I don’t miss flashing red and blue lights. I don’t miss spending so much time chasing my next escape that I lost who I was. I don’t miss wondering what the hell I did the night before, or why a strange car might be parked in the driveway. I don’t miss trying desperately to remember the complicated, intricate lies I felt I had to tell in order to extend the charade that my life had become. I don’t miss detox. I don’t miss psych wards. I don’t miss the isolating, soul-crushing feeling of hopelessness, and I don’t miss who I used to be.
I’ve been fortunate to have been given the gift of some time in recovery, and lately I’ve done some reflecting on it all. One of the things that keeps pushing its way to the forefront is the reality that that I wouldn’t be here without the help of an army of people.
In a world where common philosophy is to be self-made and self-sufficient, I have come to realize that I can’t even pretend to claim that status, and I’m okay with it. I am a collection of influences, interventions and conversations taken from the people who have crossed my path. It’s past time to thank just a few of the people for crossing when they did.
In all my experiences with law enforcement, belligerent as I often was, they were always more than patient with me. With very, very few exceptions, my encounters with law enforcement were positive, even under the often crappy circumstances I pulled them into. As with life in a small town, we all knew each other, and as with life in addiction, we saw more of each other as time wore on. But, they always arrived ready to de-escalate and to show empathy and understanding with me, no matter how their days had gone before coming into contact with me. One of my old hometown officers even drove me to my last detox after he had completed his shift. Others still check in from time to time, and I appreciate that.
Law enforcement officers have tough jobs to do, and I know I didn’t do much to make it easier on them back then. I have a lot of respect for them, especially the guys who served my hometown.
My hometown clinic
When I began this process of recovery after many failed attempts, I planned with the understanding that it would be my last chance. I had to look at things that had gone wrong in previous attempts in order to give myself a better chance at survival. I had to become willing to try things I wasn’t willing to do before, whatever they might be.
At the time of my recovery, I didn’t receive treatment for opiate addiction and withdrawal. There were no methadone clinics, I didn’t have suboxone, nor any other medication-assisted treatment that today is known to offer the best long-term recovery outcomes.
To add to that, and to make matters more complicated, I wasn’t honest at the time about my relationship with opiates, due at least in part to the stigma associated with it decades ago. As far as that part of my addiction went, I left myself no choice but to go through the withdrawals without the stabilizing benefit of medications. Being upfront about it could have made things a lot easier, but I wasn’t. Lesson learned.
One of the things that was available for my addiction to alcohol was Disulfiram, or Antabuse. Disulfiram works by blocking the enzyme that breaks down consumed alcohol to acetaldehyde, resulting in a very unpleasant experience. Without that enzyme, alcohol basically becomes a poison to the body, and the effects of consuming alcohol while taking Disulfiram are nightmarish. In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve tried it. I don’t recommend it.
When part of my recovery plan called for Antabuse, the people at my hometown clinic welcomed me in after work three days a week for a long, long time. I was always met with a smile and led to a room, usually without waiting. They would dispense the medication and allow me to sit for 20 minutes, or however long our conversations would last on a given day.
After they had spent long days tending to people who were sick or injured, they would invest their time to improve my chance at recovery. Each person I encountered at the clinic treated me like I was the most important person there. Three days a week, every week. I’ve never forgotten the kindness of the life savers at the clinic in my hometown, and I think of the impact they have had on my recovery often.
Pastor Lewis Thompson
Nothing about me or my environment would lead you to believe I am religious about anything. While I grew up in a church, I have never had the enthusiasm many have for organized worship. I’ve always been more private about my relationship with God, the Universe, or whatever it is that carved out all the wonder that is life and existence.
None of my reservations about church membership, singing in the choir, or participating in activities mattered to Pastor Thompson. When he learned of my struggles, he offered to share his time with me. This is the same man who would, a few months later, end his sabbatical early to return to tend to my Dad’s passing.
I decided to take him up on it, even while playing scenarios in my head about some sort of fire and brimstone message regarding the evils of drink. As it turned out, we had some of the best talks I’ve ever had with anyone about recovery, specifically, and about life in general.
What made those talks memorable was that Pastor Thompson didn’t share so much as an agent of a particular faith bound by a certain message, but rather as a student of the miracle of existence and as an advocate for the power of hope, joy and connection. Pastor Thompson, in my experience, was hope personified.
There was no quoting of scripture. We would simply talk. He had an entire flock to take care of, so to speak, and he took time with me. There were no lectures on right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, we talked of the tangible and intangible, and that within that mix, the power of change stood. The human spirit as a universal property and a powerful mechanism in the harnessing of reclamation and power, and whether he knew it at the time or not, he was sharing with me one of the most powerful principles of recovery, the principle of hope.
There aren’t too many days that go by that I’m not reminded of Pastor Thompson and his impact on my life, and some day I’ll see him again.
Going into a medically-supervised detoxification (“detox”) is quite an event. People don’t casually stroll into a detox unit to check it out. Depending on the substance or substances a person uses, withdrawal is at the very least uncomfortable, and can even be deadly, depending on blood levels, duration of use, tolerance and other factors. If one is lucky, they get some form of treatment, usually inpatient or residential, that immediately follows detox from alcohol or other drugs.
There is a kind of reckoning when one goes to detox, that there has been a level unlocked in the progression of the ingestion of chemicals in which the engaging of medical professionals is required to safely intervene in that ingestion.
In my experience with detox stays (there have been a few), I was always shocked by how they did what they did (and do) for the people they do it for, in the way they do it. Detox just plain sucks, and the people who had to put up with me saw me at my worst. Yet, they were always patient, kind and understanding, all within an often unforgiving process. They didn’t put up with a whole lot of nonsense, but they didn’t give any either, and I am grateful for them.
Inpatient behavioral health staff
Today, psych wards are called by cleaner, more sterile, more user-friendly, non-stigmatizing names like “Behavioral Health Unit” or, “Secured Behavioral Health Center.” For lack of a better description, these are fascinating places in the way that there are people from all walks of life, often making up every demographic in the area, who face a wide range of mental health issues, all captured within one small unit in an otherwise huge hospital. Mental health issues are health issues, and they are more common and more devastating than we’d like to believe.
For many, substance use disorder and mental health issues go together. That was certainly the case for me, and that mix of self-medicating untreated, or undertreated, mental health and substance use issues led me to a few fairly short stays in such a unit, if there is such a thing as a “short” stay there.
Much like the rest of my examples, the people who worked at the units I visited went above and beyond in what was often a chaotic environment, and through their care, expertise and resources, they did a lot to make sure I could be here today.
Naysayers are everywhere. You’ll find them in your neighborhood, at work, school or social events, and you may even find a few among family and friends.
I’ve had to deal with the Naysayer within me, and still do, whether the messages have been planted by someone else or are a product of my own experience with setback, past failures and insecurities.
External Naysayers are different from the people in your circle who are healthy, supportive mentors, friends or peers who challenge you or share a perspective out of care and concern. Naysayers are in the business of dream and purpose limiting, and they enjoy the status quo. There is homeostasis, a balance, that people tend toward, even when that balance is toxic or unhealthy. At different points in my life, I seemed to surround myself with Naysayers, or at the very least, welcomed their presence as some sort of elaborate form of self-sabotage.
Naysayers can certainly hold power over a person, depending on relationship dynamics. They can plant messages that become part of one’s thought cycle, especially if they have some influence in your life. Settle. You can’t. You’ll never. You’ll always. Why can’t you just. You should. In my experience, these are some of the preferred tools of the Naysayer.
But beneath my outwardly calm, fairly quiet, introverted outer shell lurks an equally present non-conforming, pissed-off ten year old. Right or wrong, that kid comes to the surface when I am in contact with a Naysayer. He always has, and I’ve learned that it’s a built in safety feature for me as my journey continues.
I’ve come to terms with the idea of a sort of gratitude and empathy for Naysayers, because they have helped me to maintain a defiance that fuels my recovery from the things that once all but destroyed me.
Those who model recovery
People model recovery, not by telling you , but by showing you. Hell, people who aren’t even “in recovery” from substance use disorder or mental health issues are role models for me, and we’re all in recovery from something. Football and basketball coaches I have been blessed to have worked with and played for over the years, a custodian where I once worked, and an old health teacher of mine have modeled recovery, to name just a few. There are many definitions of “recovery,” and just about every organization has one. If you’re lacking a role model in an area of your life, I invited you to find one. One would be hard-pressed to swing a stick and not hit a prospective role model. They are out there, they are everywhere, and I am lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to meet some good ones.
I used to be hell on wheels. One never knew quite what they were going to get with me. I could be the life of the party. I could also be an out of control shit storm. I was sick, and I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to. How do you tell someone you consistently think about escaping your own life while trying to hide from it all by numbing yourself with chemicals, while also not being able to explain the need to do both?
I was no good for a reasonable relationship of any kind when I was in active addiction, and a lot of good people paid a price for my inability, or unwillingness, to tell those closest to me what I was going through. Instead, they were left to come to probably the only reasonable conclusion they could arrive at: I was trouble.
I pulled people close and pushed them away, often at the same time. What was going on inside me often made its way to the outside, no matter how hard I tried to keep it in, and I worked hard at it. I was often wrapped tightly in the spiraling cycles of addiction and mental health issues that were out of control. As a result, I treated a lot of people like hell while they tried in vain to figure out what was going on and how they could help. It is a testament to the strength and character of those who did the best they could with me, even when I gave them every reason not to.
People gone too soon
I am aware that I have been given more chances than I care to admit sometimes to figure this stuff out. We all know someone who has lost their battle to addiction, mental health issues, or both. Like everyone else, I mourn the loss of those gone way too soon, and with grief travels the wonder of what might have been.
It used to tear me to the brink of rage. I used to get angry about it, and sometimes I still do. The death of one friend led in time to a relapse, which in itself, was completely counterproductive and disrespectful to what our goal was in the first place. Our goal was to recover. Another lesson learned.
I still grieve, but not like I used to. I can’t stop time or be consumed with guilt over what magical, super-human thing I could have done to save someone, and no one else should ever be in that position, either.
I’ve come to terms with loss in the only way I have been able to. I believe I’ll see them again. Until I do, I take their memory with me. That seems to make it easier to keep moving. Do their spirits live on? They do here. Every single day.
Overly-enthusiastic 12 Step Guy, Sober-for-years-and-still-pissed-at-the-world Guy, God Saves Guy, Treatment Relationship Guy, Newly Sober Expert Guy, Working A Solid Program Guy. At one time or another, I’ve been most of them, and probably still am in one way or another. We are all works in progress, and that’s the often overlooked beauty if it all. To my peers in recovery, thank you for putting up with me. I am here, and I am always going to be.
Mental health and addiction counselors
At one time or another, I despised each and every one of them.
During one of my first rehabs, a little old counselor told me I needed to say, “I am a beautiful, intelligent, worthwhile human being,” in the mirror every morning. I thought he was joking. Turns out he wasn’t. It took me years to say that without sarcasm, but I remember it decades later.
I was fortunate enough to be a part of consistent, safe, supportive, evidence-based programs where I was held accountable and was part of the decision-making process from start to finish over how I was going to go about the business of not dying from the things I was dealing with. Change isn’t about comfort. For me, it was about calling me on my crap, sharing some practical tools, and identifying the strengths I had and how to use them. As time goes on, I realize more and more how lucky I was to have access to those resources.
Over the years, I was blessed with competent, ethical, person-centered counselors who challenged and supported me, even when I didn’t want them to. Most of them used their platform, not as a hierarchical, pathology-based, empowered-helping-the-powerless relationship, but as a partnership where we got to work and straightened up my wreckage together. That is counseling at its best, and I thank them for it. All of it.
I wasn’t raised in a home that was neglectful or abusive in any way. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was raised in a loving, caring home with an equally loving extended family, neighbors and family friends. Many of the people I have known who deal with addiction and mental health issues weren’t so lucky. There is a connection between abusive or neglectful childhoods and alcohol and drug use in the family, and future mental health and addiction issues, but I didn’t have any of that.
I think the hardest thing for my family was what must have been the overwhelming feeling of helplessness during my dance with addiction and undiagnosed (at that time) mental health issues. They couldn’t love me enough, or cry enough, or worry enough, to help me not destroy myself and everything around me. They didn’t know if they were enabling me or setting boundaries, and I didn’t do much to help them out with it all. They didn’t know if they should yell at me, or hug me, or both. They didn’t know if they should stand back or step forward. They didn’t know if they should tell someone or say nothing. When the phone rang at 2:30 in the morning, they didn’t know if it was one of my drunk friends or if they were going to be notified that I was found in a ditch somewhere. They didn’t know how to deal with their own life issues and health emergencies when their lives were often consumed with waiting for the sky to come crashing down again, as it always seemed to. They didn’t know how to answer questions from neighbors and friends about my name being in the paper for one substance-fueled escapade or another. They didn’t know if they should get help themselves or continue to do what they could to get help for me. This is often what a family experiences when someone struggles with addiction.
Lost trust and shattered dreams aside, every time I asked for help, they were there. A trip to detox in the middle of the night. Driving me to outpatient treatment after I’d lost my license more than once. Visits to one of my several inpatient treatment stays. Financial support, even when they had to cut out other things to make it work. I could go on for days about the ways my family showed up for me, even after all I put them through.
Each time I told them I was going to try again, failed attempt after failed attempt, they supported me. I imagine their enthusiasm and hope may have been a bit beaten up each time something went wrong, but they never lost it, and I don’t know how I would have made it through all of the garbage without them right down there in the mess, sleeves rolled up, ready to go. I would have been gone long ago if it wasn’t for my family.
I have been given the gift of some longevity in the realm of addiction, mental health issues and recovery. The people in my life today help feed the fire of recovery. They see possibilities instead of roadblocks. They offer their insight and experience, rather than judgment. The people in my life contribute to what others helped start, and I try, sometimes failing miserably, to share that with others. We often make the mistake of believing we are somehow finished works, or that we have to do it on our own. That doesn’t fly with the people in my life today. We are all works in progress, and I am grateful I have people who are supportive of, and hold me accountable to, that work.
So, in the end, I am no where near self-made, despite the fleeting delusions I sometimes have. I am certainly in charge of my recovery today, but a lot of people helped make that possible, as unlikely as it may have seemed back then.
For all the things people have done and continue to do for me and others in recovery, and for those who help people get to recovery, you have my undying appreciation and respect. I’ll finish what we started together, I’ll take care of it, and I’ll keep working at it. Thank you for giving me that chance.
If you or someone you know needs help with substance use disorder or mental health issues, reach out. Google resources in your area. Call your county department of human services. Use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) Treatment Locator online. Contact someone you know who is in recovery. Resources are there, and you don’t have to go through it alone.
In memory of those who lost their battles while waiting for help to come.