Recovery Rising Excerpt: Relapse of an Old Friend

Recovery Rising Book Cover PaperbackSally and David Brown published a biography of Marty Mann in 2001 that contained a bombshell. The bombshell was not the public revelation of Marty’s sexual orientation and long-term relationship with Priscilla Peck—a fact long known in AA and recovery advocacy circles. No, the real bombshell was that Marty Mann, the founder of the nation’s premier alcoholism-focused public policy organization and who for decades was the face and voice of alcoholism recovery in America, experienced a recurrence of drinking after more than 20 years of recovery during the time she served as the country’s leading recovery advocate. That revelation stirred my interest in the phenomenon of addiction recurrence after prolonged recovery—a subject that had haunted me as a result of the tragic outcomes of such cases I had witnessed over a lifetime in the worlds of addiction treatment and recovery. The problem of addiction recurrence after prolonged recovery—a subject that was virtually missing from the scientific literature—confirmed anew just how little we as a professional field and culture knew about the processes and pitfalls of long-term recovery. 

In early 2006, this became a personal issue through episodes of friends in long-term recovery experiencing such a recurrence (of varying durations and levels of intensity). As family members and others in recovery rallied around those who had experienced a reactivation of addiction, it struck me just how hard it is to sustain recovery over a lifetime. And the problem is that it really doesn’t seem to be hard much of the time. There are periods of incredible stability when recovery is, like the mechanics of breathing, taken for granted. Periods of truly peak experience occur. Recovery is an amazing gift—a doorway of entry into another level of consciousness. And minor bumps are present along the way. But overall, viewing recovery as a task completed is very easy—something to check off from one’s ultimate “to do” list. None of this prepares us for the need to redefine recovery over the course of the life cycle. 

We tritely state in treatment that recovery is a process rather than an event, but we still treat it like it is a one-hundred-yard dash. In reality, recovery remains a work in progress throughout one’s life. Recovery defined in the context of an intimate relationship must be redefined if that relationship is lost. Recovery defined in the context of retrieved health and occupational stability must be redefined if that personal health and professional stability are lost. Recovery must evolve in tandem with the purpose and meaning one finds in living. When that purpose and meaning diminish or are lost completely, recovery has no foundation upon which it can sustain itself. AA, NA, and other Twelve-Step programs have served as that continuity of support for many people, and its Steps are framed vaguely enough to allow for constant reinterpretation as one’s life’s circumstances change. 

In 2009, I collaborated with Mel Schulstad on an article that openly acknowledged this evolving interpretation of Twelve-Step programs and raised critical questions that remain unanswered about this phenomenon and the best responses to it. The addictions research community has failed the recovery community in this area through its utter silence on a life and death issue. When Mel and I finished that article, we were both unclear whether our anger, our frustrating sense of powerlessness, or our need to protect our own vulnerabilities had been our primary motivation for writing the article. Sometimes you have to write to keep from screaming.