Why Is It So Difficult to Admit My Relapse?


A while back, when an interviewer asked about my thoughts on relapse, I said:

It’s important to understand addiction through the medical model so we can jettison the guilt and shame associated with relapses. This is not to encourage or excuse slips, but to be realistic. Most meth addicts will relapse during the journey of their recovery. Society doesn’t condemn the person with hypertension who gains instead of loses weight. We don’t shame a diabetic for having a sweet tooth or forgetting to take his meds. We sympathize with their slips and cheerlead them to do better next time.

Then why is it so difficult to admit my own relapse?

Though I’ve preached not to be ashamed of relapse and, instead, learn from it so it won’t happen again, when it came to my own relapse, I did feel shame. And for the same reason that most who relapse feel shame: we don’t want others to see us as having failed, don’t want to set our sobriety clock back to zero.

Also, my position in the recovery community doesn’t make admitting relapse any easier. After all, I’m the guy who wrote the book on quitting meth, the guy who’s a so-called expert, with a website that gets about 20,000 visitors a month. A lot of people look to my story as inspiration, thinking: If this guy can quit and stay clean for years, why not me too?

I knew if I went public about my relapse, I would let many of you down. But, in discussing this predicament with friends and mentors – some with double-digit years of clean time – the question arose: Why not be an example of coming back from relapse? Since relapse is a part of most meth addicts’ recovery journey, why not be that example, Joseph? Then let the chips fall where they may.

This “relapsing phase” of my recovery lasted about two years. You could easily call it a dozen smaller relapses, but to my mind, what seems most truthful is to view the entire time as one continuous relapse, sprinkled with periods—sometimes months or longer—of being clean in between.

I’m beginning to think there are as many reasons for relapse as there are users who relapse. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous would tell you the number one reason is holding resentments. Others would say relapse comes from unaddressed childhood (or adult) trauma. For me it was sex. I believed I’d fully let go of wanting that meth-fueled sexual experience. But when my boyfriend relapsed and we broke up, I started having a nagging feeling inside. I could live without meth sex in the abstract, but when it came to my ex-boyfriend having wild meth sex with other guys—the kind of sex he and I never experienced because we were both in recovery when we met and fell in love—I just couldn’t let it go.

Normally, I’m not the jealous type, but suddenly my jealousy was off the charts. I desperately wanted to experience that kind of crazy meth-fueled sex with him. I even went as far as to think I deserved to—after which, my addict mind added, we would both stop, get clean together, and renew our sober relationship. This last part, what my addict brain wanted me to think, is laugh-out-loud funny to anyone who knows addiction. What a ridiculous justification!

Or as my friend from San Francisco, Marc, would say: “Girl, please!”

No one in their right mind would buy that “after using meth together we’d easily return to normal sex and live the clean and sober life,” but I wasn’t using my right mind. I’d let the emotional intensity of my jealousy overtake my thinking and my addict mind ran riot.

One of the big lessons for me in all this is: I can’t just do meth for a weekend here or there (what some term “controlled using”). Nope. For me, once I let Miss Tina out of the cage, it was harder than hell to get her back inside again. Like I said, it took about two years of on-again/off-again using with my ex before I truly quit the drug (and him).

Since part of my recovery at that time involved working a 12-step program, I had further self-inquiry to do. I had to honestly explore all of my reasons for wanting to withhold from you the truth of my relapse. In 12-step lingo, it’s called “doing an inventory.”

As mentioned earlier, I didn’t immediately disclose my relapse because it affected my self esteem and pride as a so-called leader in the meth recovery movement. Would I be labeled a fraud who couldn’t practice what he preached? But even less flattering is this:

I was worried about my monthly royalty check from Amazon. Would this revelation affect the sales of my book? Would the thousands of visitors to this website every month now dwindle?

(I wish I could tell you I was above these petty thoughts. I cannot.)

I’ve always believed that relapsing doesn’t mean you lose your recovery time. Yes, in the 12-step rooms, one must set the sobriety clock back to zero and start counting from day 1 again—but, for me, that’s just academic. You don’t lose the wisdom and experience gained during your previous clean time. One doesn’t suddenly lose the hard won positive lessons.

In my own case, it did seem as if the strength gained from those clean years wavered for a while—and I did feel lost, uncertain. But that strength, like the wisdom, was still there, waiting for me to return to it. It’s the strength that ultimately allowed me to end the relapse.

In the rooms of CMA and NA you’ll hear it put this way: “Relapse is a part of my story.” For me, I need to take this one step further: Relapse is not just part of my story; relapse is part of my recovery. In other words, recovery is not a one-time event to be achieved. Recovery is an ongoing process to be lived.

Now I return to what I told that interviewer: It’s important to understand addiction through the medical model so we can jettison the guilt and shame associated with relapses. This is not to encourage or excuse slips, but to be realistic.

And let me be one hundred percent clear: I hope my experience with relapse is over forever; I don’t plan or make any room for relapse to again occur in my life. But I am no longer arrogant enough to think relapse is safely foreign, either.

After Relapse, Recovery. What Else?

And I have no doubt that what I’ve learned through this relapse will help me relate to others who are still struggling today. I get chronic relapsing. But here’s what else I also get, one of the most crucial lessons of relapse:

A solid, strong recovery can follow an extended period of using. It can even follow a weekend of using.

Recovery from meth is about getting our lives back. Fuck meth for what it’s done to my friends. Fuck meth.

All around me I see it, again and again. After relapse there can be recovery. You just come back. You return to the rooms of CMA, NA, or AA, if that’s your program. And, if it’s not, there’s LifeRing, SMART Recovery, SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves), Women for Sobriety and others.

Maybe you get clean on your own. Many do, though I know I couldn’t—but that’s me not you. Or perhaps you end your relapse with the help of a therapist, a spiritual advisor, a guide book, or with some eclectic and personalized mix of all of the above. What’s important  is that you come back.

As a my friend of mine, who’s struggled for years with relapsing, proclaims, “I’m not a chronic relapser; I’m a chronic returnee.”

Sure, it’s often tempting to think of the relapser as that person who just keeps trying and trying, getting some days or weeks (maybe even months) clean here and there, only to relapse again before any substantial time accumulates. But remember, I was a few months shy of four years when I relapsed. And in my work with fellow meth users, I have met people who’d quit for much longer than I, and yet still relapsed.

(On the flip side, I have a dear friend—I actually dedicated Quitting Crystal Meth to him—who quit over twenty years ago and has never relapsed. It bears reemphasizing: Just because relapse is a part of most of our stories, it does NOT have to be part of yours.)

If you’ve relapsed before, I hope you never relapse again—and I hope my honesty here has helped in your resilience in quitting, as opposed to discouraging you. Because the news about quitting meth is encouraging. People quit meth all the time. And if they relapse, they can come back.

We don’t have to die from this disease.

In that vein, I’ll end this post as I traditionally do by reminding that, yes, most definitely you CAN quit crystal meth—whether you relapse or not. Learning strategies to better maximize the possibility of quitting (and staying quit) is what this blog is about. Peace.