Is “relapse” even a thing?

One of the more frustrating concepts for me to get my head around is the idea of “relapse” as it pertains to Addiction. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the words, “After X time-period sober, I relapsed,” I’d be able to start a high-yield money market account at a high-priced firm. A “relapse” is often measured in a single action: Using a substance. But to me, the substance use isn’t the “thing” of an addiction; it’s a symptom of something else. Plus, I’m never really sure what “sober” means; In terms of Addiction, I believe it means not using a particular substance. But, does NOT using a substance make someone sober?

Even if someone thinks he or she uses because he or she just simply “likes” to use, there’s a reason why that person’s genetic and chemical makeup makes the substance so “likeable.” Using (or abusing) a substance should not be the indicator of a “relapse,” especially if there are many other indications of health.

For example, Suzie Q. had been “sober” for six (6) months when one night she found herself out with her girlfriends for a thrilling ladies’ night out. During her adventure, Suzie found herself drinking shots of tequila, something that she rarely had ever done. Her substance of choice was oxycodone (or “Oxys” as their affectionately known); in saying she was “sober” for six (6) months, she meant that she hadn’t used Oxys in six (6) months. But, she hadn’t returned to her collegiate studies and had only made half-hearted attempts to get a job. She wasn’t fond of exercise and didn’t care much to eat healthy. Really, Suzie Q. felt that her sobriety was safe because she hadn’t used Oxys.

The morning after her ladies’ night, she was sick as hell. She hardly remembered much about the night, but because she knew her friends never used nor had access to Oxys, she was certain that she hadn’t picked up. Therefore, in Suzie Q.’s mind, her sobriety was still intact: She didn’t use Oxys (forget the fact that she drank enough tequila to make a Mexican Bartender blush) and could report at her next NA meeting that she was still in fact sober.

Now, Ralphieboy, on the other hand, knew his life was a mess and realized that he his addiction to Oxys was not helping the mess get any cleaner. Though he still used Oxys, he was able to get a job, take a couple of classes, and changed his diet. As his life improved, he found himself using Oxys less and less frequently. He rarely spoke of sobriety; rather, he looked at his health and started respecting and loving himself enough to see what was healthy and what was unhealthy. He did the unhealthy stuff less and less and tried doing the healthier stuff more and more.

It’s clear that Ralphieboy lives his life through a realistic lens that includes the good and bad, while Suzie Q., in contrast, lives in a delusional ether where she’s able to stand before others as a sober person because she seems to have given up Oxys. If I was building a team of people, I’d choose Ralphieboy every time: He’s “sober” to me, even if he still uses Oxys once in a while because he’s trying to build a healthy life. When someone makes a substance (or process for that matter) the main indicator of a life, that substance gains great power and whether or not the person uses, it’s still the focal point of a continuing obsession whose sister, compulsion, is more than likely just transferred to something else.

Therefore, I remain confused about the idea of “relapse,” especially if measured by a single behavior: using a substance. There’s a lot more to a healthy life than any single act….

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