Retracing the Steps to Relapse

Allie Long
Aug 2, 2018 · 5 min read
(Credit: MATT BARON/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Social media is a poignant — if inadvertent — timekeeper, and in the wake of an unexpected tragedy, posts act as an ominous, retrospective countdown as opposed to an innocuous depiction of the victim’s life. It is as if each selfie, each caption, or each shared article is a quantum of time, and we give ourselves permission to fill in the blanks with whatever scenario satisfies our whims or comforts our forced confrontation with the randomness of life.

I am guilty of this in the aftermath of an untimely death, an accident, or any number of events that derail lives other than my own — of construing someone’s portrayal of a singular moment in his or her life as allowance to speculate what went on before and after. “He didn’t know he would die two days after he posted this picture.”

It is simultaneously as morbid as it is a balm. At the very least, I carry this thought with me through my next post, briefly conceiving of my Facebook or Instagram feed as a series of countdowns. To what? None of us can know until after the fact, but it is to something nonetheless. What virtual breadcrumbs would I leave behind?

At the very most, I obsess, oscillating between existential dread and the compulsion to convince myself such dread is unwarranted through — you guessed it — an increasingly edited profile … however counterintuitive that may seem.

The more curated the social media profile, the more jarring it is when something tragic happens to the person to whom the profile belongs regardless of what we know about his or her life outside of that profile.

That’s how it is to me anyway … so in my ongoing yet willfully repressed existential crisis, I self-soothe by editing my posts, my comments, my writing because at some point, wouldn’t a profile be so well-curated that the shock-factor of a tragedy befalling that person would be too large for a tragedy to actually occur? The limit exists, right?!? Is that not calculus or something?

Just kidding. It’s asymptotic. There is no amount of curation-induced shock that would render a tragedy impossible. There is only the illusion of control, of invincibility, of put-togetherness.


I didn’t even read the news of Demi Lovato’s overdose until days after the fact — days after she posted the Instagram selfie that is, as I have set it up, the last social media moment on the timeline leading up to her overdose — but regardless, I was heartbroken.

I watched the documentary, Simply Complicated, which outlines her struggle with mental illness and addiction, some time ago, and when I saw her face plastered above the headline “OVERDOSE” on every media outlet imaginable last week, I had a flashback to the Instagram story she posted a while back of she and a friend clanking together shot glasses full of water.

Perhaps a stranger to addiction but no stranger to substance abuse as an escape from hospitalization-worthy (not quite but incredibly close) mental illness, I was in awe of her ability to be in an environment of ubiquitous drug use without partaking, and I still am. I was in awe of her willingness to share with the world, and I still am. Setbacks don’t cancel out triumphs.

Each post about recovery — about sobriety — punctuates her commitment to using openness as a means of raising awareness.

Unfortunately, using social media to intermittently document recovery feels like permission for the rest of us to sit around and go, “but she was doing so well,” in the midst of a relapse, and I often get the sense that we don’t want to hear about mental illness or addiction from someone who is still struggling.

When want an Instagrammable recovery hashtag. We don’t want the other 99.99% of the time.

We want the “before” pictures but only if they are accompanied by the “afters.”

We don’t want to hear about relapse, and when we do, we might meet it with sympathy but more so with disappointment — with, rather, judgment. We imagine recovery as something binary, and anyone who dares to revert to square one must have made the conscious choice to make things difficult for herself and for everyone close to her once again.

Thinking of a relapse into mental illness and the substance abuse that often accompanies it as a choice is a pseudo-salve for our powerlessness to illness, but funnily enough, nobody says, “wow, you just didn’t try hard enough to not get cancer again.”

It can happen to anyone, but if it does, it does not render the nonlinear journey of recovery futile; it certainly does not make her a hypocrite.

The highlight reel that is social media facilitates the “relapse as a fall from grace” mentality, and it filters life in such a way that a setback looks like a plunge from a ledge as opposed to the slow fade it typically is. This, in turn, makes it much easier to frame relapse as a singular choice — succumbing to one fleeting moment of weakness, chasing a temporary high, losing impulse control. In fact, the concept of “choice” is a convenient way to make ourselves feel better about blaming someone for her mental illness.

This definition of “choice” operates under the assumption that a person’s thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors aren’t deeply warped by mental illness and/or addiction. Even if the person makes the “choice” to, say, give up sobriety after ten years, that doesn’t mean the impetus for that “choice” was anything other than the very illness she was fighting to stay sober in the first place.

We then assume this person surrenders any and all capacity to speak out, to raise awareness, or to give advice. The validity of any previous attempts to do so is questioned as well. If there is a relapse, we presume there was never recovery in the first place.

So why do we feel someone must be perfect before he or she deserves credibility when and a platform for raising awareness for mental illness and providing potential resources for recovery? What kind of high horse is that?

Perhaps more maddeningly, if recovery is untainted by setbacks, we begin to doubt the person’s illness altogether. It is a lose-lose.

It all goes back to (again) our inability to see illness and recovery on a spectrum.

The sweet spot between illness and recovery that allows someone to speak out about mental illness and actually be listened to and believed does not actually exist. We only convince ourselves there is one so that we don’t have to listen to advocates and so that we can dismiss the fact that anyone can contract a mental illness and be forced into the tug-of-war between an incredibly stigmatized form of sickness and health.

Onset is not a choice. Relapse is not a choice. Recovery cannot happen in a vacuum.

There are distinct moments that lead to a relapse; that does not make them choices. There are distinct moments of struggle; we do not have to see them to believe they exist. There are distinct moments of victory over these things; this does not mean that if a person documents them for us to see, he is forfeiting his humanity.

Tragedy has always shocked us, but perhaps it shocks us even more so today — when it is so easy to sit back, scroll, and separate the person from her profile.

Allie Long

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Whatever the female equivalent of an opinion is || Raleigh, NC