Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

***************

A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson

Old Friends, Survivor’s Guilt and Surviving

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I grabbed the jersey display case from its perch on the bookcase in the den. I tucked it under my arm as I walked through the house and out the door. When I got to the middle of the driveway, I took it in both hands, raised it above my head and threw it down at my feet as hard as I could throw it. Glass exploded and flew in every direction as the crash echoed through the neighborhood. Perfectly fabricated wood joints shattered and seemed to chase the glass. As the echoing subsided, the pieces came to rest in different parts of the driveway, while the jersey laid crumpled at my feet. I stood in the driveway in the middle of it all with my hands on my hips, cursing the wreckage, fuming over the death of a friend a year and a half earlier. And I felt enraged by what I saw as the absolute futility of life. I called out God, Higher Powers and every other spirit I’d ever heard of for their collective inaction. I cursed the Universe. I begged them all for a sign or a signal, and I dared them all to give me their best shot. Oddly enough, the fact that there was no response from anywhere in the living world nor the world beyond only served to fuel the rage that had finally come out. “F*** YOU,” I said, pointing down at the mess at my feet, “AND F*** YOU, TOO,” I said, raising my arms to notify the rest of the world. It was at that moment that I had in fact, had it.

This was the culmination of over a year and a half of seething, festering guilt and frustration, over acting “as-if” and of playing the part. It was pretending to make temporary sense of a permanent loss. I tried to act as if, I tried to go along and get along. I tried to pretend all was well and that what I was really feeling was sadness, and it was a natural part of the process of grief, especially when someone young dies unexpectedly. But the truth was that I wasn’t sad. I was sick of getting along, and I was tired of acting as if. I was angry because Dave’s passing devasted his family. I saw the faces of his old friends and neighbors at the funeral. I was angry because I remember calling Jimmy to give him the news, and I remember his reaction. I was angry because the three of us finally had stuff figured out, together, and now it was gone. I was angry because he had his whole life ahead of him. I was angry because he didn’t reach out and I was angry because I didn’t do enough to stop it. I was angry because the three of us had come so far. And that day, in one feeble, violent, misguided moment, I took it out on a carefully crafted display case which held an old jersey in memory of my friend. Now that was ruined, too.

To know Jimmy and Dave was to know life itself. They both had tons of friends growing up, they were charismatic, they were popular and they were each blessed with a great sense of humor. They were both talented athletes. Jimmy was built like a linebacker, a position he played with an enviable efficiency. He had a square jaw and a smile that could make you feel both at ease and yet still wonder what he had just gotten away with. Dave was a quick, smaller bundle of energy, an energy that you could actually feel. He and I had our lockers next door throughout school because of our last names. He had an infectious laugh and was a walking, talking social event. His family owned the bakery in town and I will never forget the beautiful sights, smells and tastes we were blessed with on a regular basis from that magical little place. The two of them were a memorable part of the cast of characters in our small hometown.

We were always teammates and classmates, although it seems that the three of us were never really all that close back then. After graduation, and the school years which contained both highlights and scrapes with authority, along with the prerequisite growing pains, we each went our own directions out into the world. One of us would enter and exit the military, one of us would scale water towers, and one of us would fail miserably at two colleges, before reuniting in our small town, to begin rebuilding our lives.

********

I literally ran into Jimmy not quite ten years later at the bank in town. I was begrudgingly going to the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement that night at the urging of my family, when I swung open the door and ran into my old friend, who was on his way to his car. Jimmy had been in recovery for a year and had a good job with a big construction outfit in the area. We spent some time after the meeting catching up and after some convincing, I agreed to go to meetings regularly. He became my mentor and my babysitter. The drinking hobbies we began in high school as “boys will be boys” -type behavior had become full blown addictions in almost no time, only to somehow lead us back home to try to sort it all out. After the reunion that night, we were pretty much inseparable, and it seemed we had almost come full circle.

A few months after our meeting in the doorway of the bank in town, Jimmy and I received word that Dave was back in the area, too. He had run into some trouble, and we went to visit him to see how we could help. Then there were three.

We began working on clearing the wreckage of the past and getting busy with the work of getting our lives back a little at a time. We were sober, clean, recovering and kicking all kinds of ass at it. Meetings, conferences, more meetings, making amends, helping others, sharing our stories at schools in the area. We even returned to the church we had spent so much time in growing up, which we thought to be kind of poetic. We talked about the glory days of football and basketball. We talked about college and owning businesses and houses and whatever else came to mind. We had dreams again and we weren’t shackled to our addictions, waiting to die. We were alive. We held each other up, we held each other accountable and we walked through it all together. You didn’t miss a meeting or someone would be there, banging on your door. You answered your phone even if you were busy or didn’t feel like it, because it was what you were supposed to do when someone reached out. If one of us had a court date, we all had a court date. We high-fived and trashed talked each other. We were at once humbled by what we had survived and confident and proud of our new lease on life. We were, in so many ways, back.

********

But as time wore on in our new lives, maybe we started to become complacent. Maybe we took some things for granted. Maybe there were some underlying things we didn’t or couldn’t fix within us or between us. I’ve never been completely sure, and that’s always been part of my problem with the whole thing. Maybe the high fives weren’t shared as often. Maybe the conferences, meetings and speaking opportunities became easier to brush off in favor of new things. Or old things. Maybe we stopped being grateful. Maybe we stopped telling each other the truth. But in the middle of it all, we had lost our way, and I didn’t know exactly how much until we couldn’t get ahold of Dave.

Jimmy didn’t seem too bothered by not being able to get in touch with Dave, at first. There were all kinds of possible reasons, and they didn’t have to be bad ones, he thought. I was frustrated, but in the end, we both figured he’d come around. There had been a few things that had happened recently that may have accounted for it. Maybe he got a job. Maybe he was pissed at us. Maybe he was burnt out on recovery and the pace at which we were going. We decided, fatefully, to give him space. For two weeks we went on with life – work, meetings, family- waiting for him to come back to the fold.

********

The alarm went off that Friday just like it did every other morning, the beep-beep-beep pulling me out of slumber to be replaced by a clicking sound and the local radio news morning update. I sat up in the dark, eyes still shut, when I heard, “A one car crash over night leaves…. County Road A….David…..”

I rubbed my eyes and yawned and I had to rewind and play again in my head what I thought I had just heard. Confused and still half awake, I grabbed the radio and tried to tune in other stations on the chance that I might hear it again, but I got nothing. Turning the radio off, I called work and told them that I wouldn’t be in, that a friend had been in an accident. I dressed on the way to the door and put my shoes on as I hopped down the sidewalk toward the car. It can’t be, I thought.

I drove and thought. Thought and drove. My mind raced and feared the worst, and then a wave of reassurance due to being half asleep and the belief that I simply had not heard it correctly. But I still felt I had to drive down there and check. It couldn’t be. The farther I drove and the closer I was to the approaching town, the better I felt. Stupid dream.

Then, rounding the last curve in the road on County A, the last corner before town, I saw the tire tracks. I saw the car. I saw the police cars. I saw the tape. I saw the tow truck parked off to the side. I pulled over and got out. I leaned up against the car with my arms folded. I didn’t know what else to do. After some time, an older deputy approached me. We talked for a few minutes about what details he could give, he shared his condolences and went back to work. It was surreal. It was bullshit. It was over. On the way back to town, I wondered what his family must have been going through at that moment. I wondered how they were ever going to make it through the loss of a son and brother. I wondered how Jimmy would take it, and I wondered how I was going to tell him. And I wondered why. Then there were two.

********

We were never the same after Dave’s passing. Jimmy couldn’t even bring himself to go to the funeral and I went mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to not go. We talked a lot, Jimmy and I, but it was never the real, teammate, crunch-time, got-your-back, kind of stuff that we had grown accustomed to. There was no banging on the door if one of us missed a meeting. There was no car in the driveway if we didn’t answer the phone. Little by little, Dave’s passing, and our assumed responsibility for not preventing it, slowly pulled us into the swamp of relapse. Eventually we just stopped calling and contacting each other because we each believed we were a little more at fault than the other for what had happened somehow. We carried the burden as quietly as we could for as long as we could.

While I don’t believe Jimmy ever touched another drink, I know that he fought demons that rarely let him rest. For my part, I stayed clean for another eight or nine months before I went back to using, and only a few months after that came the day I spiked the case on the driveway and challenged the world to a fist fight.

********

It was twelve years after Dave passed, that I learned Jimmy had died suddenly. That was in 2006. Over that twelve-year span, I had to work to recover from addiction and fight mental health issues, and to deal with the memory hoarder’s paradise that is survivor’s guilt. Counselors, therapists, other addicts, family, friends, enemies -you name it- I had help. It wasn’t an exercise in valor or the yearning for a higher level of existence, it was an exercise in survival. And then there was one.

It was during the time of my Dad’s passing, in between Dave’s and Jimmy’s, that a pastor put a hand on my shoulder and suggested that maybe the best we can do is take them with us on our journey until we meet again. I’ve never forgotten that, and that little act of kindness and empathy forged a gigantic shift in my view and perspective on the finite of life, and the infinite universe, but that’s a story for another time.

That shift, that little spark, was part of a lengthy process moving from fixating on something I could never change and riding it to hell and back, to coming to the belief that there is a different way. Who wins a war with the Universe? Who calls out spirits and challenges a God or gods he isn’t even sure he believes are real? Who seeks closure through rage? I did, and it didn’t work. When you get your ass kicked that badly, sometimes it’s best to accept it and regroup. There is no science to it, and it may not even make sense. All I know is that it seems to work day to day, and I am not imprisoned by guilt anymore about something I could never control in the first place.

********

Today, I am where I am in no small part because of Dave and Jimmy. And although I don’t carry the baggage I used to, I love them like brothers. I am grateful for the time we got to spend together, even in the eye of the storm. There is no doubt that they helped people achieve lasting recovery while they were here, and I owe it to them to keep walking, come what may. Without our paths crossing back then, I’m sure there would have been an early end to my own story.

Today, I use the suggestion I received and I take them with me, and we get to do the things said we would. After I’d been in recovery for quite a few years, I went back and finished school and earned a counseling degree. Behind the curtain that graduation night, I met with Dave and Jimmy. We made it, gentlemen. Each time I reach another year in recovery from addiction, I call on them. We made It, Fellas. Before playing football for the first time in twenty-one years, I walked over to the corner of the end zone during pregame and met with Dave, Jimmy and Dad. We made it, gentlemen. When our granddaughters were born, I made it, Guys… When it’s quiet and there is that fleeting moment of clarity and peace, however brief, that we once worked together for…. We made it, gentlemen.

And it isn’t just them. Others who have passed, I’ve learned to take along the best I can. That is something I carry without fatigue. I am still part of this world, don’t get me wrong. But I am grateful today to be able to do it until we meet again, however and wherever that is. That is of course, if God or the spirits don’t hold grudges and if the Universe isn’t sore for my tantrum in the driveway all those years ago.

We made it, gentlemen.

In memory of

Dave Mickelson

and

Jim Torpen

On Pep Talks and Beating Goliath

Several years ago, as I was nearing the end of a substance abuse counseling internship, I was asked to deliver a graduation message at the correctional treatment facility where I had been working. The message would be a small part of the ceremony for a group of inmates I had had the privilege of working with who had successfully completed the treatment program there and were nearing release. I got to spend a lot of time with the men in the program and I learned a lot about not only their offenses, their sentences and their addictions, but about them as people- their hobbies, their families, and sometimes their hopes and dreams. They were all very different people in age, class, profession and ideology. Most of the time it seemed that the only thing they had in common, really, was that they all new their release dates and they were all dealing with the consequences brought by their addictions.

By the day of the graduation I felt confident that I had put together a half way decent message. As the ceremony began, the large commons room was filled with different staff members of the prison, invited guests and family members from the outside, and the graduating men. A few minutes before I was to speak, I snuck one last peak down at my cards to make sure I had them all, and had them all in order, when a staff member sat down beside me. This staff member had been at the prison for many years and, from everything I had seen up to that point, was everything one could imagine in someone who provides addiction treatment. "Don't waste your time on a pep talk, it won't do any good." Then, just as quickly and quietly as they had sat down, they were gone.

Webster's Dictionary says that a pep talk is, "a usually brief, intense, and emotional talk designed to influence or encourage an audience."

I remember that to this day, and I often think about how it pertains, in the way of pep talks or outside motivation, to me and my own recovery journey. And why some people give up, when others don't. No matter the reason for the statement -whether brought on by frustration, bias, fatigue, hostility, or any other reason- I realized it said much more about the professional in that instant than it did any of the offenders. Truth be told, it gave me a resolve that I have hung on to since then that I would counterbalance that attitude in the universe by never betting against the possibility of recovery, no matter what the odds seem to be. Because if you've been around addiction and recovery long enough, you know that David can beat Goliath.

Back to that day. I remember most of it vividly. It was quite an event, complete with a powerful Native American drum ceremony, words of congratulations and celebration, gratitude and excitement, held together with reminders about vigilance and caution. My little talk? I don't think it qualified as much of a pep talk, and to be honest, it is one of the things I remember least about the whole day. What I do remember is the people. I remember people who were thrown together in what wasn't a beach-side. five-star resort-type rehab, to work on their problems, to pay their debts and to try to change their lives and to help those who were in the same predicament. A common goal. I sometimes wonder about those graduates and how their lives have turned out in the years that have come and gone since then. I wonder if they are still in recovery despite the obstacles many of them faced, and I am always hopeful that they are able to accept and enjoy and share the gifts that come with recovery from addiction.

In the end, we don’t need to be Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant or Pat Summitt or John Wooden to make an impact. I guess we just need to be whatever it is that we are. When we show others we believe in them and we are pulling for them, often just by showing up, especially after they’ve fallen or are in a tough spot, we can spark hope. And hope is the foundation of not only recovery, but in the conquering of all things once thought impossible.

5 Things I’ve Learned About Addiction

I have been in the addiction and recovery arena in one way or another for almost 30 years.  About half of that time was spent battling addiction personally, in and out of treatment centers and detoxes, with fleeting stints of sobriety. The other roughly half of that time has been in continuous, sustained recovery.  During my time in recovery, I’ve been able to see things from the eyes of someone who struggles with addiction, someone who has his own recovery path and someone who has spent time as a substance abuse counselor.  My attitudes and biases have naturally changed as I have grown and gained knowledge, which seems to be a requirement if one is to defeat an enemy who is constantly at the gate.  Here are five things I have learned about addiction.

ADDICTION IS ONE OF THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD ILLNESSES ON THE PLANET. There is an old saying that has to do with alcoholics being around since man first learned to crush grapes.  If you believe that as I do, that covers many centuries. In more recent times, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded somewhere around 1935, and the American Medical Association declared alcohol addiction an illness 1956.  If my math is right, that is 85 years and 64 years ago, respectively.  One would think that with all of the technological, scientific and sociological advances made during that time, we would have a better handle on the symptoms, causes, treatments and recovery paths for something so destructive.  And we would have a better view of the illness as an illness, and not a punch line, a head shake or an opportunity for horrible advice.
Yet, addiction is still widely misunderstood, even in 2020.  Doctors prescribe treatment they believe will help, yet medical professionals have over prescribed opiates to the point of being one of the catalysts to an epidemic.  The War on Drugs has gone on for over 45 years and has cost well over a trillion dollars, with really no meaningful, positive change.  In fact, the War On Drugs has been called an abject failure, but that is another post for another day. I promise.
Family members, friends and coworkers close to someone with a substance use disorder are often heard saying, “I wish they’d just quit this nonsense,” or “If they would just stick to beer.”  Movies portray addicts in ways that seem to exaggerate the symptoms to make a point.  Even the news media is involved.  It is not uncommon (in my area is it very common) for the local news to report on a burglary, high speed chase, standoff, or some other crime where charges result in, among other things, possession of heroin, methamphetamine and/or THC. These are just a few examples, and I’m not picking on anyone.

In modern society, we fix things with pills, when often pills are what get us into trouble in the first place.  (Don’t believe me?  Two words: television commercials.)  Family members, friends and coworkers also mean well, and often travel to the ends of the earth, and to the edge of sanity and well passed exhaustion, to help.  But, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, sometimes we contribute to the muddying of the waters and don’t do well to separate the myth from the truth concerning addiction, treatment and recovery.
All too often, if something is said enough times, if we see it in the news or on social media enough, even if it is completely wrong, it somehow becomes truth (see: politics). Stigma is a huge issue that perpetuates the myths concerning addiction.  Underfunding by our national, state and local governments is another barrier in the understanding of addiction, the reduction of stigma and the availability of treatment for those who struggle.  We can do better.

ADDICTION COSTS A LOT.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse in the U.S. to alcohol and drugs costs over $520 billion annually. Let me say that again. FIVE HUNDRED-TWENTY BILLION DOLLARS per year.  The Institute includes crime, lost work productivity and healthcare costs in its numbers, while the healthcare numbers alone are $27 billion for alcohol and roughly $11 billion for illicit (illegal) drugs and $26 billion for prescription opiates.  (The cost concerning opiates will surely go up as new data is processed and becomes available.)  To put that into perspective, the cost of the effects of tobacco use and addiction in the U.S. costs roughly $300 billion a year, with over half of that ($168 billion) being healthcare costs.  Not only is addiction and its consequences costly for the person who struggles and for those close to that person, it is also a huge drain on our economy. Imagine if we spent anywhere near that on education, intervention and treatment accessibility and availability. And what if we spent money to develop prevention programs that work?

ADDICTION IS NOT A CHOICE.  I grew up in a small town in a neat neighborhood. My sister and I had lots of friends within a few blocks and the neighborhood was always alive with activity. Some of us wanted to be doctors when we grew up. Others wanted to be cowboys. Princesses. Astronauts. Dirt bike riders. Mechanics. Nurses.  Sometimes our future career choices depended on the popular TV shows or movies of the day. At the risk of dating myself, I’ll stay clear of listing those here.  But, of all the kids in my the neighborhood where I grew up, not once did anyone ever say they wanted to grow up to be an addict.
Addiction is a primary, progressive illness. It can travel alone or, as it often does, it can occur with other conditions like depression, anxiety disorder and so on.  It’s also impossible to predict with certainty who will become addicted to alcohol or other drugs or when it might occur. But there are some risk factors including genetics, age of onset (use), a preceding mental illness and trauma.
People make the choice to abuse, that is, to use a substance to gain a desired affect. People choose to binge drink. People choose to take pills or take a various array of other chemicals in many ways to gain or lose something in their lives, even temporarily, and I’m sure you’ve heard some of these reasons. To lose boredom. To gain excitement. To gain energy. To lose sadness. To lose stress. To gain camaraderie. To gain concentration. To lose weight. We could go on and on. But people choose, whether it is drinking to access, or to double a prescription dose, or to smoke, sniff or inject a substance. Obviously, we all make choices, and sometimes those choices have far reaching consequences. However, to make the connection that since one chooses to abuse, one then also chooses addiction, is irresponsible and really lazy. We choose to abuse. But we don’t choose to become addicts.

ADDICTION IS TERMINAL IF LEFT UNTREATED.  The American Medical Association classifies addiction as a disease and follows a disease model, much the way it classifies diabetes, heart disease and cancer.  The AMA also says that causes are sometimes determined by biological, environmental and behavioral factors. There is much debate about addiction as a disease or an illness, and a quick Google search can open up all sorts of thoughts and ideas on what addiction is to different people and organizations.  Here is where I usually ask people to do all the research they can. Ask questions, reach out. Find credible sources. Think critically.
This July will mark 18 years of continuous long term recovery from alcohol and drugs for me, but I believe truly and completely that I am only in remission.  One drink or drug will surely activate my illness.  You may ask how I know that. I gained valuable yet costly, first-hand experience on relapse personally before I gained long term recovery, and I’ve watched countless others do the same.
NIDA defines addiction as, “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
There are other definitions that echo this idea, some are quite long and more in depth.  For simplicity’s sake, I like to use this definition, and it describes my own addiction, and the addictions of the countless others I have met over the years, perfectly: “Addiction is chronic, and as such will get worse and never better over time if left untreated.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 88,000 people in the U.S. die each year from alcohol-related causes.  The CDC estimated that in 2017, there were over 72,000 opiate overdose deaths, which included both prescription and illicit drugs. To put that number in some sort of perspective, that was 197 people per day, every day, in 2017, from opiates alone.

ADDICTION IS BEATABLE.  Now that we have all that other stuff out of the way, we can get to the good stuff. Addiction is treatable, it is beatable, and you or someone you love can get their lives back. There are millions of people around the world who celebrate long term recovery. For all the data involving the negative aspects of addiction, there is also data on recovery. There are many pathways to recovery, and each path is as unique as the individual who makes the journey, and there have never been more pathways to recovery than in years past.  Recovery from addiction is possible, and there are millions of us who are proof of that, and there is plenty of room for millions more.
One of the most basic keys to recovery is that it is self-directed, meaning that the person recovering is in charge of determining the path he or she will follow.  Of course, there is much help out there to help guide along the path, or even to help one make the decision of which path to follow. The intervention someone who struggles with a substance use disorder receives, meaning the interruption of behavior, whether family, law enforcement contact, medical, or self-directed, can come in many forms.  Whatever form that intervention comes in, considering consequences, can be the foundation for an effective plan for recovery.
This is certainly not an unabridged, comprehensive reference guide on addiction. These are merely a few things I have learned along the way. There are many resources available online to learn more about addiction treatment, recovery groups, detoxification when needed, and often a medical professional can assist in finding the best option and level of care

5 Things I’ve Learned About Relapse

You or someone you know had a few weeks or months, or even years of recovery. Things appeared to be going well. Lives were getting back in order. The past was becoming just that. Things were good, or better than good. Then it came seemingly out of nowhere. Relapse. The hope, the ability to breathe easy -the overall feeling that things were getting better- were torn away. It seems that all the effort put into getting help and working hard to gain recovery was all for nothing.

But does relapse erase any previous growth or success? Here are five things I’ve learned about relapse from being around addiction in one way or another for 30 years.

Relapse Sucks. For the person struggling with addiction, relapse sucks. For the people around him or her, relapse also sucks. Rebuilt trust crumbles, restful nights once again turn sleepless. Every time the phone rings, it brings with it a dose of panic. These things are common for a spouse or significant other, friends and family members, clergy, counseling professionals, coworkers, neighbors or anyone else involved with the wellbeing of someone who struggles with substance use disorder. But, as someone who survived more than one relapse before I found long term recovery, there are some things to consider.

Relapse Doesn’t Mean You Suck. My experience with relapse came with a boat load of shame. Because I relapsed, I was not only defective, I was broken. Bad. I believed somehow that I deserved addiction and therefore didn’t deserve recovery. Shame is toxic, devoid of any constructive use whatsoever, and in my case, shame prolonged my active addiction and complicated recovery efforts. Shame, quite simply, kills.
Early on, I hadn’t come to grips with the idea that I was battling an illness or disease. What I believed was that because I couldn’t control my drinking or drug use and kept using even in the face of worsening negative consequences, there was something unfixable within me. Today I know that to be false. I didn’t choose to be an addict. No one does. Not you, not your parent, not your husband, daughter, cousin or the guy down the street. I’ve been around this stuff for a long time and I’ve never heard anyone once say that their life’s dream was to become an addict.

Relapse Isn’t a Spur of the Moment Thing. Regarding drinking and drug use, we’ve all heard about people who “slipped,” or “fell off the wagon,” after some time without using chemicals. Along my winding path to sustained abstinence and long term recovery, I used the same language to describe my relapses, usually to my own benefit, to explain to others that I got drunk out of no where after some clean time. In reality what I was doing was trying somehow to magically reduce my responsibility in the whole matter. I was doing great. Then, all of a sudden, I drank! I know, weird, right?

Looking back, I never “slipped.” It never came out of no where. I was never blind sided by a return to using. Instead, there were always doors I had left open or things I hadn’t done, whether intentionally or not, to make it easier to return to using. I kept old friends and relationships. I kept going to parties and bars under the guise of being a “designated driver.” I thought I could handle it. I wasn’t always honest with myself about how serious my addiction was. I daydreamed about using again and thought usually of only positive consequences. When I did think about the negative possibilities, I often minimized, rationalized or denied them. What I was doing was setting myself up for relapse.

Hearing relapse stories, studying relapse, surviving my own relapses and working with others through theirs, experience says that what seems to be a “slip” can usually (if not always) be traced back to something done, or left undone, during early recovery.

Relapse… Happens. Data shows that people with substance use disorders relapse at a rate comparable to people with other chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma or hypertension, according to the National Institute of Health.

Relapse Can Be A Good Recovery Tool. I would never, ever, never, ever advocate for someone to relapse back to using or anything close to that. Some people don’t make it back from relapse and we face an illness with often heavy negative consequences.
But a point to make about relapse is the idea that it doesn’t always mean using, if you believe relapse is a process, just as recovery is. More often than not, however, the act of using or drinking is what is talked about, because that is when relapse is most easily identifiable. For example, if someone in recovery would stop doing the things they did to get sober, say, if they were to quit going to therapy or meetings, that would be something to look at and find answers for. If he or she were to go back to doing some of the same things they did while in active addiction -hang out in bars, hang out with old using friends, spend a lot of time thinking about the “old days”- they may be areas to highlight as well. A new or reestablished negative outlook (they used to call it “stinkin’ thinkin’), money being spent, whereabouts being unaccounted for… These are just a few quick examples, and when identified and corrected, can help establish a new, improved plan of attack in recovery.

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This, of course, is in no way a comprehensive list of ideas regarding relapse. It is merely a quick sketch of things I have picked up along the way. There are many things to learn from relapse that can help forge a path to long term recovery. Recovery is a journey and relapse can be part of that journey, but it doesn’t have to be the end of it.