A year in to sobriety, albeit with several one-time relapses, I am still in the period of what’s called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. The body can still have physiological cravings for alcohol even after this long, and mine does. When these cravings pop up, tremors in my hands still appear and I feel an overwhelming sense of pressure, accompanied by the insidious certainty that a few drinks would make it all go away for a couple of hours.
It’s a subject I’m reluctant to talk about, because it makes the people around me fearful, which scares me. Generally, it seems that despite all the platitudes about asking for support (about which I’ve written before) the recovering alcoholic, especially past the acute phase, is pretty much expected to go it alone and pretend that everything is fine. The guilt of even having cravings, let alone relapsing, is enormous: a sickening, drowning sensation that increases the drive to drink; a sense of intimate personal failure. Encouragement is hard to come by; judgment is not. Understanding of and sympathy for the addict’s experience is rare.
I’m hoping that if I am able to describe what goes through my head on the sporadic occasion that I do relapse, I can reduce some of this stigma and help others to speak openly about their experiences. I can only speak for myself, although my understanding is informed by, in rehab, hearing many stories from other addicts that tend to agree with my own conclusions.
Using a substance of choice is incomparably different for an addict than for a non-addict. Through force of habit, psychologically and physiologically, a huge set of feelings and circumstances are intricately tied up with cravings and bad choices. Certain stores are triggers. Certain foods are triggers. Some people are triggers. So are some subjective experiences: fear, uncertainty, loneliness, despair. Automatic thoughts are entwined in the addicts brain that obsess over alcohol, or another substance: terrible sirens who proffer sanctuary from a stormy inner and outer world.
Because of these entangled threads of craving, the act of relapse is a powerful one. There is a moment when the sirens succeed, when a decision is made to drink, with the full but rationalized knowledge that the single end goal is to get so drunk that nothing matters. It’s a precipice. To find a way to turn back once you leap is rare.
There is the moment when you purchase the alcohol. It’s like you can almost feel it in your veins already. Your mouth waters, your stomach grumbles, you already wrinkle your face at the anticipated taste of cheap straight liquor pouring over your tongue (because that’s the quickest, least expensive way to get fucked up)– equal parts revolting and relieving. All you can think about is getting somewhere where you can open the bottle and chug.
And then there’s that moment, the most important of all. The liquor hits your lips, your tongue, your throat, your stomach. It burns. It feels like a necessary scourge, eating away what feels like necrotic tissue in the chest, cauterizing all the wounds. It feels like pure power. It’s done; no one can stop you. It’s a bad choice, you still feel overwhelming guilt, but it’s your choice, it’s done, and even before it kicks in it is exhilarating beyond description. Every craving you’ve had leading up to the act is justified by that moment. It’s like taking off a mask. It’s like coming home. It’s like throwing in the towel.
It starts to work, just a few minutes after the first sip if your stomach is empty. You feel it in your legs first. The hot feeling from your stomach grows downward and starts to dissolve you. Well-being drowns you, insistent, surrounding and withering the black thoughts that still lie beneath. Every bad effect drugs have ever had on you is voided. Nothing matters. All you want is more, one more, one more, until you can’t anymore, until you’re passed out or puking or both.
The deep-seated shame increases exponentially, leaving you feeling like a little kid who pooped on the floor not once but a hundred times. And what’s the solution to shame and self-loathing? Another drink, of course. More oblivion, please.
You can’t avoid knowing that you will crash and burn when the miracle drug wears off. If you drink multiple days in a row, you will go through acute withdrawal again, which gets worse and more dangerous every time. The pain will return, and so will the guilt. After you pass out, you eventually wake up, in horror at the sober world and your sober self.
And sometimes you just want someone to forgive you, to tell you it will be okay. But no one wants to hear your sin. No one wants you to be less than they expect you to be.