As a lawyer who concentrates in Michigan driver’s license restoration and DUI cases, alcohol is pretty much at the center of everything I do. To be more precise, I spend the majority of every day dealing with situations where a person’s relationship to alcohol has become problematic. That characterization includes everyone from the infrequent drinker who is stunned to wind up facing a 2nd offense DUI charge to the person with multiple DUI’s and years of sobriety to his or her credit, and everyone in-between. In that sense, the whole panorama of recovery processes is fundamental to my work. To go beyond my own (considerable) experience, I have also completed a formal program of course work at the post-graduate level in the field of addiction studies. This emerging field focuses on how people develop addictions, how they are diagnosed, and the numerous treatment options that actually work, or otherwise show promise. In this article, I want to look specifically at how a relapse, typically considered a negative thing, can actually be a good thing in a driver’s license restoration case. In the next article, we’ll see how a relapse can be a benefit in a DUI case.
In driver’s license restoration cases, relapse always takes center stage, even for those who have never had one. The Substance Use Evaluation form (often excusably, yet mistakenly, called a “substance abuse evaluation”) has a specific section called “Lifetime Abstinence History.” The form itself, published by the Michigan Secretary of State’s Administrative Hearing Section (or AHS, and until recently know as the DAAD) changed the name a few years ago from “Lifetime Relapse History” to “Lifetime Abstinence History.” Beyond changing the name of the section, the information requested is the same: How many times have you stopped drinking, only to go back to it? It is unfair, really, to characterize every one of these episodes as a relapse, because in the real world, people will often stop drinking for a while merely to comply with probation (and testing) with no intention whatsoever to “quit” drinking for good. Even though the name of the section has changed away from “relapse,” many hearing officers still call the resumption of any alcohol use after of a period of abstinence a relapse. Whatever you call it, the whole going back to drinking thing is never seen, at least upon first glance, as a good thing. An important part of my job is to change that perception, as I’ll explain later.
Another spot where relapse grabs the spotlight in a license restoration case involves a person who has previously won back his or her driver’s license winds up losing it again, either for another DUI or for having had a serious interlock violation or violations. The problem here is that a person who had once proven his or her sobriety to the Secretary of State started drinking again and, because of that, has lost his or her license. This can probably be best described as a bucket of suck. As bad as it seems, however, a serious relapse situation like this can be the starting point for a successful new appeal. While we tend to think of a relapse as a failure, almost all good things that come into being do so because of previous attempts that didn’t work out so well. Many good inventions are preceded by frustrations and failures. In the same way, the road to lasting recovery is often paved with slips and relapses. In those cases, a relapse is really a necessary precursor to the kind of complete surrender that ultimately leads to real sobriety. Or, as is often said, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade…
First, and while it’s a technical detail, it should be pointed out that the term “relapse” is often used incorrectly when applied to a person whose abstinence is interrupted with a single instance of drinking. That’s called a “lapse.” A relapse is a lapse (a single incident of drinking) followed by by at least another lapse (the re-lapse). In the context of driver’s license restoration cases, I’ve had plenty of cases where a person has racked up a nice chunk of sober time only to slip up and do something like have a toast at a wedding (in many cases, the person’s own wedding!) and then realize what a total mistake they’ve made. This is a lapse.
By contrast, most of the folks who have won back a license and then lost it again (whether by a new DUI conviction or an interlock violation) do so because they returned to drinking. This is a relapse. The big problem is that a relapse can be a permanent thing; not everyone comes back. Those who do, however, often return with a commitment to sobriety unlike anything they’ve ever had before. This is often described in terms of putting your hand back on the hot stove a second time. It’s not like you didn’t know the stove was hot the first time, but that second go around permanently squashed any notion of ever trying that again.
This all makes perfect sense to anyone who has experienced it, but it doesn’t translate so easily to a skeptical hearing officer who, by governing rule, “shall not order that a license be issued unless the petitioner, by clear and convincing evidence,” proves his or her case. That means you’ve got a lot of convincing to do, and you can count on a real uphill battle. My mom, the late master of all wise sayings, used to remind me that “A first impression is a lasting impression,” and to the Secretary of State (SOS), the main impression given by someone who has had a lapse or relapse can be summed up in one word: Risky. My job is not just to “counter” that impression, but to successfully revise – as in reverse – it.
In just about everything I write, I go to great lengths to point out that a person must be genuinely sober to win a license appeal. I make clear that I not only guarantee I will win every license appeal case I take, but that I will only take cases for people who have honestly quit drinking. The length of the story that precedes someone’s genuine sobriety and honest commitment to quit drinking is really quite irrelevant. In other words, if someone has won back and thereafter lost his or her license for drinking, all it means is that he or she was never genuinely sober in the first place. The key is to prove that this time, it’s the real deal; what happened in the past is just part of the road to genuine recovery. Of course, the SOS is going to be unhappy with anyone who came in and won a license after having submitted evidence and testimony about his or her supposed sobriety, only to go out and start drinking again. We can’t change that, but we can change the initial idea that the person is some kind of liar, or can’t be trusted. We have to show that this last foray into the abyss of drinking qualitatively changed how the person understands his or her relationship to alcohol, and that now, he or she is convinced in a way that is both intellectual and heartfelt (one might say spiritual) that he or she can never, ever pick up a drink again.
How good am I at doing this? Good enough that when I take a case I guarantee I’ll win it, and you can’t do better than that. The cost for admission, though, is that you must really be sober and committed to remaining alcohol-free for life. Here is the one, important and immutable truth about sobriety: No matter how long you may have previously stopped drinking, or how many times you may have stopped in the past, when you really and truly quit for good, there is a qualitative and substantial difference between the “for good” period and each and every one that came before it. In other words, you just know the real thing when you see it.
I help my clients look for and find that. We “mine” the past for those nuggets that are the gold of real sobriety. When we’re done, we can show that any prior period of abstinence was just a stopover on the road to real recovery. And when it’s said and done, we’ll get that license back again, guaranteed.
If you’ve been on the road to recovery long enough, it’s time to regain your freedom by being able to drive again. Whether you’ve experienced lapse or relapse as part of your sobriety, or not, when you’re serious about winning back your driver’s license, do your homework, read what all the lawyers have written, and then call around. Make sure that you contact my office as part of your inquiries, as well. When you’re ready to find out more, we’re here to help, and can be reached at 248-986-9700 or 586-465-1980, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 am until 5:00 pm (eastern standard time).