I wonder if you can relate to the story of, let’s say, Pat. Pat was drinking a lot, and it was starting to have a negative impact on Pat’s relationship and even began to affect his work. Pat was a bit more irritable than usual, did not have much energy and was finding that the only time that was “good” was when there was alcohol involved. After some time, and people in Pat’s life expressing their concern, Pat decided to stop drinking. Though hard, Pat was able to stop and stay stopped for almost a year. One night, after a hard day, everyone from work invited Pat out for a drink. Pat’s inner voice chimed in, “It can’t hurt. It’s just one.” (No one ever thinks, “Perhaps I can down a bottle of my favorite tequila and get away with it.”) That was the last thing Pat remembered before waking up on the floor of the house, fully clothed and with an awful hangover. Additionally, Pat noticed feelings of guilt due to not being able to maintain sobriety and was thinking, “I failed.”
This is a relapse (or lapse, or slip or setback), and it can be one of the most frustrating and/or humiliating experiences when it comes to changing habits (whether drinking or any other problem habit). Many people have fantastic success in changing their behavior, for months or even years, and then they start drinking again. This can lead to panic because what was previously thought of as a magic bullet turned out to be nothing more than another failed attempt. The notion that “just one drink won’t hurt” is the biggest lie you can tell yourself, because it is highly unlikely that it will be a single drink. In reality, you only get to choose the first drink as every decision after that point is one made under the influence.
Relapsing is very common, and quite logical when you think about it. Most people spend years, often decades, training their brain to use alcohol as a cure-all for life’s ups and downs. When life is hard, we use alcohol to help us cope; when times are good, we use it to celebrate. This powerful drug has been tightly woven into the fabric of our lives. Is it any wonder that occasionally we revert to it?
So what should you do when you fall off the wagon? Here are some tips:
Brace yourself. The feelings of guilt, shame and humiliation are often intense. Prepare yourself for these feelings. Commit to use them as motivation to get back on track.
Think of relapse as a stepping stone. Instead of viewing this setback as a step backward, think of it as a progression on your road to recovery. Many people relapse. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the relapse rate for people overcoming addiction to drugs or alcohol is 40–60%. Take the opportunity to identify what triggers played a role in the relapse, adjust your relapse prevention plan and rebuild. This is an opportunity to learn and get better, to learn what went wrong and fix it. Remember, success is not about how hard you can hit it; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
Get support. Whether you reach out to a support group, loved ones, a peer supporter, a therapist or a treatment program, it is important that you let others know you are struggling so you do not have to go it alone. Admitting you slipped will be difficult, so prepare yourself for the conversation (whether in person, on the phone or via text/email).
Many in law enforcement are reluctant to obtain professional help in fear of administrative consequences and termination. In reality, however, it is more likely you would face disciplinary issues if you have a problem with alcohol and it is not addressed. If you are interested in support, there are options. Psychological Services Bureau offers confidential and free services and can be contacted at (213) 738-3500. If you are sworn, Peace Officer’s Fellowship (POF) is available. You can contact one of the members listed here, and they will be more than happy to assist a fellow deputy. If you are non-sworn, feel free to contact me for AA meeting resources.