Falling off the wagon isn’t a thing in my world. Not for me. Not for you. Not for any of us. Not because I think people who used to abuse or overuse alcohol in the past and are sober now can never f*ck up. We’re human. Sh*t happens. But falling off the wagon isn’t a thing in my world because I don’t believe relapse equals failure.
Okay. So, in fairness, I’d totally support the idea of a magical unicorn-drawn wagon that was literally impossible for anyone to fall off of. Because that’s just an awesome thought. But in the meantime…
Can we just get rid of this whole “wagon” concept, please?
I’d never been curious about where the expression “falling off the wagon” came from until I got sober. According to the almighty Google, it may have originated in the U.S. during Prohibition times, when one’s declaration of intended sobriety was reportedly sometimes accompanied by the (rather flamboyantly awesome, IMHO) gesture of jumping up on the back of a water-wagon (they had wagons that sprayed water on the dirt roads to keep the dust down, kind of like how they do at construction sites still today) and proclaiming oneself to be a drinker of water forevermore, not the demon alcohol. Huzzah! (Okay, I don’t know if they said those exact words, but that sounds like an awesome mental replay in my head.)
That said, the image conjured to my mind by the phrase “falling off the wagon” has always been that of a downtrodden, dusty, forlorn individual scrambling up from the excruciatingly painful face-plant they have just taken onto the ground and trying desperately to catch up with the aforementioned “wagon,” which is of course at the same time carrying along on its merry way, oblivious to the plight of the fallen one, who is falling further and further behind.
Let me put this a different way: The imagery inspired by the phrase “falling off the wagon” is that of a desperate, hopeless situation, y’all. And in my opinion, relapse is inherently NEITHER of those things. Relapse is not a dirty word. It is what you make of it, and it actually CAN be an incredibly strong building block toward a better life, if you allow it to be.
Relapse ≠ being summarily stripped of your sobriety card. For real.
An article showed up in my inbox recently that took a pretty hard stance against allowing anyone to call themselves “sober” if they’ve experienced any kind of relapse, big or small. There was a lot of discussion in that article about how, no, relapse means you have to start over again at day zero, you have to WEAR your failure around your neck like a heavy, humiliating mantle… not just brush yourself off, leave it behind you, and say, “well, okay, that happened… and I’m continuing on into my sober life and still calling myself sober.”
(And I don’t want to get into a war of opinion or direct any more attention than necessary to a viewpoint I don’t agree with, so I’m not going to link to the article here, but if you want to read it, feel free to contact me and I’ll send you the link.)
I guess to the layperson it does sound a little contradictory, calling yourself sober or “on the sober path” when you’ve just had a relapse, although technically the definition of the word sober DOES allow room for this. And some (including the writer of the above-referenced article) would argue that the technical definition (including that wiggle room) is not what people REALLY mean when they talk about sobriety.
I’d actually agree that popular opinion doesn’t support calling yourself sober if you still relapse occasionally. But I think it SHOULD. And I’m not the only one who questions popular opinion in this.
Because to me, sobriety is a journey. It’s a journey that’s longer for some and shorter for others, and often twisty-turny as f*ck for many of us.
But if the breadcrumbs left behind by others for us to follow to the mythical mecca of so-called “twue” sobriety are all eaten by the birds, and we find ourselves walking in circles for a while, trying to figure out which way leads us to our ultimate destination, that doesn’t mean we’re not doing it right.
That doesn’t mean we’re not headed somewhere f*cking beautiful.
To me, if you’re here, if you’re reading this, if you’re showing up for yourself in this way, if you’re TRYING, then you’re on that sacred journey, regardless of what your in-the-moment results might look like. That’s my heartfelt belief, y’all.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I believe it’s about your MINDSET more than anything else. Your success in sobriety is not measured solely by the number of consecutive days of abstinence you’ve been able to string together. If you keep sobriety in mind as your goal and continue to take steps toward it, even (or especially) when you get knocked off course for a moment or two (or seven), then you’re doing it right, y’all. You’re learning. You’re growing. You’re f*cking rocking it, in point of fact.
In fact… you know what? Here’s a (printable!) sobriety card just for you, babes, that comes with a LIFETIME membership to my super-secret and super-awesome sobriety society, and NOBODY can take this card away from you. 😜
And I’m not looking to jump into the controversial AF moderation debate, but…
That article I mentioned earlier made a point of noting that moderation doesn’t work. And I’m absolutely not here to argue for or against moderation, but I will say this: It’s a choice. It’s not the right choice for me, but I’m not here to smack everyone else’s hand away from the cookie jar and tell them they’re diabetic and they should know better. An opinion about moderation, pro or con, is just one of those things that you can’t shove on someone, I think. It’s a decision that people who struggle with alcohol overuse have to come to on their own.
I’ve known lots of folks who abstained for a while, got to feeling confident and were all like, “I’ve got this; alcohol wasn’t reallllllly a problem for me,” and then decided to try moderation.
But from what I’ve seen (and experienced myself), what tends to happen is this: Many who try the moderation route eventually come to the conclusion that it’s HARD AF to moderate, and ultimately not worth the enormous energy output it requires… because it means, basically, you have to be thinking about your alcohol consumption ALL THE F*CKING TIME.
How much am I gonna have tonight? How much did I already have? I have a party coming up, what’s my allotment for that? Did I already go over my max for the week? It’s like when dieters start counting calories. It’s a crazy-making way to think about living the rest of your ENTIRE life.
The other thing I’ve noticed that tends to happen sometimes is this: If you decide to try the moderation route on for size, you may eventually end up going on an unintended bender, because after your carefully allotted two drinks for the night are consumed, your inhibitions are lowered, and suddenly it seems so much more okay to just have one more, just for tonight, and then that becomes two more, and so on.
Because… let’s be honest… most of us don’t start this sobriety journey because we can just have one or two and stop. Most of us truly, absolutely just don’t GET how people do that. How someone could drink HALF a beer and leave it on the table after dinner!? The unthinkableness!
Anyway, that unintended bender may last just for one night, or a month, or maybe even a year or longer. But when we return to embracing the sobriety mindset once again (which also is a thing that tends to happen rather inevitably, because we do tend to recognize at some point that we need to get our sh*t together… though it happens in our own time, not on anyone else’s schedule — a hard truth that can make watching someone you love struggling with addiction so very heart-wrenching), we often return with the realization that moderation is a tricky, risky b*tch, because moderation makes relapse that much more likely.
So what I’m getting at is that, one way or another, I think we mostly tend to come to the same decision eventually about moderation probably not being the best way to do things.
But whether we’re supported and loved along the way or instead have our tails whacked with a newspaper and are relentlessly scolded “BAD! BAD ADDICT!” makes a huge difference, I think, in how STRONG and resilient we feel as human beings when we come back to the sobriety path.
Do “normy” drinkers really exist? Bueller? Bueller?
That article I talked about earlier also seemed to feel that mixing folks who are “just” sober-curious in online support groups alongside people who are “actually” struggling with addiction creates confusion and supports the trend toward people still thinking they can claim sobriety when they have recently relapsed.
But here’s the thing: In my opinion, “normies” (people who aren’t affected by alcohol and don’t have an addiction problem) don’t exist. We ALL have an addiction problem, if we’ve ever allowed alcohol to pass our lips. Because, as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I believe that addiction is just the end-game result of consuming an addictive substance FOR LONG ENOUGH, IN LARGE ENOUGH QUANTITIES.
Some addictive substances act faster than others, and some people are “low responders” to certain substances (they have a higher tolerance and a higher threshold for feeling the effects and thus are able to consume more, faster). By sheer virtue of how fast the downward spiral tends to happen in these instances, it’s much more likely for a low responder to end up labeled with the moniker “addict” (and to have to deal with all of the stigma that comes along with that).
But even if you’re a “high responder” who gets tipsy on two sips of wine, so you don’t drink much or often… it’s a spectrum, people. High responders progress much, much, much more slowly on the spectrum, but even a high responder will MOST LIKELY eventually become addicted to a substance, and develop a higher threshold and tolerance, over a long enough period of time.
However, because of how slow the process happens, high responders often never reach that point in their lifetimes. And because of this, many people will point to these high responders and say, “Ha! See? You’re wrong! So-and-so isn’t an addict and they drank until they were, like, 192 years old!” (Okay, maybe not quite THAT old. But you get my point.)
I think if we all lived forever like vampires, we’d probably see things a lot differently, and the statistics would probably look a lot different, too. And maybe Prohibition would be a thing again. Because I really do think that it’s all just a matter of time.
But, you know… talking is good. And stuff.
The good thing about all of this is that these are conversations that we never used to have before. And we are having them now. We are talking about it.
We are getting people interested in what it means to be sober, to be sober-curious, to be a beautiful human soul caught in the grips of an addictive substance. We are having conversations about how to define sobriety, about what it means to be an addict (and whether it’s even useful to use that label… or ANY labels), and about how we can best support and love those who are going through this struggle, this journey, this ultimately transformative, life-reaffirming, and courage-strengthening path.
Alcoholism was a topic that was swept under the rug in my family growing up. I saw evidence of it as a child, in overly ruddy cheeks, in adults swaying and staggering and swerving in the lane on the way home at times, in angry words and angry fists. But nobody talked about it directly.
My grandfather died right before I was born, and the story I was told as a child was that he was in the hospital for a “routine surgery,” and he got out of bed and fell on his way to the bathroom, and the complications from the fall caused his death.
Later, when I started doing genealogy research, I ordered his death certificate and discovered the truth.
Cause of death: cirrhosis of the liver.
So let’s keep these conversations about sobriety going, y’all, and maybe we can begin to REALLY change the way our society glamorizes an addictive substance that is KILLING us every day. Because that’s the real deal here, isn’t it? It’s not really about whether you can call yourself sober or not if you had a relapse. That’s just the window dressing.
But wait, isn’t all this just giving
addicts and problem drinkers beautiful human souls struggling with alcohol overuse the permission they’re looking for to drink again?
I want to take a moment to address this issue from the perspective that a good friend of mine brought up recently, which is basically that it seems inherently problematic to “sanction” the idea of relapse by telling people that it’s okay if they drank when they didn’t mean to, that they can just move forward with their sobriety despite having a setback.
Because that feels a lot like giving people “permission” to drink, despite the fact that they’re trying to stay sober. And doing that seems counter-productive, perhaps even counter-intuitive to the whole sobriety movement.
Honestly, I took quite a while mulling this over, because on the surface of things, it does seem really problematic. Are we, I had to wonder, making it harder for people to stay sober by welcoming them so readily back to the fold when they slip? Is there perhaps some deeper wisdom to that familiar “tough love” battle cry that so many seem ready to shout from the rooftops?
Real talk, y’all: I felt some frustration along these SAME lines during my first few months of attempting (what I thought of at the time as) “serious” sobriety. I mean, I was surrounded by this amazingly unconventional, extra-loving community of sober folks who were just sooooo very warm and understanding and ready to support me despite how imperfect my attempts might be, that it was basically… umm… kind of annoying… because it really DID feel like I was being given tacit permission to drink, when all I really wanted was for someone to tell me NOT to, in no uncertain terms.
And I spent a lot of time struggling with this feeling in the beginning of my sobriety journey and not really understanding where the frustration was coming from (and I wanted nothing more than to blame other people for making me feel it, no doubt). But with the benefit of space and time (and sobriety), I can see a lot more of what was going on beneath the surface with this, at least for me.
Here’s the bottom line: Basically, I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. I was so quick to judge myself, even just for having the THOUGHT that I might drink, that the idea that anyone might still love and support me even if I did — that was just too much for me to process. It did not compute, you know? I think a part of me wanted a reason to hate myself, on some buried, unacknowledged level, because that was familiar. That was the kind of pain that I knew how to deal with (by drinking… surprise, surprise). And having that realization was a big part of what finally helped me to move past my frustration and into the rest of my (sober) life.
Anyway, frustrations aside, as hard as it is to hear sometimes, the whole “permission to drink” line of reasoning really does fall apart when held up to the light of personal responsibility and autonomy. Because nobody can GIVE anyone else “permission” to drink, y’all. We’re all adults here, and we make our own choices.
I mean, it’s not like we arrive at this point without any experience with what imbibing alcohol does to our bodies, our relationships, our work, our clarity of mind. We typically arrive here only because we already have a VERY robust database of past experiences to draw upon, experiences that can tell us fairly reliably what kinds of unpleasant consequences we will suffer if we decide to start drinking again.
But it is a seductive idea to have someone else to shove this responsibility off on, to be sure.
I can’t tell you how many times, while in active addiction, I wished and hoped and prayed for the money to hire a “sober companion” — someone whose sole job, I imagined, would be to follow me around and SMACK the drinks right out of my hand before I could drink them.
And then… only THEN, I imagined… I could finally be successful in sobriety! I fantasized about this a lot. Seriously.
But abdicating responsibility for your own sobriety isn’t the answer. And a sober companion (while a step in the right direction, at least) is really just a band-aid slapped on top of a soon-to-be-festering wound that needs WAY deeper care.
I know that band-aid definitely wasn’t the answer for me. And I believe it isn’t the answer for anyone who wants to truly recover — and by “recover,” I mean live, and LIVE WELL, rather than just white-knuckling it through forever until death.
Examining the reasons behind the alcohol excess in the first place, building self-care routines and stress management tools, and just generally adulting better — that’s the long-term solution.
That’s building a life you don’t want to escape from. That’s why I’m here today, writing this article. And that’s why I am so ever-loving grateful to all of the folks who loved and supported me on my own imperfect journey, who helped to hold space for me to create the nurturing environment of self-care that made that growth and change possible for me.
And WOW, this post got crazy long. I think it developed a life of its own. I just hope it helps someone out there. Mad love for you all!