"It'll Be Fine, It's Just One Line": What It's Like To Relapse At 26

Photo by Tuan Tran/Eyeem
There’s a scene in the film Beautiful Boy, a startlingly accurate portrayal of addiction starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, where a father discovers that his son is using drugs again. "But why?" he shouts. "Why? Why? Why?" It is an atavistic cry, directed half at his strung-out son, half at the gods.
In a film that ached with familiarity, this particular scene was a little too close to the bone. It was one that played out, word for word, in my father’s kitchen in the autumn of 2017. I remember most the poignancy of his tartan pyjamas. The impartial thrum of the dishwasher.
My answer then was the same as Chalamet’s.
"I don’t know."
It is said that around 2% of UK women suffer from drug dependence. As a recovering addict and alcoholic, I am one of them. I gave myself something of a head-start: I was first drunk at 12, stoned at 13 and by the age of 15, was regularly using hard drugs. I spent my late teens and early 20s courting oblivion by way of booze, coke, ketamine, MDMA, 2C-B, benzodiazepines and whatever else I could lay my hands on. By the age of 24, when my world was the size of a room, a phone number and a bin filled with bottles and baggies, I couldn’t take any more, and checked into rehab. I was released 28 days later, utterly determined never to touch a drink or drug again. And that should have been that. Except it wasn’t – it isn’t for the vast majority of those moving towards recovery.
First of all, it must be said that relapse is by no means inevitable. There are many addicts and alcoholics who manage to get sober and stay sober on their first attempt. But it is thought that more than two-thirds relapse within a year. "We’re talking about a learned behaviour," says Karen Tyrell, spokesperson for the charity Addaction. "People who have developed a dependence on a substance have, over a period of months or years, developed a cycle of habitual, repeated responses. When something stressful occurs, their automatic response is to use that substance. They have to go through a process of retraining their brain, and learning to respond differently to stress. It takes a long time to do that, and it often takes several attempts."
I am 27 years old. On 23rd March, I will have been sober for a year – my longest period of continual sobriety since leaving the treatment centre. In the beginning I was a serial relapser, despite avidly attending 12-step meetings and following all the advice I’d been given. In early recovery, my mind was a lawless debating chamber. Reality collapsed and divided itself into reasons for resisting the urge to use, and reasons for embracing it. I developed a sophisticated system of magical thinking, auguring messages from the universe: the difference between sobriety and relapse could have been a red light, a single magpie, an answering machine. Every other thought gave me permission to call my dealer; I’d launch and torpedo a thousand rationalizations per hour. You’re so fat! Think how thin coke makes you! It’s not that bad in comparison to things like murder or arson. People are doing drugs all over the world right now – why not join them? The sheer noise of it was overwhelming, and the easiest way of silencing it was to succumb.
The potential triggers for relapse are infinite. "It could be a major life event or it could be a seemingly insignificant thing," Tyrell tells me. "It can even be a sensation at the back of your mind; an itch that you really want to scratch." Speaking to fellow addicts, it becomes clear that their experiences vary wildly. Lily, 40, relapsed after eight years of sobriety when her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thirty-six-year-old Shane relapsed after losing his house and his job, and moving into a dilapidated squat. For my friend Hannah, though, the trigger was nothing so large. There’s a saying in recovery circles: "If you hang around a barbershop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut." "For me, it was just that," she tells me. "I'd been clean for over a year. I still wanted to go out and have fun, and I was socializing with people that were drinking and doing drugs. I felt like I had it nailed. I remember it was four in the morning, back at someone's house. And someone had cocaine and I just started to really, really want a line. I talked myself into doing it, thinking Oh it'll be fine, it's just one line."
Whatever the trigger, it is safe to say that relapse is by far the norm. And while it is certainly not to be recommended, it is also true that it can be turned to one’s advantage. "A relapse has the potential to be a massive learning experience," says Anthony Rhone, an addictions therapist at London’s Nightingale Hospital. "You can identify your key triggers, you can assess what isn’t working about your recovery. Moving away from active addiction is difficult, and relapse is often a part of the process – there’s nothing to say that it can’t be progressive."
The first time I relapsed, I was bereft; crushed by shame. To me, it was proof that I was worthless and a failure, and as a result, I kept it quiet and carried on using by myself. "Shame is the worst thing that can happen," Rhone says. "It just really confirms to the person who is spiralling that they aren't good enough, and not worth recovery." What they need is "self-compassion and support from peers – nobody can do it on their own."
Too often, the addiction-recovery narrative we’re subjected to is linear. Fun – fun stops – acceptance – abstinence. But this is non-representative – and besides, recovery is about so much more than not using drugs. It is about finding a way to live fully and freely. For me at least, relapse laid the groundwork for that freedom – and I think that is something close to redemption.
Some names have been changed.
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