About a month ago Dax Shepard, a the pillar of the sobriety community, admitted relapse after sixteen years of sobriety. The admission, which occurred on the September 25th episode of his Armchair Expert podcast, actually consisted of two relapses.
Dax First Stumble
“So eight years into sobriety, I have not done a single shady thing. There was nothing gray,” started Dax. That changed in 2012 with a motorcycle accident on his way to work. “I immediately called my sponsor and I said, ‘I’m in a ton of pain and I got to work all day, and we have friends that have Vicodin.’ And he said, ‘Okay, you can take a couple Vicodin to get through the day at work. But you have to go to the doctor, and you have to get a prescription and you have to have Kristen (Dax wife) dole out the prescription.’”
Initially there was no issue with this arrangement, according to Dax. Then shortly after the accident his father received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Soon after Dax went to visit his Dad, now confined to the hospital. By then Dax thought he would be fine without his own prescription of painkillers (Kristen couldn’t come along), however doctors gave him the responsibility of holding onto his father’s percocets. He could tell his dad was dying, and more than anything he wanted to see the lake by his house one last time. So Dax wheeled him out of there to make that possible.
“The number one thing we had in common was that we were both fucking addicts, and we had never used anything together. We sat there stoned and looked at the lake and in that moment I felt elation.” After Dax returned his father to the hospital reality began setting in on his ride home. “I started panicking a bit that I had done that. I was wondering if that’s a relapse. (and) Oh no eight years gone.“ He immediately came clean to his wife, who advised him to call someone in AA.
Dax Return to Normalcy
“So that was eight years ago and over the last eight years I don’t think there was another thing until I got hurt again.” Dax goes on to say, “then I get hurt again.” He never had the responsibility of administering his own pain medication and the accidents, nonetheless addict behaviors began showing. The injuries piled up (in Dax’s own words, he’s had tons of injuries, including seven surgeries from “shit”) and the addict behavior’s began escalating. “Maybe I don’t want to take them at night because I can’t sleep when I take them, so when I get my two at night I don’t actually eat them and I keep them for tomorrow morning so I can make it the dose I want to be.” That cycle continued through three or four more incidents.
Things reached their breaking point culminating in injuries to his hand and shoulder over the last six months. Dax recognized his actions were getting “shadier and shadier,” however he fell victim to his own rationalization,a common theme in active addiction, and he justified his use since he wasn’t purchasing anything on the street.
“And then I do. For the last eight weeks… I’m on them all day. I’m allowed to be on them at some dosage, because I have a prescription, and then I’m also augmenting that. Then all the prescriptions run out, and I’m now just taking thirty mil oxy’s that I’ve bought whenever I decide I can (use).”
Dax’s Breaking Point
Dax began lying to the people closest to him. When that started, he knew he needed to quit. But his tolerance had gone up so fast, at that time he was taking eight thirty milligram Oxyconton daily, that he likely faced a nasty withdrawal period. Dax figured he would try and handle things himself and created a schedule in an effort to combat this.
“Day one when I’m supposed to step down, I’m like, ‘I wasn’t anticipating that this was already going to feel bad after just one less,’ so I don’t step down the first day, and then I don’t step down the second day. And now I’m really panicking,” said Dax.
Eventually Monica Padman, Dax’s close friend and co-host on the podcast, became responsible for administering his pills. She soon picked up on his opportunistic addictive behaviors. “Talk about the gray… I want to make you happy, I want to stay high, and I don’t really know what to do. I was just embarrassed, really embarrassed… At some point I was still willing to give you the bottle. In my mind I was like ok she’ll be in charge but I’m going to have a few more before I give them to her. I hope she doesn’t notice, but I know Monica and she’s going to notice,” recalled Dax.
“It was kind of like a ticking clock. I knew what was coming and I wasn’t fucked up enough to lie about it. I’m so sorry to put you in that position. It’s so obvious (in retrospect) how many people (addiction) affects.” Dax finally came clean after lying about his use and getting caught by Monica. He told her and his wife everything and willingly gave over the rest of the pills.
Dax’s Real-Life Addiction Allegory
For anyone who’s ever had a hard time wrapping their mind around addiction, Dax offers up an almost perfect explanation of the dancing the mind does in active use. Interestingly, the thought came to him while watching Alone, a survivalist show on Netflix. The simple premise of the show places people in remote areas alone where they must survive using their survival skills. “This one woman tapped out because she said, ‘when I had my first child it stressed my pelvic floor. I’ve been constipated for nine days and I can feel the weight of it on my pelvic floor. I’m pretty nervous it’s going to damage my pelvic floor to a degree that I won’t be able to have a second kid. So I’ve got to go, I’m going to tap out,’ said Dax.
“I had this moment where I was like, ‘that’s addiction’. She really just wants to leave, as everyone there would want to leave, and so her brain is- all day long coming up with stories- that hopefully she can buy into. And finally it created one where it’s the future of your fertility on the line. Now, that may or may not be true but I identified with your brain just working all day long to try and come up with a story to do the thing that you want to do, that you can buy into.” This was such a profound assessment, and accurate depiction, of what it’s like to have to deal with the subconscious rationalization behind an addiction.
Dax Tightrope of Internal Lying
Rationalization arguably makes up one of the key elements to developing an addiction. Everybody rationalizes from time to time. It’s part of being human, and it’s not always a bad thing. It simply means the use of logic in an attempt to understand or explain your behaviors, beliefs, or perspective. This becomes dangerous because our logic, our rationalization, is not always appropriate or assessed properly. As Dax puts it, “The lie I’m telling myself, the story I’m coming up with, is I’m not hurting anyone. How’s anyone hurt by this?”
Lying about the victimless nature of his use was only one of the lies Dax told to himself. “I don’t feel two Vicodin, it doesn’t feel like anything, but I can feel five. I have a much higher tolerance than people for drugs, these are the lies I’m telling myself. They prescribe (equal amounts of medication) for a 75 lb would and a 200 lb man. It doesn’t work for me,” he continued. “I can’t feel it. But you’re not supposed to feel it you’re supposed to feel the absence of pain not a buzz. But I don’t want the absence of pain, I want a buzz.”
Clarity comes from the absolute. There’s simplicity to the acceptance that comes from clarity. However they gray areas, the unclear, are what causes trouble. In Dax’s case, “I know really well what powerlessness and unmanageability feels like. If I drink on a Thursday night there’s no telling if I’ll come back that night. Then you add coke… So that, to me, is unmanageability and powerlessness. Which I am entirely powerless over drinking and coke.” As the conversation progresses Dax touches on the gray that led to relapse, “This is a confusing experience because I didn’t feel very powerless (with opioids) or anything.”
Valuable Lessons: For Individuals & Society
Kudos to Dax Shepard for being honest and having the courage to publicly speak out on his relapse. Co-host Monica believes, “you have to ask for help if you need it.” to be the most important takeaway from the experience. The significance of just how brave it is to ask for help when you need it can’t be overstated, particularly at the individual (micro) level.
In my opinion the most important impact of Dax’s admission may center around our comprehension of relapse in recovery. What makes that important? The subjectivity that arises from the chasm between treatment, sobriety, and recovery- as well as what equates relapse- makes it a complex issue with multifaceted layers. For starters, there’s the very real possibility of someone in recovery needing access to a substance for medicinal purposes that runs the risk of possibly jeopardizing their sobriety. If there’s a legitimate need for a medication is that a relapse? Most people would say no. Dax did a nice job touching on some of the most common variables in this discussion, including:
- Physical Responses: I’m in freaking pain, I need the medication to take that away.
- Psychological Responses: I’m pulling this off and this isn’t powerless and it’s not unmanageable,” was an example Dax gave of this. The pull of opiates was discernible in comparison to cocaine and alcohol.
Some folks in the recovery community are unaccepting of medically assisted treatment (MAT). Going as far as discrediting the validity behind the sobriety of MAT patients. All this despite significant evidence available showing it to be effective in decreasing the rate of relapse, preventing the spread of infectious disease such as HIV, and declining instances of overdose.
Relapse in Recovery
“Relapse is a part of recovery,” is a common saying among 12-Step groups, and for good reason. Between 40 to 60 percent of people treated for addiction or alcoholism relapse within the first year. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Despite this reality, numerous factions in the recovery community still demonize relapse as a failure rather than a learning experience.
Dax excellently describes the progression into addiction. “It just all unravels very quickly, and then I have one set of ethics one day and the next I have a different set of ethics. And it’s just a progressive thing. It just continues to get worse and worse and worse.”
This may be an unpopular opinion. Perhaps it would make sense to have a clearer differentiation between “recovery” and “sobriety”. In the simplest of terms, this comes back to the concept of growth. Recovery requires growth, while sobriety requires the absence of mind altering substances. Furthermore, addiction requires the presence of substances (obviously), as well as the absence of growth. If you’re not growing you’re dying. Addiction will inevitably lead to death either literally or symbolically. Symbolically in the form of decline in other areas of life, at the expense of one particular (external) obsession.
My hope is that Dax’s admission allows us to move beyond the notion that a person who experiences a relapse has lost “X” amount of time in sobriety. Dax recalled his wife, Kristen Bell, summarizing potentially the most important takeaway, “I would say you’re fucked up (from his father’s prognosis and the accidents), you got high with your dad, keep it moving. You don’t need to redefine it. you didn’t lose eight years.”
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