scary prospect for most addicts. It’s a beast. For me, getting sober has been the single most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life. I would rather study and take the bar exam every week. I would rather go to the dentist every day. Well, maybe not. I hate the dentist.

Some people recover. Some people like Mr. Hoffman do not, and they die. Addiction does not discriminate based on wealth or celebrity status. For every Philip Seymour Hoffman, there are a thousand nameless soldiers of recovery, trudging along every day, going to meetings, reading from their Hazelden 24 Hour Book, and not drinking or using one day at a time. We don’t talk about those folks. Instead, we lament and blame Mr. Hoffman for “choosing” to stick a heroin filled needle in his arm.

Trust me, he didn’t choose that for his life. Would anyone?

To perpetuate the myth that addiction is somehow a choice is irresponsible.

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Burgundy-bigdealA great many of us lawyers have strong egos and sharp analytical minds. That’s what makes us talented litigators and corporate attorneys.

But those two traits are huge liabilities in recovery. It certainly has been for me.

An over-inflated ego makes it much more difficult to achieve humility and identify with others in the recovery community. In the early days, I was certainly guilty of saying to myself, “Oh, I was never that bad” or “I’m much smarter than that guy — he made so many dumb decisions.” Or, “I graduated top of my class and was on Law Review, certainly I can out-smart this disease.” But the fact is that I am no different from “that guy.” And If I really took a hard and honest look at myself, I too kept making the insane decision to keep drinking, and if I didn’t stop I would have gotten another DUI, risking my law license, family and career in the process.

As for the analytic mind, there’s a saying that analysis leads to paralysis. Despite my natural intelligence and superior education, I have been unable to out-think the disease of addiction. At various points in my recovery, I actually thought I could! Trust me on this, it’s a pointless exercise in futility.

I have realized that for me the program of recovery is much more about action than thinking.

For me, action means getting to meetings, doing Step work, going to therapy, talking to my sponsor and others in the program, exercising, writing and reading.

The more I stay inside my own head analyzing why I became an alcoholic, why some of the Steps seem illogical, and why I’m feeling anxious and depressed, the more my recovery suffered. So I work on not analyzing everything in recovery. I’ll leave the analysis for my law practice.

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A Lawyer’s Life Cut Short

November 27, 2012

Hey there. I haven’t posted in a long, long time. Life, work, family just got in the way. Quick update. Things are going well. Still sober and very much active in AA/recovery. Still haven’t got my head around the AA dogma, nor do I think I will ever really. Heading to my favorite speaker discussion […]

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Struggling, So Time To Make Some Changes

July 11, 2012

With the nice summer weather upon us and the abundance of parties, I have been having a hard time. July 4th weekend was particularly difficult. A cold beer would have really hit the spot…. I’ve determined that my current program needs some changes. I’m going to get a new sponsor.  I have fallen out of […]

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