Category Archives: Relapse

2016 and the celebrity death curse

George Becker

George Becker

Two legends of music and film passed away this week, you may have heard of them; Carrie Fisher and George Michael. Both died before their time and both had a long history of addiction and mental health problems. Not too much is known at this point, but stories are emerging that they were both using again before their deaths. George Michael’s death was reported as ‘heart failure’ and Carrie Fisher’s death seems related to a heart attack she had days earlier.
So of course, on hearing of this terrible news about people I don’t know, I made it all about me.
They both used cocaine; they both died of heart issues; they both died before their time. Could that also happen to me?

I used a lot of cocaine in my 20’s. And because cocaine, like all illegal drugs, is unregulated I have no idea what I was putting in my body. Of course the thought horrifies me now. But back in the day when I was young, foolish and addicted I really didn’t care. I knew cocaine was cut with some bad s**t and I knew it could cause heart problems, but I couldn’t equate that information to my own need to use it on a nightly basis.
When I heard about George Michael’s death a chill ran through me. I am now of the age, that 53 really doesn’t seem all that old and certainly seems too young to die. My first thought (‘cause it’s always, all about me) was, ‘what if that happened to me too? What if my heart gives up in a decade or so. What if I hardened my arteries and I don’t know it and I’m living with a time bomb? What if I haven’t really escaped the consequences of addiction?’
Am I being irrational?

The irony now, of course, is that I really, really want to live. Even though I was often suicidal in my early 20’s I didn’t really want to die, I just never knew how to live and now I’ve figured that out, I’m scared the consequences of my drug use may still, one day, creep up on me. Those were my first thoughts whenever a celebrity, who had a history of addiction, died this year. Addiction casts a long shadow.

Image by Salvatore courtesy of

Image by Salvatore courtesy of

Carrie Fisher and George Michael were both artists who produced incredible work despite their addictions. They still had so much life to live. There is a view on the internet that 2016 is killing all our childhood icons before their time, that for some reason 2016 is out to get us. This may be some kind of defense mechanism so we can avoid talking about the real issues, let’s blame it on 2016 being a bad year rather than talking about how addiction and mental health problems have real and preventable consequences. I would prefer us to be talking about how we still need more, much, much more resources to help those who are still struggling. That mental health and addiction services are still underfunded and *sigh* addiction is still seen as some kind of moral failing rather than a brain disease. Because so many of these deaths are unnecessary and trust me when I say, we’re not done yet.

The actress who didn’t relapse

HPIM0835A few weeks ago a well-known actress, bestselling author and recovery advocate made a speech about addiction at a recovery event. You would be surprised if you knew just how many celebrities are in recovery from alcoholism and addiction. Unfortunately, not many of them are prepared to stick their necks out and advocate for the recovery community the way this particular actress does. She’s actually become quite known for it and is the ‘go-to-girl’ for many organizations wanting a famous face that can talk about addiction.
Now this actress was seriously ill a little while back and was finally diagnosed with another disease. Having put the disease of addiction into remission, she then had to take on a new one. With treatment she is fortunate that this disease is also in remission, but it means she still has some side effects and must take care of her health.

She recently appeared at a recovery event where she was asked to be the main speaker. After the event, a local newspaper reported that she was behaving badly and was clearly intoxicated, it judged her for ‘relapsing so publicly and causing ’embarrassment.’ The tone of the piece being ‘you’ve let everyone down, your meant to be a recovery advocate, you failed us, what are people going to think?’ After it was published Twitter blew up with concern for her sobriety (which was perfectly solid).
This actress didn’t relapse. What observers thought were signs of relapse were just repercussions of the other disease she has to deal with.

But what if she had relapsed? It happens in all types of diseases after all. But despite the recovery communities insistence that addiction is treated like a disease, they are usually the last people to actually do so.
What if she had diabetes and was speaking at a diabetic conference and suffered a relapse. Do you think she would have been treated with judgment and disdain?
No, I don’t think so either. She would have been treated with love and compassion; she would have been helped and cared for. But most importantly no one would have felt she would have damaged the face of recovery from diabetes by relapsing. That’s because diabetes suffers know relapse can be part of their illness. It’s unfortunate and can be life threatening, but no one is berated for it.

So, why oh why, are people who relapse in addiction treated so badly by their own community?
Why is there so much confusion about this? Yes I know people die, I hate it as much as you do. But shaming and blaming is not going to help the situation.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

I’m going to come right out and blame this on confusion and misunderstanding of the 11th tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous. The AA program is one method of getting sober, it is not the only way, and it doesn’t ‘own’ the conversation on alcoholism. I’ve written about this in more detail here and here. But suffice to say, this misinterpretation has led to the belief, that when someone publicly speaks about addiction and then relapses, it is damaging the public perception of recovery.
Where as I believe the reverse is true. When the recovery community insists that alcoholism and addiction is a disease, then themselves fail to treat it such, they damage how addiction and alcoholism are viewed. By blaming and shaming they are treating addiction as a moral failure and not a disease, thus perpetuating a faulty belief. It is this particular faulty belief and the mis-guided secrecy that the 11th tradition perpetuates, that keeps the disease of addiction from getting the support and funding it needs.
We need to talk about it publicly, we need to talk about all aspects of it and that means relapse too.
It may also mean that people who speak about it publicly may go on to relapse, just as they do with any other disease. Just as the public understands that recovery from diabetes/cancer/lupus/heart disease etc. is possible despite set backs, they will also understand that recovery is possible from addiction.
If we show them.
Which is why I’ll publically support anyone, famous or not, who is brave enough to stick their heads out and talk honestly about addiction.

Oh, and the actress, best-selling author and recovery advocate? It’s Kristen Johnston who is continuously sober for 8 years and kicking ass.

Do alcoholics need to come out of the closet?

Rick Perry recently made some remarks comparing homosexuality to alcoholism. He implied that being an alcoholic or a homosexual was a ‘choice,’ or some kind of ‘disorder’ that could be overcome. Laurie Dhue a journalist for The Blaze (a conservative media outlet no less), wrote an excellent response to Gov. Perry’s remarks where she clearly illustrated how uninformed and dangerous his comments were.
I don’t want to get into a liberal/conservative argument here, but by doing a little Google research it’s evident that alcoholism is in fact a disease and homosexuality is an innate sexual preference.
Neither alcoholism or homosexuality is a ‘choice.’
I was thinking about this when I happened to be in Nashville last weekend. It was their annual gay pride celebration so my husband and I decided to go along. It was a very family friendly event and along with our 2-year-old we had a blast.

My son at Nashville Gay Pride 2014

My son at Nashville Gay Pride 2014

We were sitting near an older gay couple that were clearly marveling at the young gay folks around them. I got chatting to them and they said it is extraordinary for them to witness how much has changed in their life time.
They had been together for over 50 years and lived most of that afraid that they would be shunned, shamed or attacked if people knew they were gay. It is only in the last few years that they have been able to admit they are gay and are thrilled that finally gay people can live their lives in the open. They told me how much they enjoyed gay pride as it made them feel less alone and it was one day where they were in the majority for once. I told them I felt the same way about being an alcoholic and that for the first few years of my sobriety I kept it secret for fear of how I would be judged or treated. When I go to conventions for people in recovery I also feel how great it is to be in the majority and surrounded by people in long-term recovery.

It struck me that Rick Perry was right, there are similarities between the gay and recovery communities, but not in the way he implied. Both communities have lived with shame and fear, afraid to tell people the truth in case our jobs or homes are threatened. Scared to be honest in case we are shunned or judged, forced to hide an important part of ourselves away. With thanks to movies like The Anonymous People and celebrities that speak out about their own recovery, acceptance of alcoholism and addiction has grown.
But isn’t it time addicts and alcoholics came fully out of the closet?

I recently interacted with a couple of ‘old timers’ who both said they didn’t want to be public about being an alcoholic in recovery incase it effected their careers. I was kind of shocked as both these individuals are over 25 years sober. I know nothing guarantees sobriety and relapse can be devastating but I don’t see what is to be gained by the secrecy. It implies shame, when we hide our recovery it implies we have something to be ashamed about.

I believe the recovery community can get overly concerned that if we are open about our recovery and we relapse then people will think recovery doesn’t work. The problem with this thinking is the general public only sees ‘rock bottoms’ they don’t see long-term healthy recovery because we have kept it hidden!

The older gay couple I spoke to said it took them a long time to realize it was ok to come out of the closet. They were so used to secrecy being a way of life that it took them a while to realize the world had moved on.
I wonder if it is the same for long-term sober people? I’m sure 25 years ago it was absolutely necessary to keep your alcoholism hidden, but I don’t believe it’s the case anymore. I believe the world has moved on and is beginning to see alcoholism differently.
Isn’t it time for alcoholics to come out of the closet too?

Recovery Rocks – Devin Fox

It’s been my policy with the Recovery Rocks interviews to not interview anyone with less than a year of sobriety. This is because I want people to feel safe and secure in their recovery before they publically share their story.
However, this week I want to make an exception. This is because I think we need to hear more about relapse.
Devin Fox is a person in long-term recovery, and founding member of YPR – Young People in Recovery. A native of New Jersey, Devin obtained both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Social Work from Rutgers University, while living in the Rutgers Recovery House on campus in New Brunswick, NJ. Devin was featured in the 2013 documentary film, The Anonymous People, which aims to encourage 12-Step members to stand up and speak out about addiction and recovery.
Devin Fox very publicly talked about his sobriety and became a well-known advocate for recovery, then he relapsed.

Devin Fox

Devin Fox

How is this possible? How can one of the ‘stars’ of the recovery movement relapse? Does this mean that recovery doesn’t work? No. It just means that just like and disease sufferer, Devin just stopped doing what he needed to do to stay sober. If a diabetes sufferer stops looking after themselves they end up in hospital with the help and support they need to get back on track. If an addict relapses they often end up in jail with people angry and critical of their behavior. Unfortunately Devin especially experienced this from the recovery community.
Just as The Anonymous People challenged entrenched and mistaken views on anonymity I think we also need to challenge how we view and treat relapse.
This is Devin’s story:

1) Describe your ‘rock bottom.’

My rock bottom was waking up after a black out in a holding cell in Bensalem, PA. Not knowing what had happened or why I was handcuffed to a bench I inquired. To my horror I slowly pieced together what had happened from some very angry and upset Bensalem policemen. During my blackout I had managed to walk into a woman’s house at 7am and then carry out a conversation with her 3-year-old daughter. The only glimmer of recollection I have of that morning is a feeling of complete and utter shame, guilt and horror. Some small part of my brain understood for a split second that I had been the cause of such tremendous chaos in someone else’s life. I could do nothing but cry when I found out and it still fills me with despair and a very healthy fear to this day. After finding this out I was again ready to make the admission to myself that I am absolutely and completely powerless over drugs and alcohol and that my life becomes unmanageable the second they are introduced into my body. It was hard for me to believe that drugs and alcohol could bring me so far from the upstanding morals and values that my parents brought me up with. There is just no other answer. This is something that I must manage and keep arrested for the rest of my life, one day at a time.

2) What were your first 30 days of recovery like?

My first 30 days of recovery were angry, miserable and completely devoid of hope. After my admission that I was powerless over my addiction to drugs and alcohol and that my life was utter chaos without a recovery program my disease quickly took back over. I believe this was to hide from the massive amounts of shame and guilt associated with walking into that poor family’s home and the attention my relapse got from the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was so mad at myself for relapsing and I was so angry at myself for not knowing how to ask for help sooner or in a different way. I felt like my personal life had slipped away and that my professional life was quickly following. I felt lost and alone and under constant pressure to make something out of nothing.

Even after over four years in continuous abstinence I didn’t know how to set and maintain boundaries in my life. I also didn’t know how to ask for help in any more ways than I already was. Sometimes I look back on my life before relapsing and question if I had asked for help 10 thousand different ways if it would have ever been heard… or would our movement have thrown up their hands and announced their powerlessness over my addiction and life like I often feel we do to countless others. Would we quickly step aside and pass on the burdens and responsibilities to those “more suitable”? Would we brush aside a very public arrest and attempt to sweep it under the carpet by redoing interviews with the newest staff, taking down videos from YouTube/Vimeo, finding other young people in recovery to prop up as tokens until we waste them away with responsibility they have no idea how to handle, but think they do?

Would the great keepers of the addiction recovery movement reach down and lend a hand to a fallen comrade or turn a blind eye? As I have witnessed, some have, some have not.

Needless to say, the first 30 days of my recovery were quite difficult with all of this in my head. The shame, guilt, hopelessness, anger and frustration I felt often clouded my ability to stop and take the advocate hat off and recognize that I had never stopped needing recovery even with over 4 years of abstinence and a program in my life. It took 30 days of inpatient treatment to even allow myself to unravel from the twisted belief that I believed you deserved 12 steps and a life beyond your wildest dreams, but I did not. You see, this is why I was able to maintain a life and profession in the recovery industry even while in active addiction. You were worthy of recovery. I was not.

Thankfully I cracked open just after 30 days and allowed the smallest glimmer of hope to split me open to the possibility that I am very much worthy of a life beyond my wildest dreams and that my life can and will become everything it is meant to be if I put the necessary work into it. You see? God rushed in. God didn’t move. I did. Somewhere along the road I had put Devin before my Higher Power and even before my recovery program. One day at a Time I work to keep this in the order it ought to be – God. Recovery. Devin.

3) What are the best things that have happened to you since you got clean/sober?

The best things? The best thing that has happened is a relationship with a God of my own understanding and the realization that my relapse doesn’t make me an unintelligent and incapable human being. Another best thing is that I today allow myself the opportunity to understand that when I am actively working on myself I am an asset to others and therefore society at large.

I’ve also had the privilege of listening to speakers talk about “If we say we are living just for today or one day at a time then long-term recovery is just that – 24 hours.”

4) If you could go back in time to you when you were drinking/using what would you tell yourself?

It sounds so cliché, but definitely:

“Stop. Pray. Go to a meeting. Ask for Help. Pray some more. Give yourself a break. Don’t stop until the miracle happens.”

5) What have been the most useful things you have learnt about yourself since getting sober/clean?

I’ve learned that the dreams I shoved away and ran from are still alive and strong. I learned that I can dream as many dreams as I want and even achieve many of them, not just one or two. I’ve learned that it is not shameful to be a gay man. I’ve learned that my sexuality is divine. I’ve learned that I am worthy of being happy, joyous and free. I’ve learned that I am worthy of a healthy relationship with another man, future children and maybe even a white picket fence.

6) Tell me about something wonderful that happened to you recently that never would have happened if you had been drinking.

I had the opportunity to attend a recovery convention in South Florida this past week for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community. I learned that I am not alone… it sometimes feels lonely in “mainstream” recovery fellowships that are not specifically geared towards the LGBT community. Growing up gay in a straight world brings a whole host of unique issues that many within the gay community face. Having the chance to spend 4 days with 1,000 other gay people in recovery helped keep me focused on my life and my recovery by showing me that others who are just like me get better and stay better every day, one day at a time.

7) What are your favorite recovery slogans?

Don’t stop until the miracle happens. Let Go and Let God. Time takes time. Learn to listen and listen to learn.

8) And lastly, why does ‘recovery rock?’

Recovery rocks because it has not once, but twice, taken a broken, beaten, self-defeating gay man and shown him that hope is possible and that God has something greater in store for him.

You can follow Devin on Twitter here.

Relapse triggers

Here is a quick check list of relapse triggers I think every alcoholic or addict should be aware of:
Dishonesty – Beginning with pattern of unnecessary little lies and deceits with fellow workers, friends, family. Also important lies to oneself – this is called rationalizing – making excuses for not doing what you don’t want to do, or doing what you know you shouldn’t.

Self-Pity – Feeling sorry for oneself, believing the world and everyone is against you. A negative cycle of thinking that always results in a belief system that nothing is every going to work out for you and ‘it’s not fair.’

Anger – Anger is just fear, announced. So someone who is angry all the time or explodes at the smallest of things is deep down very, very frightened. left untreated these uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings will always seek some kind of pain relief.

Cockiness – ‘I’ve got this.’ Believing that you have a unique insight into alcoholism and it can’t harm you. Goes into drinking situations just to prove everyone wrong.

Special and different – Believes that many recovery tools don’t apply to them. They are not like other addicts and alcoholics so therefore don’t have to do the same things.

Lack of discipline – In life and in recovery, no set routine, no focus. Always has excuses to not do something. Stays home a lot.

Impatience – Wants everything now. Things aren’t moving fast enough, people are not doing things when they should. Focussing on job, money or relationships instead of recovery.

Ungrateful – Focussing on the things you want that you don’t have instead of the things you do have.

Not dealing with feelings – Letting feelings rule you, trying to hide or bury feelings instead of sitting in them and dealing with them

Exhaustion – Not taking care of self, trying to do too much, trying to make up for lost time. Good physical health is vital for emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Relapse is not a dirty word

Image courtesy of Naypong at

Image courtesy of Naypong at

We need to talk about relapse.
Relapsing on alcohol and drugs is a very uncomfortable subject for the recovering community. Because relapse can equal death for some people. For others it means more loss, grief and pain.
No one wants to relapse; I have yet to hear anyone describe it as a pleasant experience. Yet so many people do and we need to talk about that.
Relapse can be part of the recovery journey and I don’t think it’s helpful to blame and shame people who do relapse. No matter who they are, they need our love and acceptance, not our judgment.
There can be a slight competitiveness to being sober, we measure sobriety in length of time. But as my friend Carrie Armstrong points out, it’s not the length of your sobriety, but the width and depth too. It’s about the quality of the sobriety you have today and the work you put in to maintaining and enhancing that quality, not just how many years you have.
Because sobriety never comes for free.

Of course, I would prefer it if no one ever relapsed because I hate seeing the pain that comes with it. There are many paths that lead to relapse and they all contain dishonesty. The actual act of relapsing with drugs and alcohol is usually the conclusion of a whole set of behaviors that have preceded it. It is the final result of a process, that starts, in how someone thinks and feels. When an addict in recovery, consistently doesn’t take care of their emotional and spiritual wellbeing, the risk of them relapsing is high.
I see no difference in this, than when someone with heart disease or diabetes just slowly slides into complacency and starts eating the wrong foods or not exercising and skipping their medication.
What happens when they do this? Well, they relapse.
A diabetic may end up in hospital; a heart disease patient could collapse at work. This emergency usually brings the necessary attention that they have not been taken care of themselves.
They are not blamed and shamed.
They are given help, support and treatment.
It’s just not the same for addicts and alcoholics. When they relapse, they are shamed by the services that treat them, but also by their own recovery community.

Because of the misguided use of anonymity the recovery community can be terrified of the public hearing or seeing anyone relapse. We have created this culture of secrecy where anything to with alcoholism, recovery and relapse must be kept hidden and covered up. I don’t believe this is very helpful. Relapse doesn’t show that recovery doesn’t work, it demonstrates that like any disease relapse happens when we stop doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves.
If we want alcoholism accepted as an illness, then we have to accept that people relapse.

I believe that relapse is part of the recovery process just like any other disease. I think you’ll find that most disease sufferers take a little while to get it right and make mistakes along the way. Of course there is risk involved and of course relapse in any disease can lead to death. That is just the reality of living with a chronic illness.
We have to be responsible for our own recovery today and every day after.
I applaud anyone who relapses and has the courage to get back up and ask for help again. I think we could all learn a lot from the courage and humility that demonstrates.