There’s a monster lurking in the shadows, you’re sure of it. Try as you obsessively might, you find yourself unable to make out its features or even fully anticipate its arrival, but still, you know it’s there, consuming your imagination while remaining just beyond the scope of your understanding. It manages to steal your complete focus at first, sprinkling your day-to-day routine with nagging moments of fear, worry, and dread. After some time, though, when the beast fails to make a full appearance, you begin to convince yourself that you were just seeing something in the shadows that wasn’t really there, a product of the emotional shrapnel left behind in prior wars fought.
Somehow, when the monster finally does reveal himself, you still find yourself jolted by the notion of his arrival. All of the countless hours of fear and dread spent on the anticipation of his alighting are immediately rendered useless, as you first become truly cognizant of the rising tide of a loved one’s relapse.
Relapse is part of recovery. In addiction recovery circles, you’ll hear them say it often. They even print it in publications, seemingly unbothered by the relative permanence of the written word. It’s just one of a number of slogans that are casually bantered around your neighborhood twelve-step group. One day at a time. It works if you work it. Progress not perfection. What’s not to like about those? But relapse is part of recovery? Seriously?
Perhaps the approach is comforting for someone early in recovery. Maybe it’s exactly what they need to hear, a quietly accepted understanding of the limits of our humanity when confronted with the very real perils of addiction. Sure, it’s part of the process, they’ll tell a recovering addict, but be clear, it doesn’t have to mean the end of sobriety. Consider it a new beginning, a starting over, the necessary and expected reboot of an aging franchise. Yet again, one day at a time. Relapse, a part of recovery.
For the non-addict loved one, though, the slogan is not the least bit comforting. In fact, it’s infuriating. Relapse may be “part of recovery,” but it also can be part of death and destruction. Hurt and torment. A crumbling of trust and the loss of relationship. Relapse can, and often does, mean The End. We know this on a very personal level. We’ve experienced — and in many ways, have yet to recover from — the sort of profound loss that can accompany the relapse of another.
In the depths of it, my immediate instinct is to try to piece it all back together like a puzzle, creating a timeline of events and their corresponding emotions, meticulously identifying triggers and signs missed, all in an effort to quantify the inarguable why. What the madness of relapse taught me, though, is that the why is not mine to determine. The unadorned truth is that I cannot control another person’s relapse any more than I can control the same person’s sobriety. It simply will not be micromanaged. Much to my chagrin, again, I have found myself returned to the grand lesson of letting go.
Tangling with one’s boogeyman, whatever that personal creature in the darkness might be, can be an emotional blood sport. The clash can leave us bloodied and broken or it can be a catalyst for an even greater resolve. The choice is ours. With each shadowy altercation, even while I mourn the loss of those small pieces of myself that are inevitably lost in battle, I also discover, hidden in the rubble, the green of previously unrealized growth.