still very much on the wagon!

I think we come into sobriety with a lifetime’s preconceptions of what it is about, without ever having experienced it. so like marriage, or parenthood, we should not be surprised when it bears no resemblance to our preconceptions.

one of my preconceptions when embarking on sobriety was about relapse.

because I believed that my life would be forever lesser without alcohol in it, I believed that I would be at constant risk of relapse and would need to be on my guard against it. whilst knowing deep down inside that my life is immeasurably expanded in recovery, I think I still have a fear of relapse.

one of the old colloquialisms for sobriety is being on the wagon. this originated in the early 20th century temperance movement. how typical that the language still used about recovery is at least a century old, in keeping with society’s attitudes to it!

this would originally have been on the water-wagon or on the water-cart, referring to horse-drawn wagons that sprinkled the unpaved city streets with water to keep the dust down in the summer months, like this one:

when I think of sobriety as being on the wagon, I think of a precarious seat on a high, rickety vehicle, which rumbles on as I balance carefully. if the sides are curved and the road is rocky then it is no wonder I fall off when we hit a pothole…

or perhaps I look behind me and like what I see better there. so I choose to jump off the wagon, to go in search of the benefits of alcohol that I am missing out on. and the wagon trundles on, leaving me behind, never to catch up or to find my seat again.

these two choices – falling or jumping – are how I have perceived it when other sober bloggers around me have chosen to consume alcohol again. I have read blog posts that tear my heart open about how that makes the person feel. I have seen bloggers who struggle and try and try again. sometimes they find the way out of that painful pattern, and I rejoice for them. sometimes they go down a third or fourth or whatever time, and do not come back up to the surface. the waters close over their heads and we see them no more, although their lives doubtless continue on elsewhere. but our life stories are not to be arranged tidily on a shelf, in some giant Dewey Decimal system. the soberverse is not divided into those who have relapsed and those who haven’t (yet).

the longer I go on in sobriety, the less I think I have the answers for anyone other than myself. if you ask me what I think you should do, I will tell you some basics, most of which I have learnt from others ahead of me. so I know nothing, really, apart from what is right for me. (what is right for me is not to drink, to keep in touch with my sober networks, to take care of my social, physical and mental health so that I do not drift, and to reach out to another person if I feel wobbly. that is it.)

I have no personal experience of relapsing on alcohol after I had committed to stop drinking. I have considerable experience of relapsing on alcohol whilst attempting to moderate, and also of relapsing on nicotine after I had committed to stop smoking. in the latter case it took a number of years of stopping, more or less successfully, punctuated by free-falling relapses which caused me huge anguish and took up far too much of my emotional energy. it is now either four, five or six years since I had that very last ever cigarette – bizarre that I cannot even remember exactly when.

at this point I feel I am free of the risk that I will make a deliberate decision to try and drink moderately again. I know both intellectually and in my heart of hearts that I cannot.

but reading of others’ relapses can feed an underlying anxiety in me. I say this with great care because I do not wish anyone to feel that they cannot write what is in their hearts. we all need to be able to speak our own truth. please continue to speak yours! and indeed many stories I have read of relapse have taught me lessons that I could not otherwise have learnt without relapsing myself. so I thank anyone who has written so honestly and am so grateful that you have done so.

it is the lack of control that I think I fear – that being on the jolting wagon, hapless to steer or to navigate.

what if I am not on the wagon?

I thought when I started re-framing this metaphor, what if I am taking the reins of the wagon? taking the reins of my own recovery?

but even that is not enough. what I need to be is free of the baggage, the weight of expectations behind me, and the constraint of the harness. and this sounds a little woo-woo even to me, so please forgive me! – but I think I need to become the horse.

and I don’t have to be a graceful Arabian steed, straight away. I rather think I might be the most obstreperous, shaggiest and tubbiest of Thelwell’s ponies, leaving her rider in the dust as she heads for the hills.

but if I am making my own way, my own decisions, not hanging on for grim death to a rattling cart, then I can see potholes in the road in front of me, and avoid them. I can stop being afraid of the bumps in the road, because I am truly connected to the road itself.

and this means taking full responsibility for my own actions, for my own recovery. there is no-one else at the reins, apart from me.

no ‘before I knew what I was doing…’, no ‘I found myself….’ (that one’s for you, Lou!)

my journey, my path and mistakes are my own, even if they (OH BLOODY HELL) did include relapse one day, which I very much hope and pray they do not. and by saying this I am not saying relapsing is ‘all right’. because to relapse is to put everything I have gained on the line. and it might be that I could not find my sober feet again, and that is a huge risk. HUGE.

but if I relapsed, and I got back on my sober feet, then the relapse does not win. which means I have disarmed the fuck-it moment, rendered it toothless.

and perhaps as I go down the road I will grow in wisdom and grace until I can run in power and freedom?

if you have thoughts – in particular about what relapse, your own or others’ has meant to you – I would be really interested to hear them. I am so very conscious that this can be a potentially divisive and distressing topic and the absolute last thing I mean by this post is to upset or alienate anyone. if I have done so, please accept my most abject and sincere apologies, and I hope you will accept my assurance that I am trying to muddle through to a better understanding of myself and my thinking… Prim xx

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