You probably don’t remember when you first heard the phrase “chronic relapser” bandied about accusatorially at a 12 step meeting. I certainly don’t remember. It seems like some words have always been there from the start — those certain words and phrases exclusive to recovery. Like addict, enabler, and chronic relapser.
Yes sir, when it comes meth, we might get a week or even a month of clean time, only to toss it all away and use again. And again. And again. And again. And…
There are social as well as neuroscience reasons for this repeating pattern with meth, especially when intermixed with sex. The dark subculture of meth pulls us to return, to admit that leaving it behind is actually not possible. The subculture says you are here for life, ’til death do us part.
Then there’s neuroscience on how our particular drug not only depletes our natural dopamine, but goes nuclear and shuts down dopamine receptors to boot. When you quit the artificial rush of crystal meth, you not only are left with a profound lack of dopamine in your brain, but you no longer have enough receptors to “feel” the dopamine if you happened to have it anyway. Really. This is why withdrawal can be a bleak dark hole that has lead some of us to suicide.
But what I want to focus on now is the pure unadulterated stigma of being put in the category of chronic relapser. The phrase even sounds, well, nasty. Or it sounds like some pathological condition, at the least. Since we all know what chronic relapser means. Let him who is without possibility of relapse cast the first stone.
I speak from personal experience. I had almost four years of rock-solid cancer-surviving sobriety from meth when I relapsed. (I’m not going into the whole story, here. But I do here.) And it took me almost two years, on and off, using then stopping, using then stopping, with as much as two months between using more than once. I looked up, saw the program people at my 12 step meetings shaming and belittling the poor chronic relapser. No one wants to be him. But there I was. You might be there one day too. And if you have friends who are recovering meth addicts like yourself, one of them will probably be there, doing the chronic relapser tango someday.
It’s a horrible feeling. Struggling to regain your hold beyond meth is hard enough — so much harder than most of us imagined — but add the shame of being known as a chronic relapser and it is really, really horrible. That’s the word. Horrible.
So let’s reframe the whole effing issue. Sound good?
Here are 5 things to reconsider when it comes to so-called “chronic” relapsing.
- Labeling. Since I think it’s important to lift the stigma, we might as well start by jettisoning the “chronic” – we’re all chronic until we quit. Why not think of yourself as a “returnee” to recovery? Considering yourself to be just another addict who’s returning to recovery is a truthful description and not so negative in connotation. And, if you can do it, I’d lose the labeling altogether. You are a having an “acute flare up” of a disease located in your brain.
- At one point, this most recent relapse is going to be your last. Yep, that’s just a fact. It might be because you go to jail or die but, hopefully, it’s because you were able to successfully quit this time. Remember more than a million people worldwide have quit meth successfully, you can too. When working with someone who’s struggling with relapse, I always try to keep the attitude that THIS relapse is the last. I know it’s going to be true one day, so why not today?
- You didn’t lose your clean time just because you used again. Sure, you may have to reset your sobriety clock when it comes to 12 step programs. But it’s always one day at a time, right? You just don’t lose all that knowledge, experience, and wisdom gained from your clean time—no matter how short that clean time was. For many of us, after we’ve spent some time in recovery, relapse just ain’t what it used to be: we’re constantly thinking about recovery while high. This is progress. A dear friend of mine (who’s been clean from meth for 20 years) calls any period of relapsing “interrupted sobriety.” This is not only to respect the time you’ve already accumulated, but to encourage a sense of hopefulness that you will return again to sobriety.
- In the medical model, as mentioned in #1, you are having an “acute flare up” of your disease. You are NOT a morally weak “retread” who can’t seem to find the “willpower” or “surrender” to quit. You have a disease that manifests itself in the brain as a mental obsession to use meth. And don’t forget, our struggles make us stronger. Which brings us to…
- Guilt and self-loathing over relapse is your enemy. “I’m a chronic relapser, so why not go ahead and use now? I will use again sooner or later, anyway. That’s what chronic means, right?” This is your disease talking — or as I like to say, a rumination of my addict mind. Cut yourself some slack and remember the first 4 points above. Then get into action on taking some actual steps—like talking to someone, going to a meeting, anything proactive—to interrupt the slide back toward relapse BEFORE it happens.
And for those of us who are not struggling with relapse, let’s try to have more compassion and understanding for those who do. Everyone’s path to recovery is individualized. And let’s not forget #2 above. Encourage #2 instead of being negative about the slip.
You CAN quit meth. People do every day. Join us.