Tag Archives: addiction

Another Year Clean and Sober

When this post goes live, provided nothing completely irrational has happened in the last week or so, I will have been clean and sober for 14 years.1 I have now been absent of drugs and alcohol for as long as I used them.2

This is traditionally where I pat myself on the back and reminisce about how difficult it was3, but instead I just want to say this: today my life is immeasurably better than it was when it was ruled entirely by my addiction. That isn’t to say that it immediately got better—initially my life became a complete shit-show as I took away my crutch—but as I became capable of making smarter decisions, acting more like a person of whom I could be proud, and learning to be an empathetic human being, things improved at a rate that was astonishing. It has been years since I’ve actively desired to use, and that freedom is a weight lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there.

Today, I find myself happier than I’ve ever been, enjoying a life that is not dictated by booze or drugs, and I rarely miss it even slightly. I assure you, when you get clean, it gets better.

 


1 Give or take two swallows of an iced tea that turned out to be sangria at an Olive Garden, serving to prove two incontrovertible things: no dinner at an Olive Garden shall go unpunished and the only fruit that should be found in an iced tea is a lemon.

2 Not to say that I used drugs and alcohol continuously at the same rate for 14 years; I doubt highly I would have survived it. At 12, however, the ebb and flow of use that characterized my addiction started its…flow…?

3 In a manner that is COMPLETELY FUCKING JUSTIFIED!!

Addiction, Depression, and Suicide

I tell a great many stories about being a drug addict and an alcoholic—it’s easy to do with benefit of more than a decade free from actively pursuing those particular hobbies. What I talk about far less is the period immediately after I got clean—the years between my 9th month clean and my third year, during which I was no longer struggling with the compulsion to get high and found myself struggling with the fact that my own personal narrative was badly, badly flawed.

You see, one of the major benefits an addict derives from their drug abuse is deniability. “I’m not an asshole, I’m drunk”, became my battle cry, if a battle cry is something you shouted as you wandered away from the scene of your destruction. Months without drinking or drug abuse revealed to me that my battle cry should have been “I’m an asshole who happens to be drunk!” That’s a tough pill to swallow; finding out that you are actually a devastatingly toxic shithead who brings ruin to those close to him with or without drugs badly disrupted my view of self, and I became very erratic and depressed.

It was during this narrow window of my life that I found myself sitting in the bedroom that I rented from a friend holding the shotgun he kept beneath his bed and crying. It was a place I found myself in a lot around that time. Several times each week—sometimes several times in a single day—I would find myself sitting with that gun simply trying to work up the courage to use it. For weeks I kept returning to that familiar position, wanting so much to no longer be alive and being trapped in life by a fear of literally and figuratively pulling the trigger.

On this occasion, though, I was committed. So much so that I had written my note, had dressed in the clothes that I wanted to be found in, and had gone and sat in the bathtub with the shower curtain pulled closed—I certainly didn’t want to make my exit more of an imposition on anybody else than it needed to be, they’d already put up with so much.

I was saved by a friend who, possibly because of his own struggles with depression, recognized the dangerous place I’d gotten to emotionally and took it on himself to help. He literally banged on the bathroom window with a child’s toy rake until I agreed to drive him to get some lunch. “Lunch” turned into an extended coffee break, lots of driving around, talking and, ultimately, a considerable amount of therapy. Ironically, this friend died a few years ago (far too young), a victim of his self-medicating to avoid dealing with his issues. I’ll never be able to express to him my gratitude for saving my life.

This stuff I don’t talk about so much. The “fun” stories of my active addiction are borderline socially acceptable, especially when spoken about using the past tense. There is nothing socially acceptable about mental illness—people with depression are treated as liars, or whiners, or melodramatic; depression is perceived as a weakness of character and that perception is LITERALLY KILLING PEOPLE. I very nearly died because I felt too much shame about my mental state to seek help—I was willing to die rather than face the judgement and shame that is hurled at people that are mentally ill.

I don’t suffer from recurring depression, but I know many people that do. People I know and care about suffer from varying forms of depression-related mental illnesses. I cannot fathom what that must be like. For a thankfully brief period of my life I was legitimately depressed—not just down, not bummed out, but deep in a hole that robbed me of my energy, of my fight, and of any hope that things even COULD get better. I can only imagine the horror if I had to deal with that on a regular basis.

So when I see people talk about how “selfish” suicide is, or offer vague “help” that amounts to “just stop feeling so depressed”, it makes me extraordinarily angry. It’s a trite comparison now, but it is the equivalent asking a cancer patient struggling through chemotherapy if they’ve tried aspirin for their brain tumors because it once helped your headache. Stop treating depression, or any mental illness, like a personal failing—like it’s something that people just aren’t trying hard enough to avoid. Stop killing people.

If you are a recovering addict or alcoholic, especially if you are early in your recovery, know that depression and addiction often go hand in hand. It is a good idea to find a therapist you can talk to, even if only for a little while. There are numerous resources available to those recovering from addiction—and no matter what program of recovery you are following, there’s always room for therapy.

If you are suffering from depression, you have to know that you’re not alone. I realize that where you are feels tremendously hopeless and like there is no light at the end of the tunnel—but that is a lie that your ill mind is telling you. There is hope, there are better days, and it really does get better; you just have to make it there. Talk to somebody and get some help. Please.

A Dewdrop Full of Struggle

A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop
a world of struggle
—Issa

This month marks 11 continuous years without drugs or alcohol. For the vast majority of you, this probably doesn’t seem to be an exceptionally huge feat—most people can take or leave drinking, and I’d wager that a sizable percentage of adults in this country have gone years and years without partaking in drug use. For me, however, this 11 years constitutes the longest period of sustained change I have ever managed. At this point, the length of time during which I haven’t been pissing-all-over-myself drunk or hitting-on-the-mother-of-my-date high is rapidly approaching as long as the length of time during which such events were regular occurrences. It’s a pretty heady feeling, this knowing that I am profoundly unlikely to wake up in a puddle of my own vomit next to someone I don’t especially know in a state of undress that inadequately conveys the full extent of the previous day’s adventures.

For obvious reasons, each year the approach of my anniversary comes with ponderous thoughts about the merits, features, and nature of change. Among drug addicts I first heard the phrase “nothing changes until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing” and never in my life has something sounded so ludicrous and so obvious at the same time. Of course we wait to change until staying the same is worse…but why would we be so short-sighted and stupid so much of the time?! Madness. Drug addicts are not known for their ability to plan for the future.

As it turns out, the same is true in most organizations—in fact, I could probably write a fairly lengthy article wherein I compare organizational behavior to that of a multi-year junkie (note to self, that sounds like a fun article)—most organizations act just as irrationally when faced with the formidable task of instituting change. Allow me to paint you a picture from my own life experience:

I was young—early twenties roughly—and had recently moved to a new town with my wife and young children. I immediately found the people who party and started spending my evenings at bars and house parties around town rather than with my newly displaced family.

Needless to say, that didn’t last long before my beleaguered wife, who undoubtedly hoped that this change in venue would result in a change in my behavior, finally had to put her foot down and threaten Very Bad Things if my behavior were to continue.

To my credit, I immediately put an utter and complete halt to my misbehavior. I quit drinking, I stopped hanging out with people after work, and I spent my nights and weekends with my family at home.

For about two weeks.

I quickly found my new life boring, and over the course of the third week, I had backslid almost completely. In fact, in many ways it was worse, because I had convinced myself that I had to lie and sneak time with friends and I would often drink a great deal at work and then drive home very, very drunk so that I could hang out with my family without hearing about my drinking.

This sort of whiplash-inducing overcorrection is something I’ve observed myriad times in countless organizations. A Thing That We Do™ is just not working—and a grand, sweeping plan is devised and put into place. It seems to largely alleviate some of the problems (in the best case scenario) or doesn’t seem to be having sufficient impact (in the more common scenarios), but in either case the strain of maintaining persistent change of such enormity—of such utter completeness—for any length of time proves too great and the members of the organization collapse back into old behaviors and patterns.

Why is this? Are they lazy? Stupid? Lacking in ambition?

Change—that is to say lasting, significant change—is methodical and slow. It’s glacially paced. It is the turtle winning the race slowly and steadily while the rabbit wears itself out with too much too fast. I’ve achieved over a decade free from actively pursuing addiction because I didn’t try to change everything at once. I triaged my life and changed the most pressing thing, and I have continued to do so iteratively for nearly 11 years now.

I do the same when helping an organization to change. Often the first thing I have to do is devote time and energy to reigning in the change enthusiasts who find themselves in a cycle of changing everything, then changing everything differently until everyone is so confused and disheartened that even modest change sounds horrifying and impossible. Only once that destructive cycle is quelled can the job of triaging and planning begin.

When you feel like change is failing you, stop for a moment and look around you. If you cannot list on one hand the individual changes that are being enacted and fingers left over, your glacier has run away and needs to be halted and adjusted.

Remember, several inches of snowfall can cover my town overnight and it is a thing of beauty; that same quantity of snow in one fell swoop would be a natural disaster. Stop making natural disasters.

Seven Years Out of the Trenches

Today marks seven consecutive years free from drugs and alcohol. Eighty-four months. Three-hundred, sixty-four weeks. Two-thousand, five-hundred, fifty-seven days. Over sixty thousand hours. Over three and one-half million minutes.

That is, as a friend said to me, a long time without a beer.

Last night, in search of something to play as background noise while I tried to fall asleep, I turned on the most trite and easily ignored thing I could find; I put on Confessions of a Shopaholic. I ended up staying awake throughout the entire thing, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t until Isla Fisher made a statement near the end that I could figure it out; it was because the movie’s treatment of addiction really had some resonant moments amidst the goofy action and lame plot points.

The statement in question was (and forgive me, as I’m quoting this from memory here)

When I shop, the world gets better, and the world is better, but then it’s not, and I need to do it again.

Simple, but ridiculously accurate to boot. When I was using, I used to make the world that I saw better. When I began, better merely meant more fun or more exciting, and that is an easy mark to hit. Hell, when you are teen, anything makes the world more exciting. So I drank, smoked pot, dropped acid, ate shrooms, smoked banana peels and various kitchen spices, and generally did whatever I could not to have to face the day without chemical help. It made the world better in my eyes. Then I’d sober up and have to start again.

This is the part where the narrative degenerates into the story of progression; where I needed more and more just to feel good. I won’t bore you with the details, but recognize that it is a cliche for a reason. Things do progress. In my life they progressed to a point where I was getting loaded just to make life tolerable—and by all measures, my life should already have been tolerable. Hell, my life was better than tolerable; I was making a considerable amount of money, I had a nice place to live in a nice neighborhood, two great kids, the physical trappings of suburban life, friends, hobbies, a senior level office job at which I had earned the respect of my co-workers…yet nearly every night I got trashed to make the world better.

So the movie was uncomfortable to watch, because while it showed all of those addict moments in a humorous light, it still showed them. I share pretty liberally from my life as a dope-fiend; but I tend to share the stories that are humorous (at least in hindsight) and not the stories of desperation and shame. It isn’t that I am embarrassed by them so much as they do not make for great party stories, but those stories are readily accessible in my mind. You don’t forget stuff like that. You can’t forget it, even if you try (and believe me, there are times that the using is simply to help you forget this stuff, and that doesn’t work either), so it remains there for you to deal with.

It is so hard to forget because it isn’t some external stuff that happens to you, it is a pervasive, aggressive feeling of helplessness. I could never impart to you the phobic feeling that comes with addiction; like love, you have to feel it to understand it. You have to know that you should not take the next hit—know it to the very core of your being—then you have to rationalize taking it anyway. You have to convince yourself to do it all the same; using trickery, manipulation, and lies on yourself. And make no mistake, you know that you have just lied. You have to come to an agreement with yourself that you are going to overlook that lie, that you are going to believe your own pathetic rationalization, because it is the only way not to hate yourself for what you are about to do. Then you take that hit, and you go ahead and hate yourself anyway; because the agreement that you made doesn’t make you stupid—you know that your excuses were bullshit. So you live with that, too. You live with the knowledge that you are too pathetic, worthless, and weak to stop using, and you hold onto that until you feel worthless and weak enough to do it all again.

You have to know the feeling of sitting in front of a drink trying to come up with some rationale that will allow you to consume it despite the fact that you have promised everyone you love that you are done and that you have it under control. You see, as an addict, there was never a doubt that I would take the drink, but I had to find some reason that would allow me to do it without being obliterated by the guilt. I DESERVE this drink for putting up with my wife’s shit (amusingly enough, her shit was usually about my drinking, go figure…). I am OWED this drink by a world that puts too much pressure on me. Why shouldn’t I have it, I mean, I’m an adult, right? Then once you have selected your excuse, and once you have agreed to ignore how trite it is as far as excuses go, you can go ahead and take the plunge. The upside is, the more drinks you have, the easier it is to convince yourself of the legitimacy of your excuse; of course, sometime you will sober up, but that is a problem for future you.

The simple fact is, as I ultimately learned, you can never drug yourself up enough, have enough sex, buy enough stuff, or eat enough to make the your perception of the world better. At a certain point though, you recognize that fact, but the world is so intolerable by that time without any chemical “enhancement” that there is no way to just stop. So you continue along in a self-reinforcing cycle of doing things that make you hate yourself more so that you use more to mask the self-loathing so that you hate yourself even more so that you use more…well, you see where I am going here.

So today marks the anniversary of a moment in my life that is amongst my proudest: the first day I stopped using and did not pick back up again. Seven years ago today, I sat on my front porch crying because I had not yet used that day, but I was on the verge of doing so anyway. I was physically shaking from the horror of my certain knowledge that in a few minutes I was going to get up, wander to the cupboard, and get a drink. On this day seven years ago, instead of going to the cupboard, I gave a friend a ride to a 12-step meeting (you know, entirely for his sake, because I certainly didn’t have a problem or anything). Seven years ago today I clung to my sobriety with knuckles as white as printer paper and only noticed years later that my grip had slowly relaxed; that blind obstinance had turned into a way of life. That I was no longer merely not using, but actually recovering. Seven years distant from the trenches of what is known as “active addiction” (a fancy term for the time spent actually using).

So today is something of a dichotomy for me, as much somber retrospection as holiday. It is a celebration of seven years of freedom from actively pursuing my various addictions to be certain, but it is also a day of reminder for me. It is rough, remembering the people I hurt, the things that I have done, and the feelings I felt through over a decade of abusing drugs and alcohol; but it sure feels nice to have stopped being that person. Today, I will celebrate my clean-time, and I will strive to make the rest of the year my time of remembrance.

Now, to quote my friend Dave, back to working on getting day two-thousand, five-hundred, fifty-eight…

The Magic of Addiction

One of the things that I enjoy about the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the fact that, when they “hit” a storyline, they really hit the hell out of it. I have recently finished Season 5 and have made my way into Season 6, and one of the somewhat minor story arcs has reached its azimuth in “Wrecked”, Willow’s addiction to magic. I’ve been watching this grow and have frequently thought to myself how convincingly this mirrors the process that my own addiction took. The similarities are almost frightening.

Much like my own addiction, Willow’s began as a simple crisis of personality, and now in retrospect, it is a crisis that clearly began as early as Season 1. Willow has struggled with being the nerdy, boring, un-special part of the group since the group began. I can empathize with feeling out of place, even in your group of friends. It is such a struggle to feel like everyone around you is more important, cooler, funnier, more worthy of attention, and in general, better than you. It is so easy to latch onto the first thing that sets you apart.

For Willow, it was magic, for me, it was drugs and alcohol.

Several seasons passed with very, very few specific abuses of her newfound powers. It wasn’t until well into college that things really began to take a turn. My brush with addiction began a bit earlier than hers, so my personal arc began sinking quite a bit earlier, around my senior year, but both of our ascents and descents followed a fairly parallel pattern. For a time, addiction served the purpose it was meant to. It caused no problems and it was just fun, it was pure, and it could never devolve to the point where it would be an issue. Don’t be silly. I felt popular. I felt special. People knew my name. I was a “rock star”. I used to joke around that everywhere I lived and everywhere I went, I was “that guy”. You know the one; that guy you hear about at parties that did that totally ludicrous thing that made everyone amazed and amused. You would hear about “that guy who did that funny thing that had the whole party rolling for hours” or “that guy who was just so amazingly fun to be around that people wanted to party with him. Even when those stories took a rather sad turn and became “that guy who ate a handful of random pills, drank a case of beer and a bottle of bourbon, and beat the shit out of the neighbor for calling the cops about the party”, or “that guy who brought a different woman home every night for weeks because he could”, it was still fun to be famous, even in such an insignificant way. It’s what I wanted.

Of course, ultimately the stories became less party-impressive and more party-pathetic. The stories began to be about “that guy who had alcohol poisoning five times last month” or “that guy who lost his mind in a drug and alcohol fueled rage and sent his roommate to the hospital for changing the TV channel”, or “that guy who got arrested again”. It was hard for even ME to be amused by my own press. At that point, however, the only way to not feel bad about what I did the night before was to do more tonight; and to hell with all the nay-sayers. They were just haters anyways, they just hated how much fun I was having; let’s go get drunk and forget about all of this. My addiction became self-reinforcing. Willow found out about this when she started trying to use spells to quash fights that magic started in the first place.

There is something particularly pitiful about seeing the irony in your living situation, and feeling helpless to do anything about it.

Needless to say, because of my history, I saw the storyline of “Wrecked” coming quite some time ago. It was a matter of time, and Joss Whedon’s handling of emotion is entirely to real and true for him not to address Willow’s problem in a realistic way. It was a difficult episode to watch. Despite time spent away from the horrors of what we refer to as “active addiction”, it still hurts to think of some of the ways my addiction affected those around me. When Willow brought Dawn to the “dope house” as it were, I was haunted by hearing some of my famous lines repeated back to me. “I just need to stop in here for a second”, I would say as I swung by my dealer’s house, kids in tow, to pick up a little something for later. “I’ll just be a second”, would be the last thing the kids would hear before I wandered inside for a half hour, an hour, two hours, however long I felt the need to hang around and get freebies as I bought the evening’s fare. They would even point out that “we were going to go have fun” and I would reassure them that “of course we are, Daddy just needs to take care of a few things first.” How many times did a day of fun with the kids turn into a day of them watching their father get too drunk to move at a friend’s house on the way to the park? This is how people I love were treated; you can’t imagine how everyone else was regarded.

Seeing Willow break down after she injured and endangered Dawn, hearing her promise that she was done, that she’ll stop, seeing her pain; I remember so vividly saying that time and again. I was “all done” and “a new man” more times than I care to remember, and time and again I went back because, the alternative was to be me. Why would I want to be me again?

I think that is the part that so many people who don’t suffer from addiction cannot understand. It is not about the drugs. I never cared what drug I was on, or what the effects were. Not much at least. It is not about being high. Being high is merely a means to an end, and so many manifestations of addiction do not even make room for being high. It is not about having friends or being popular, that is, much like being high, a means to an end as well.

It is about self hatred. For as long as I can remember, I hated being me. I was, in no way, shape, or form, good enough. Acting on my addiction would allow me, for a time, to stop hating myself; or at least to not notice how inferior I was in every possible way. Being high, feeling popular, being the center of attention, feeling loved; these were the ways to mask the self loathing. Doing drugs, doing outlandish things, making an ass of myself, and being promiscuous; these were how I attained these things.

I can no longer find the quote, but there was an article about Robert Downey Jr. that compared drug addiction to putting the barrel of a gun in your mouth, and you know that you hate the barrel there, and you know it is dangerous, but you just love the taste of the gun barrel. To me, drug addiction was like putting the gun barrel in my mouth, and I hate the taste, I know it is dangerous, and I do not want that barrel there, but it feels like the only version of me I do not have utter contempt and distaste for is the one with the taste of steel and cordite on his tongue. If that version self destructs in the process, so be it.

Of course, the corollary to this is, in true cliched form, that I do not despise myself today. I do not feel the need to use drugs, or alcohol, to feel like I am somehow special, important, or otherwise worthwhile. I have my moments, just like every normal human being does; but those moments no longer rule and destroy my life. Still, as I sit and watch the final few minutes of “Wrecked”, I cannot help but reflect upon the torturous journey that lies ahead of Willow, and how grateful I am that I have the people in my life that I do; or I would never have survived my version of that same journey. I would not have even wanted to.

(Somewhere in the midst of this diatribe, I’m confident I was supposed to blame my parents for some transgressions, or society for failing me, or school for giving me some complex, or the media for glorifying such forms of “escapism”; but that is rather boring and trite. I, instead, am going to blame Mr. Rogers for having a rather creepy demeanor and Erin Pendergast for never going on a date with me in High School. I hope you are happy!)