The majority of people dying from overdose are experiencing a relapse. The definition of relapse is “to slip back into a former practice”. So often after an overdose death we hear things like, “they were doing so well in recovery”, or, “they had gone so long without using – no one knew they were struggling.” [updated March 2023]
This week I was reading about ex-NHL hockey player Jimmy Hayes, who was pronounced dead by first responders at his home on Aug. 23, 2021. The evening prior to his death, Hayes and his wife Kristen celebrated their son Beau’s second birthday. They had recently welcomed the birth of their second son, Mac, on May 5. A growing family with two young children.”
Last month, it was confirmed that Jimmy died with fentanyl and cocaine in his system.
After Jimmy’s cause of death was confirmed, Kristen told the media that she “was completely shocked.”
“I was so certain that it had nothing to do with drugs. I really thought it was a heart attack or anything that wasn’t that [drugs],” she said at the time. “It didn’t make any sense, so it was hard. I was hoping to get a different phone call when they called. I was hoping to get some clarity and I was shocked to hear that it was that. … He never showed any signs of a struggle at home.”
It turns out that like many pro athletes, Jimmy had been introduced to pain meds while playing in the NHL, and the pills had become a problem. Jimmy hid his substance use so well that his wife didn’t even suspect an overdose when he died. His wife was not the only person close to Jimmy who was shocked.
“I’m an addict myself. I’m sober a long, long time, but I know how powerful this stuff is. I was in shock when it happened, but then I started putting stuff together in my head,” his father Kevin Sr. told the outlet, adding that his son “made a terrible mistake and it cost him his life.”1
Why do people like Jimmy use, and risk death, hiding their struggles from those closest to them? Why are we so afraid to share with others that we are relapsing? It is because a culture of shame and stigma has developed around relapse. If we have a slip, or lapse, or feel we are heading towards one, we feel ashamed, guilty, embarrassed and weak.
Like many who have relapsed, I have received comments that were intended to make me feel ashamed. I recall being at a support meeting after going 3 years without alcohol or drugs, and admitting to the group that I had relapsed. The chair person immediately requested that the topic for discussion be shifted to focus on my relapse. After the meeting, someone who I was quite close to said to me, as they slowly shook their head, “Hans, Hans, Hans….when are you going to get it?”
I was in another peer-support meeting where someone who was quite new to recovery shared that they had had “a slip”. Most of the comments that followed conveyed empathy and care. However, one person took the opportunity to bark out his opinion, that “there is no such thing as a slip – you took a drink, plain and simple – and you need to call it what it is”.
Comments like these seem to be intended to make the individual feel guilty, ashamed and weak. Perhaps this kind of ass-kicking works for some, but it certainly didn’t work for me.
Sometimes, shaming is more subtle. I was listening to a recovery podcast the other day where the host was interviewing a well-known writer who had relapsed. One of the goals of the podcast was to remove the shame and stigma around relapse. However, at least twice during the interview, the host expressed exceptional gratitude to the writer and mentioned how brave it was for her to come on the show. The writer’s tone of voice during the interview was meek and subdued – very different from her energized and upbeat communication in previous podcasts before her relapse. A cloud of implied shame hung over the conversation.
Indirect shaming in our recovery culture is less obvious than overt shaming, but still pervasive. The hyper-focus on day’s, months and years leaves some feeling excluded and often causes them to feel defeated and give up on trying to fit in – or worse, even stay in recovery. Often people will drop hints about their lengthy sobriety or quickly mention how many years it’s been, when it had little or nothing to do with the point they were making.
Even the focus on the “person coming back” in peer-support meetings can send a mixed message. Well-meaning comments like, “I am so proud of you – I don’t think I could ever do what you have done by coming back – way to go”, conveys that the act of returning after a relapse is herculean and exceptional, rather than normal and expected. Is this a helpful message or does it instill a fear and hesitancy to share our relapses?
Stigma and shame does not prevent relapse, it perpetuates an unhealthy emotional environment making relapse more likely.
Conversely, removing the shame around relapse won’t make relapse more inviting, it will make it more unlikely because the substance user will be emotionally healthier and stronger.
Relapse should be avoided at all cost, but for many of us, relapse is part of the recovery process. When it happens, we need a culture that is positive, accepting and affirming. Instead of hiding in the shame of relapse, people will know there is a warm invitation to return to their recovery quickly and safely.
- Lindsay Kimble and Benjamin VanHoose. “Jimmy Hayes’ Widow ‘So Thankful’ for Their Kids as She Marks First Thanksgiving After His Death”. People.com