There have been several times in meetings when I have heard someone share about relapsing. One would think that the agony on the person’s face and the guilt and shame they relate would be enough of a deterrent to anyone in the room from ever picking up a drink again. I’ve been at meetings where people who have been sober for years and years have swallowed their pride and admitted to their fellow alcoholics that they “went back out.” It’s always so tough to hear and difficult to watch them suffer. And always one hell of a wake-up call and reminder that we can never get too complacent when dealing with this disease.

Recently, however, one person’s relapse hit me quite hard. I went to visit a friend who was recovering from major back surgery. She was remarkably strong and in relatively good spirits considering her situation. She had expected to be convalescing in her home under the loving care of her partner of many years. But she was there alone, having to fend for herself and rely on friends and neighbors to bring groceries and meals. Unbeknown to my friend, her partner, who had been sober for 24 years, had started drinking again a year ago at Christmas. She was not there to help my friend in her recovery from her surgery because she was in the hospital herself. Fighting for her own life because her liver was failing. She had done so much damage to her liver when she was drinking so heavily, 24 years ago, by picking up again she went right back to where she left off. There’s a reason that alcoholism is described as “cunning, baffling and powerful.”

No one in their right mind would choose to do something to themselves that would cause one of their major organs to stop functioning. That’s just it – she wasn’t in her “right mind.” Apparently, over Christmas last year, this woman was around friends who were drinking and that evil little drink devil reared it’s ugly head and made her think that she should be drinking too. Just one drink couldn’t hurt, she must have thought. But that’s never how it works, is it? Not for an alcoholic. It may not be the first time you pick up. Then you may just be able to have that one drink. But inevitably there will be more. And more. Until you drink yourself to death. Literally.

I’ll spare you the details of what is happening to her body physically. Suffice it to say it’s not pretty. I can only imagine what is going on in her head emotionally. Fear? Guilt? Shame? Remorse? Regretting not being there for her partner who needs her now? Anger? Anger at this horrific disease. A disease known by so many but a disease with such a huge stigma attached to it still. So what does my friend say when people ask where her partner is? How about that she is in a battle for her life, up against a most formidable foe? Why is there so much shame surrounding the disease of alcoholism? It’s not something we brought upon ourselves. Yes, how we choose to deal with it is something that we control. But we didn’t catch this disease. We weren’t careless or weak. We didn’t let our defenses down and somehow acquire it. Yet most people are quite reticent to admit to anyone that they are an alcoholic.

I choose to admit it freely for several reasons. It’s my hope that by putting myself and my story out there, I can somehow help others who are suffering. I used to be horrified at the thought of anyone finding out but as I said, it’s a disease. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a lack of will power or self control. People need to learn about it and need to try to understand as much as they can. Chances are very good that you may know someone who is an alcoholic. But think about it. If you ever told someone else about them, did you whisper when you got to the part about them being an alcoholic? Maybe you didn’t want anyone else to hear the embarrassing word.

I want people to know that they are not alone. I want them to know they should not feel ashamed. I want to pass on what has worked for me to keep me sober. I want other alcoholics to know that it is in fact possible to fight this disease and win. Relapses can happen, and given the recidivism rate for alcoholism, they happen quite often. But a relapse doesn’t have to mean total failure. You can get back up and return to the right path. You can renew your quest for sobriety and a better life. Fear, guilt and shame can be replaced with bravery, determination and pride. But we can never sit back and rest on our laurels. That opens the door for the cunning disease and the evil little drink devil. It requires constant vigilance and work. For many, it’s an every day battle. For my friend’s partner, it’s a battle for her life. If you are an alcoholic, think of her next time you want to pick up a drink. If you’re not an alcoholic, please say a prayer for her. You don’t have to whisper.