It was the summer I left rehab. I was officially six weeks “clean” of alcohol and was taking my first baby steps back into the real world, when I looked down at my phone to see 11 missed calls. My heart sank. The number listed was an ex-addict from my former rehab—a brilliant young doctor named Liz* who had checked in for alcohol and cocaine addiction. This couldn’t be good. Dread pooling in my stomach, I called her back. She answered on the first ring.
“I’ve relapsed,” Liz sobbed. “I’m devastated.”
I listened sympathetically, as she outlined her shame and despair. In a society where children are taught to pass or fail, Liz’s take-home was clear. She had failed at recovery. I didn’t know it then, but this downward spiral of self recrimination would be instrumental in taking her life. Convinced her slip-up was evidence of her inability to succeed, it wasn’t long before Liz slipped up again. And again. Within two months, she’d fallen victim to a fatal overdose. It should never have ended that way. All we could do was mourn.
Six weeks earlier, I had checked into rehab, in my own black pit of despair. A bestselling author for almost a decade, I had started my career as a London journalism aged twenty, with just enough childhood trauma to send me into the open arms of Fleet Street drinking culture. My switch to novel writing marked the culmination of a life-long ambition to be an author. But by now I had a terrible secret. My heavy drinking was a habit I’d been using to successfully drown out painful feelings. Now I was using alcohol to plumb the feelings required to write crime-thrillers with a deep emotional core.
The journey through rehab though painful, and tough, was greatly eased by my fellow addicts. During the process we were urged to dig into the painful feelings that led to us to our various addictions. We were also shown the way to the famous 12-Steps program, to allow us to mature through the process of sobriety in a supportive community, ready to nurture of vulnerabilities and offer help.
One aspect of the 12-steps program will be familiar to many of us in western society. The ambition of recovery using this method is to stay ‘clean’ forever. To never again imbibe our respective addiction. Not once. Not ever. The reward for this iron-clad willpower, was various badges, tokens and awards along the way. There were people in my 12 steps group who had been sober for thirty years, with the badge to prove it.
But slip up just once, and you go back to stage one. No matter how many years you’ve negotiated daily life without your crutch, you are now “one day clean.” No merit exists to acknowledge your growth or learning along the way. So absolute is this system, I’ve known members fall into agonies of doubt, over having accidentally sipped an alcoholic beer having mistaken it for alcohol free.
When I first went into recovery, I needed this system. I needed to celebrate every small victory. The days–even the hours–of being free from alcohol. But when Liz died, I radically shifted my perspective. Did I really need to attach so much importance to being perfect, when, bluntly, I had just seen that approach result in such tragedy?
The more I took this perspective, the more I noticed something. Attaching such a huge importance to not relapsing seemed to give the drug in question a huge amount of cache. The unspoken suggestion, was whatever you’d quit was so fun, even the slightest sniff would send you tunnelling back into addiction. Or, you as a recovering addict, so irrevocably damaged, any replacement coping mechanisms or self-healing was pointless.
I began to think, that perhaps neither was true. And when I first “relapsed” drinking a glass of wine at a wedding, a year after rehab, I realized the lie of it all. Alcohol really wasn’t fun at all. Free of the physical addiction, I was missing all the pleasure of sating my anxiety riddled body. The only thing left was a slightly woozy feeling, that I could really take or leave. It was a revelation. Could it be that my “relapse” was actually a learning curve? Something I personally needed to experience, to realize I wasn’t getting from the alcohol, what I thought I was?
I contacted the other addicts from my rehab with my guilty news. And found that they had all done the same. More importantly, they felt the same as I did. The drug had completely lost its shine. We had learned other ways to cope with life. And none of us felt our old drug would add anything at all, even if we were able to use it in moderation.
It was around this time, that I had another revelation. Going into rehab, I had been gripped with a case of severe writer’s block. I’d fallen into a deadly cycle of drinking to try and plumb the empty well, and then drinking more in despair when that didn’t work. It was an awful pit of self-loathing that nearly took my life, and I was grateful that I had got into rehab in time. Leaving the clinic, I was terrified that without alcohol, I would never write another word. Then, to my surprise, an idea struck. In rehab, I had met all kinds of colorful characters, a few of them well-known. Since leaving, to protect the privacy of my fellow patients, I’d kept my crazy in a luxury clinic of addicts to myself. It occurred to me, that writing on a book on the subject would solve these two problems in one. I finally had something to write about, and I could process some of the stranger events, without compromising anyone’s anonymity. The book, began to write itself.
In rehab, the last thing on my mind was fiction. But now I was out, those creepy Victorian corridors, and luxury treatment facilities took on a whole new life. To my great relief, I didn’t feel the need to drink alcohol when writing it. The emotional journey of rehab allowed me to use some of my deepest personal experiences, without resorting to my old addiction.
Despite the strong start, finishing the book wasn’t straight-forward. I had ups and downs. Days where I wrote nothing. Days where I “failed.” But I kept showing up to my desk, ready to work, and hoping the words would come. One year later, I had a first draft of a manuscript I titled The Clinic. I also had something more valuable. A deep understanding, born of the tragic loss of Liz, that exacting expectations can be an enemy of success, and mistakes can teach you as much as successes—as long as you’re able to see them as lessons. We all miss Liz, every day. Her loss is still hard to understand or believe. But she taught us all something, and there’s comfort in that.
Recovery, like life, isn’t linear. It isn’t a pass or fail. It’s a journey, where the best any of us can do, is to keep trying.
*names have been changed to protect identities.