There were a great many years when I wouldn’t have been able to type that sentence, much less express it publicly. Just the word addict was full of too much stigma, too much shame, and too much responsibility. So, I called it other things or, preferably, nothing at all. It was the topic that caused me to whisper, as if lowering the volume of our conversation would lessen the reality of it, as well.
To her credit, my wife began to wear the label long before I was comfortable with the sound of it. She attended meetings and added the clarifying “recovering,” but my discomfort remained. I worried about what other people would think, mostly because I was concerned that they would view the word — and as a result, my wife — through the same judgmental filter that I had. And then, if we’re being perfectly honest, how would that make them view me?
My wife would tell you that she knew she was an addict the first time the warmth of hard liquor hit the back of her throat. Something just clicked for her — something that never clicked for me, despite my most valiant efforts — and in that instant, her subconscious began to map out a destiny for her that would include some form of addiction. I’m not sure why that happens to some people and not to others. It’s a twisted lottery of sorts and you don’t know if you have the “winning” numbers unless you have the ticket in hand.
When Amy Winehouse, who was as famous for her substance abuse as she was for her musical ability, passed away in July, the comedian Russell Brand wrote a piece on her for The Guardian. Brand, a recovering addict himself, talked about the very nature of connection with someone in the throes of addiction.
“I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.”
Read the whole piece here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jul/24/russell-brand-amy-winehouse-woman
Brand’s words hit me sideways because they expressed an unspoken truth that I’d long known about loving addicts. I’ve always struggled with the disease model for addiction, popularized by 12 Step groups and the like, but it’s hard to deny the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, whether you call it a disease or not. It’s easier to blame an addict who continues to use drugs in the face of unimaginable consequences, throwing emotional shrapnel at all those around him. Or maybe we just blame the addict for taking the very first drink, the one which started it all. No amount of blame we assign, though, will ever be able to compete with the shame they already feel.
Before our dear friend Michele passed away last year after her own lifetime of addiction struggles, we’d often talk about the “why.” Why was I able to walk away from the partying of my youth without a second thought, why was my wife blindsided by addiction for so many years only to then be able to walk a path into sobriety, and why was Michele seemingly unable to escape addiction’s grasp? It wasn’t a difference in will power or moral fortitude and it certainly wasn’t because one of us simply prayed harder than the other. I do know that shame somehow plays a part, as I don’t think any addict can reach a point of consistent recovery until he deals with the often self-imposed shame of his affliction, but even that does nothing to answer why some of us become addicts in the first place when others do not.
Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my two teenage nieces about life, high school, college… and, eventually, addiction. I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that most kids will “experiment” with alcohol or some sort of drug. The statistics are as staggering as they are depressing. As a parent, I’m sure I’d obsess about every instance of that experimentation, threatening all manner of hell-fire for each and every teenage stupidity. However, as an uncle, particularly an uncle who has walked a path alongside addiction’s casualties, I worry more about the lottery of it all, about the ticket purchased with that first drink or binge or blackout.
As fatalistic as this all seems at times, personal experience also tells me that there is hope and there can be recovery. Recovery is, at times, a hard-fought battle against insurmountable odds, but it’s a battle worth fighting. And it’s possible.
September is National Recovery Month. Click here for more information on recovery resources and events in your area: http://recoverymonth.gov/