Relapse

December 26, 2022

It was the fall of 2018. I had just stepped off the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport. A cold November day, I’d forgotten to pack warm clothes. I’d just spent a month in India, and the closest I could come to “warm” attire for this 24-hour layover were my lululemon flared yoga pants, socks, Birkenstocks (okay, fake Birkenstocks), a cotton long sleeve top, and a thin cardigan. It may have been 40 degrees when I met my cousin at the tube. We sat side-by-side, literally freezing my ass off, on the way to his flat in Kensington.

Upon arrival, there were several gentlemen sitting in the library. Yes, he has a library. Yes, this is very British, indeed. They were drinking beverages I couldn’t make out (was it hot tea or a hot toddy?) and I was having a full-blown brain explosion. That morning, I’d been in the warm, humid, polluted air of Delhi listening to traditional meditation music with a group of yogis. Now, less than 12 hours later, I was in the cold northern hemisphere in the black of night, seeing my cousin for the first time in a decade, and wondering what the fuck just happened back in India. White men speaking in British accents, swearing cleverly and having mindful debates were my new peers. To say I was disoriented is an understatement. I was working overtime to disguise what felt like a catatonic episode.

My cousin and his flat-mate (don’t we love British slang) suggested dinner at a nice restaurant near the palace- quite a difference from the national parks of northwest India. As we headed out into the blistery, cold evening, I was still wearing my yoga pants, sandals, and socks, only this time layered with my cousin’s winter parka. We stopped for a photo outside Kensington Palace. I didn’t look as ridiculous as I felt, but it was still borderline.

All I wanted for dinner was steak. I’d eaten mostly vegetarian in India and my body was craving some sacred cow. As we perused the menu, I did something I hadn’t done in 6 years. I ordered a red wine with dinner. As a recovering alcoholic, this is a BIG “no-no,” but I’d just had a life-changing trip to India, was in a state of complete mental disarray, and figured I’d just have a few sips. I also had gotten sober at age 20, and while this was one of the biggest blessings of my life it also left me with some nagging doubts. Was I really an alcoholic or just an angry, partying teenager? Was it really that bad to have a couple of sips? My brain began the justification journey as I had my first sip of wine in years. Dinner ended, I didn’t even finish my glass, and I went back to my cousin’s apartment for some jet-lagged sleep.

This story is anti-climactic, in a sense. I did only have a few sips of wine. It was delicious with my steak. I didn’t drink any more that night and I didn’t feel guilt about ordering wine for what I deemed a very special occasion (how could I not take full advantage of this special night with my cousin after my world travels?). We had breakfast the next day near one of the universities in town, and I bid my cousin adieu as he returned me to Heathrow. I hopped on my Virgin Atlantic flight back to SFO like nothing had happened at all.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

On the plane, I was feeling good- like, really good. I’d just overcome one of my biggest fears (traveling to a country way outside my comfort zone). I’d met amazing people and had unforgettable experiences in India, and now also in England. The Virgin Atlantic flight was sort of a party in and of itself. The television and film choices were highly entertaining, the airplane’s color palate made me feel like I was sitting in a fun, modern restaurant, and the dinner menu was mouth-watering. I ordered what looked like the best lasagna in the world. Then came the question, asked in the most fun of British accents. “Would you like red or white wine with that?”

Thank God for 9 years of yoga practice I’d built up to at that point, which gave me the tiniest, split-second moment’s pause. Without that pause, this story has a very different outcome. Without that pause, I risk damaging years’ worth of effort. Without that pause, I risk my mental health sliding down a slippery slope. And, the pause was barely a second long.

In that moment, the world felt pregnant with an infinite number of outcomes about to be born. I heard my brain, my addict voice, SCREAM at the top of its lungs, “RED!”. Upon hearing this, my conscious, witness, well-rested self was startled.  In a sense, I was shocked. Shocked not only that I had such a visceral, strong desire to drink when offered the opportunity, but shocked that I had the wherewithal to hear that voice like a separate entity and respond like a jedi. I politely declined the offer for wine and told the flight attendant I’d just be sticking with water. Then, I entered a state of mental anguish. Was this a relapse? How could a relapse look like this?

Everything I’d heard about in AA about relapse was horrific. Someone had a sip of red wine and then, like Russell Brand’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the next thing they knew they were rimming waiters to get their hands on a rock. We see dramatic relapses in movies, where the antihero falls from grace after a period of recovery. They have one beer, then two, then three, then we see them getting carried home from the bar by their unrecovered, codependent Al-Anon friend. How could I even consider this a relapse? It was so small.

In the years that have spanned since, I’ve gained more sober days, more meditative states, and more stability in my sense of self. I realized that once the addict mind is awakened, it’s a giant. Until then, when you’re engaging in active recovery, you live with a dormant volcano in your brain. You know it’s there. You know it has enough lava to take down a whole city. But, if you have good community and healthy lifestyle choices and a recovery circle that suits you, you stay sober. The volcano stays dormant. For me, that 3 ounces of red wine was like a little lava spurt. If you were looking at my dormant volcano, and you blinked, you would have missed it. But, the volcano was already bubbling under the surface. I’d been out of my routine for so long, struggling with the death of my emotional support dog, and newly ripped open after a dramatic, short-lived romance. I was hungry, lonely, more tired than I’d ever been, and probably angry on some subconscious level that my trip of a lifetime was over and I was returning home to reality. I was the perfect candidate for a relapse. And, because it was so minor, for a long time I didn’t even consider it a relapse at all. But, it was that next day on the plane, that moment where my brain screamed at me to give it alcohol, that was the differentiating factor. I’d awoken the sleeping giant and, thankfully, he was put back to bed shortly thereafter.

Could it have been worse? Obviously. It would be silly to call this a rock-bottom relapse story- it’s not. But, I attribute my successful bounce-back to years of meditation and active recovery. Years of therapy and acupuncture and brain healing. Years of yoga practice. Without 6 years of active recovery under my belt, this very quickly could have (and likely would-have) turned into a spirit-killing relapse. Maybe worse.

This is how I’ve tried, at times, to explain addiction to my friends that seek to understand the condition. When the sleeping giant has awoken, the desire to use and to drink is SO strong, it takes an immense amount of energy and willpower for me not to engage. Not to use that brain pathway. Not to follow the neurological impulse to fall into the rabbit hole of my own inner world. When you have a glass of red wine with dinner, you’re unchanged. When I do, the next day I feel like Godzilla is inside my brain ready to take down entire cities in the name of finding an ounce of alcohol to consume. Alcohol turns my Bruce Banner into the Hulk. Turns my average Honda Civic into a hijacked Transformer. Turns my happy little seagull into a raging pterodactyl. Simply put: it’s intense.

And so, I choose not to have that sip of wine. That taste of your cocktail. That champagne toast. That digestive. Why? Because I’m actively trying to not destroy the life and relationships I’ve built in sobriety. My community, my colleagues, and my friendships mean the world to me. But, with the right amount of alcohol or drugs (this includes behavioral and relational addictions), I quickly forget why any of them matter in the face of relentlessly pursuing the substance my brain so actively craves. And so, I meditate. I practice yoga. I am honest about my condition and the environments that benefit it. I stay away from certain people and parties. And I make sure to surround myself with loving, compassionate, healthy people I want to emulate. Because I wish to remain sober- one day at a time.  

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