Revisited.

It’s difficult to believe that a year has passed since I posted my first piece on addiction. It was never my intention to start a blog about addiction and recovery, much less to talk so openly about our experiences as a couple who survived the journey to addiction’s hell and back. That period of our lives was something I’d always guarded ferociously, justifying it by an all-important need to “protect our privacy,” but knowing that it was a lot more about protecting my ego.

Looking back, I’m still heartened by the response that my initial admission generated. People were unflinchingly supportive and generous, as I hoped they would be, but I was surprised even more  by the number of people who wrote to me about their own (often secret) struggles with addiction and its related heartache, either in their own lives or in the lives of someone held dear.

There’s a certain universality in battling and overcoming — and then sometimes, battling yet again — life’s great obstacles. For the first time since the whole experience began to unfold for us, I could appreciate the comfort in that universality.

One year and a couple dozen addiction-themed posts later, I thought I’d go back to the beginning and re-post my very first entry on the subject.

Lottery.

My wife is an addict.

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.”

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.

In the year since writing the above, I’ve gained such a profound appreciation for the importance of being open about our journey, wherever it takes us, warts and all. I’ve learned that in that openness, perhaps others can find comfort or even hope. And I’ve also learned that in that honest expression, another step toward healing reveals itself.

Remember, September is National Recovery Month. For more information on recovery resources and events in your area, please click here. To read more of my posts on addiction and recovery, please click here.

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Say yes.

They will tell you that it’s as simple as putting your right foot on the step, waiting for your tandem partner to do the same, then simply counting to three. They will say it all in a calm voice, even though you just finished signing your name forty-seven times on various waivers assuring them that you and your heirs will not sue them for anything that might happen after that step. Right foot, right foot, 1, 2, 3. This is going to be cake.

It’s been six or seven years since I made the decision — a very conscious and probably overly belabored decision — to start being more open to new experiences. I was beginning the process of closing the chapter on a rather dark period and found myself in one of those moments when you take inventory of all that you’ve become and all that you still want to be. More than anything, it was painfully clear how incredibly insular my life had become. Much of it seemed like the sort of necessity that can only come from (often failed) attempts to manage a loved one’s addiction, followed by her journey toward recovery, with a couple rather serious heart surgeries of my own thrown in for good measure. But if I’m being honest with myself, those things, while legitimate, also served as wonderful excuses to never step outside of my cleverly crafted comfort zone.

I started small. I played golf here and there, something I’d always refused to do. I tried new foods and new restaurants, occasionally without reservations. I was more open to unplanned (unplanned!) opportunities when they presented themselves. I began to travel more, sometimes even on my own. I started reaching out to friends instead of habitually dodging their calls. Basically, I tried to learn to say the occasional yes when I always would have said no.

Good things have come from this developing change in course. I’ve driven on the Autobahn, discovered an absolute love for sushi, and I’ve taken time away to visit old friends in Los Angeles, bachelor-style. More recently, I’ve started taking yoga classes and have even hired a trainer, in an effort to be proactive with my health instead of always reactive. While these things may seem incidental for a lot of people, for me, the shift has been extraordinary.

A couple months ago, we were at dinner with my niece, a sort of celebratory goodbye meal before she would leave for Spain for a semester abroad. She’d recently been skydiving for the first time and was excitedly recounting every detail. The thought of skydiving wasn’t something I’d ever really considered, pro or con. It wasn’t some bucket list thing — I am inexplicably annoyed by the term “bucket list” — but it also wasn’t something that terrified me. It just hadn’t really been on my radar. Listening to my niece talk about it, though, I was struck (and then surprised) by how much I wanted to do it. So, we started to make plans. When she returned from her trip, we’d jump out of a perfectly fine airplane together. It was one of those unanticipated opportunities and I was going to say yes.

What they neglect to tell you is that when you go to place your foot on that small step, you will no longer be inside the plane. Intellectually, this is an obvious detail, but when the hatch swings open and the wind starts to rush in as you gaze down at the step below, the notion of “right foot, right foot, 1, 2, 3” suddenly becomes an immensely complicated concept to wrap your head around. Somehow, though, in that most surreal moment, you find yourself doing something that makes no sense. You step outside of a plane some 12,000 feet in the sky. And then, you jump.

What surprised me about my first jump wasn’t the adrenaline rush of the 45-second free fall that seems more like five or six minutes. That was expected, although not fully estimated. Instead, what surprised me most was what happened after the parachute opened. There was an immediate peace that I hadn’t fully anticipated and still can’t quite describe. It was a perfect beautifully blue day, with gorgeous views of rural Ohio below, and I was little more than a quietly drifting observer. It was the sort of stillness that I haven’t often allowed in great measure. It was the sort of stillness that might have previously received a no.