Experience, Strength, Hope as of 2013

A recent Daily Prompt asked for reactions about public speaking. Overall, I enjoy it – provided I get to think about what I will say, and test it aloud in advance. Recently I gave a short talk that was important to me.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that last spring I had numerous posts about SILD, Someone I Love Dearly who is a heroin addict. Confronting SILD’s condition has sent SILD and me on related journeys of self-discovery. As part of mine, I have joined Al-Anon, an ill-named organization for the loved ones of addicts of all flavors. (Al-Anon originated as an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, which slightly explains the name.) As part of Al-Anon, I took my turn leading a meeting recently, which meant I was supposed to talk for 10 minutes about my “experience, strength and hope.” (Al-Anon has many buzz phrases. That’s one of them. The idea is that when you share what you have gone through and how you have improved things, you might help someone else.) Below is approximately what I said.

I am an advanced beginner in Al-Anon. I started attending meetings maybe last April. That period of my life is so blurry I will never be one of those members who knows precisely when they first arrived.

I am the xxx of a heroin addict, now 6 months sober. SILD’s drug use is my motivator and qualifier to be here. But also, watching SILD’s evolution over the last few months has been an inspiration to me to get a sponsor and practice the steps myself.

My recollections of last spring become blurry from the moment when, doing online banking, I found a succession of $40 checks I didn’t recognize. I pulled them up to view and found checks on my account, made out to SILD, written in SILD’s handwriting. When I confronted SILD about this, I learned the money had been used to buy heroin. I learned SILD had begun using heroin two years before, but had been almost continuously high for a few years before that, an omni-addict who used whatever was available. The first time SILD tried heroin, all the other highs became irrelevant.

Looking back now I see so many signs, but I was in a spectacular state of denial – which surprised me. Usually I’m the one who points out the emperor has no clothes. But not this time. SILD had convinced me odd behaviors resulted from daily heavy use of strong varieties of weed. I didn’t like that but there was nothing I could do to stop it. (I convinced myself of that by making many and varied attempts!)

When I discovered the checks, SILD said “I’ve stopped using, it’s been a few days since I used heroin, I want to stop.” Shortly thereafter, SILD snuck away to get high, then spent the evening pretending to be in withdrawal, and expressing relief to be stopping.

I went on fast fact-finding missions by phone and internet and started to learn about addiction. By the next afternoon SILD was in detox at a hospital, and from there a few days later went into treatment. For a month SILD was in treatment wall-to-wall waking hours (with some very scary free time, nights and weekends). SILD had many rocky periods, where it seemed that SILD would leave treatment or relapse. But the general progress was forward and up.

During that time, on the advice of counselors at the treatment center and internet sites, I went to Al-Anon meetings. I was put off by the bleak stories: years of relapse; terrible choices to come, like ceasing to provide the help that only enables drug use, then watching loved ones disappear to prison, or life on the streets. Or the morgue. I wasn’t ready to hear those things.

My own healing began in meetings for codependents. It was a revelation to learn that I am a codependent, with SILD and in many other situations. I learned about enabling and detachment and setting boundaries. Initially I could only manage detachment with anger, then with exhaustion, then with numbness.

The concept of setting boundaries was huge for me. It led to my saying no sometimes. Saying no reduced resentments about being pushed and manipulated, and that has made detachment with love seem possible.

A pivotal moment for me was understanding that when someone you love lies and manipulates you over time, it is a form of mental abuse. SILD is a master manipulator. But you already knew that because I told you SILD is an addict.

I had been thinking and acting like an abuse victim. This explained so much! I could see those changes in myself: the meekness, the uncertainty, the sense that I didn’t deserve – anything, that I had no right to good treatment. I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t ask for help in a store. Didn’t want to bother the clerk.

Another revelation was coming to this Al-Anon meeting. At SILD’s treatment center, during the breaks, the addicts were so lively: talking,laughing, charismatic, vivid. Their loved ones were off in corners alone, dull and shut down and closed off, stooped, hunched over. Oh god was that who I was? I felt like an appendage, a parasite that had to suck  color from my addict. Then I came here and I discovered that what I had witnessed were loved ones caught up in the addiction. I got here and found that the loved ones in Al Anon can be every bit as vivid and lively and interesting as the addicts.

Nowadays SILD has become a big book thumper – meaning the AA Big Book. For a while SILD was doing so well I stalled out in my recovery – I lost my sense of urgency. But now the changes in SILD have inspired me to seek that kind of transformation. SILD is a sponsor now and when I catch SILD’s conversations with sponsees, I am so impressed. SILD is so wise and insightful. I want more of that for myself. I want to be that comfortable in my own skin. In our disagreements nowadays SILD is the one who leads us away from bickering and back to the high road.

I have a lot of work to do. I still don’t trust SILD much and of course relapse is always a possibility, forever. When events remind me of the Old Days those are triggers that really set me spiraling. I know Al Anon can help me work through such triggers, yet I’ve been resistant to Al Anon. I have many reasons. I am not a joiner, I’m 100% agnostic, everyone using the same slogans and jargon gives me the creeps, doing Step 4 sounds scary. I fear getting involved and joining a cult. Even more, I fear joining the cult and finding it can’t help me after all. Also I hate reading non fiction. I am especially proud of that last excuse, I think it’s an original one.

But you know sometimes you just have to jump off the cliff and not think about where you might land. So that is what I’ve done. I now attend meetings regularly, have a sponsor and am working on Step 1.

From meetings, what has helped me most so far has been the “Dos and Donts” list and the concept NO IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE.

Over the last few months I’ve kept returning to a quote by the great playwright Eugene O’Neil (who by the way came from a family of alcoholics):

Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.

I’ve been thinking about what breaks and what mends. Me. SILD. At home. At work. And I see that Al Anon and AA give a lot of glue.

Peace in Thoughtlessness

The last few weeks, I have struggled to put two thoughts together, and this turns out to be a good thing. At first I thought it was a new stage of PTSD, my unfolding reaction to the fact that Someone I Love Dearly (SILD) is a heroin addict (today more than 2 months sober). Now I see this is part of my own process of healing and recovery.

My thoughts are very foggy and disconnected at the surface, but down below the thinking must continue. I can still hold a conversation – although if it is a work conversation that yields to do items, I had better jot them down when first discussed or they won’t leave the room with me. More importantly, I have written quite a bit on my new novel and it is really good stuff.

The fog disturbed me mightily at first, but more and more I see it as a protective cushion. My longstanding tendencies to brood and anticipate are not functioning well now – and I don’t miss them at all. I’ve got a lot of stress at work right now and when I start worrying I find myself trying to pull the fog closer and thicker.

Perhaps this is how I will back into mindfulness and an ability to be fully present – by thickening the fog. Not thinking is really peaceful. I recommend it.

The Long Plateau

It’s kinda like living in The Lost World, a previously unknown universe on a long, high plateau that ends in steep cliffs.

Someone I Love Dearly (SILD) is a heroin addict, just about 60 days into recovery. SILD could relapse. SILD could be secretly using. These coulds will continue to haunt me. But right now SILD is looking healthy and – remarkably – happy, intensely working a 12-step recovery program that helps to limit the power of the addiction while dramatically boosting self-awareness.

I have been working on my own recovery as a codependent and thus recognize that it will be a sign of my own improved mental state when I cease to start blog entries by talking about SILD. What happens with SILD is up to SILD. I can’t alter SILD’s path and I can’t predict the future. Hence all the treatment program mantras about focussing on today.

For a purebred westerner like myself, that living in the moment stuff ain’t easy to achieve but I can already see that getting to that point is an effort worth making. Lately sometimes I’ve managed to find the Off switch, to silence all my dreading and what-ifing. The sense of peace and the upsurge in energy are simply incredible. I wish I could tell you how to activate that switch – then maybe we could all flip it more often. At this point all I can do is reassure that it exists.

The biggest test of a codependent’s recovery is the ability to maintain peace, contentment, and joy in life even when the addict is doing poorly. So often we codependents say “I’m doing well today – because my addict is ___” Fill in the blank: Still sober. Working her program. Getting job offers.  That kind of thinking is still codependent. I’m okay because my addict is okay.  The goal is: I’m okay even though my addict is in a tailspin. 

Getting to that point is surely even harder than always living in the moment.

Thinking about a future where my addict could be in a tailspin is pushing against my Off switch. I’m knotting up inside and need to remind myself: nothing has changed as I type this blog. Today is still good. That is all I know for sure.

Today has been okay. Curiously, that simple realization restores my calm.

Folks, you have just witnessed mind control in action.

Perhaps two months ago I would have sheepishly deleted all of this.

Dirty Chips

Someone I Love Dearly (SILD) is a heroin addict — now just about 60 days sober. Like all addiction milestones, this one is important, reassuring, bittersweet, and just possibly a meaningless sham.

Without a treatment program, relapse is almost guaranteed – 97% of addicts who try to quit on their own will relapse. So I am deeply thankful that SILD had willingness and health insurance to go through treatment. With a treatment program, relapse is slightly less guaranteed: 90% of addicts who try to quit using a treatment program will relapse.

I get why the relapse rates are so high. Hell, it took me three tries to quit smoking. You have to learn how to live without your drug; the learning includes mistakes and some mistakes lead to relapse. One big difference is that I wasn’t at risk of overdose when I lit up one more Chesterfield. The chance of overdose goes up when an addict relapses: recovery messes up an addict’s tolerance for the drug.

SILD says “I am going to be in the 10%” and I mostly believe that SILD wants to accomplish this and will do so. Mostly believe, because I may never fully believe SILD again. In everything SILD says, I hear a whisper of an alternate reality: what might be true instead. That is a consequence of the years of lies while SILD was using.  At the same time, I can no longer live in a state of perpetual  mistrust. It left me debilitated and combustible. From what I can figure so far, with an addict, love and trust can have little overlap, at least for the first many years of recovery.

Two months ago, I knew nothing about this universe I now permanently inhabit. When I first learned the relapse statistics and heard all the relapse stories, I didn’t think I could face that future. Now it’s just another fact of life. So maybe someday I will shed my abhorrence of dirty chips.

There are three kinds of addicts in recovery – those who are not using, those who are using, and those who are secretly using. The addicts who are not using earn chips at meetings, chips that proclaim recovery milestones – for example, SILD has a 30-day chip and will soon earn a 60-day chip. The addicts who are using either stop attending meetings, or resume the effort to quit and reset their count of days sober, starting again at day 1. The addicts who are secretly using keep coming to meetings, keep collecting chips they have not really earned. These are called dirty chips.

I am outraged by the existence of dirty chips but I need to get over it. A dirty chip feels worse than just a relapse or just a lie but it is merely another fact of life in the addict universe. As SILD points out, “Addicts lie. It’s what we do.”

And those who want to  feel love for an addict without letting that love destroy their lives had better find a way to love without trust and trust without fully trusting.

Health and Trust

You know the saying. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me (oh, I dunno, ballpark estimate) nine thousand eight hundred and seventy two times and you must be my addict.

When people talk about their personal blessings, health is typically at the top of the list – and rightly so. Good health is important to so much else in life. When it comes to relationships, the health equivalent is trust. I’ve been thinking about trust a lot lately.

Someone I Love Dearly (SILD) is a heroin addict, now in treatment, and for the last few years has been a master liar and manipulator. Masterful, savvy, cunning – brilliant, really. SILD even turned my growing distrust against me, made me feel bad to have doubts. That was back when the heroin was a secret, back when I sensed something big and bad was wrong, but couldn’t prove it – and man did I feel like an asshole: what was my problem, how did I devolve to be so incapable of trusting...  In the old days we called that mind-f***ing, kids. But I digress.

So I didn’t trust SILD, I don’t trust SILD, and every statement SILD makes, I doubt. Yet at the same time, trust is so ensnarled with love in me, that even when I know SILD is lying there is a still part of me that – preposterously! – still accepts the lie verbatim, because it comes from SILD.  But that part of me doesn’t hold much sway, nowadays.

I fear to discover more lies from SILD, because at this point, every lie chips away at the love I hold for SILD.

Lately, my relationship with SILD feels like my neighbor’s retaining wall. In my neighborhood, many yards have quaint rustic walls constructed of rocks and mortar. But this one neighbor has a wall that is just artfully piled rocks with no mortar. For years I was amazed at the skill that kept the rocks balanced and in place – yet baffled that the wall stayed intact. Then one day, my skepticism proved correct. Part of the wall collapsed into an unstable pile of rocks. The old wall is doomed – it can’t be rebuilt as it was before: no way can the collapsed rocks be reinserted nor the balance restored. And meanwhile, the dirt and lawn, formerly held in place by the wall, will at some point also collapse and add to the damage. Left long enough, the whole yard will be wrecked.

I hope SILD and I have the courage strength wisdom to tear out the old structure and replace it in time. Some days I have more hope than others. It’s amazing how rapidly I can cycle from hope to despair. I have done several cycles just in the typing of this post.

Better? Worse?

Someone I Love Dearly (SILD) is a heroin addict who has recently entered treatment. SILD is doing great, on a tremendous voyage of self-discovery and new beginnings. Meanwhile I seem to be in the throes of some kind of PTSD and all my initial work in discovering codependence and in recognizing changes I need to make — all of that overwhelms me, saps me of energy, and really pisses me off. I just want to live my frigging life. I already did therapy back in my 20s and 30s. I don’t want to go to more meetings. I want to wake up having learned what I need to learn, adjusted what I need to alter. However, that approach never worked for learning Spanish so I assume it won’t be effective here, either.

I keep thinking about all the ways addicts seem to have more energy and fun* than those closest to them and in my darkest moments I imagine addicts as vampires of the spirit. In my self-sorriest moments I see the codependents as second-string sidekicks, leeches who latch on to give themselves purpose.  In more open moments I look around me in the meetings and see the addicts and the loved ones united by a drive to improve, to not waste another hourdayyeardecade of our lives.

Curiously, of late I am learning a lot from a character in my novel Scar Jewelry, Heather. “Curiously” because I don’t entirely like Heather. But lately I keep thinking about back in her wild younger days, when she was Heater, and her husband died in a motorcycle accident, and her friends feared that her devastation would provoke suicide. When they voiced their concerns, her reaction was No way! I’m not done yet! Lately when I spiral into the darkest or self-sorriest  moments I find myself repeating that phrase.

*After all, as Neil Young first pointed out, “every junkie’s like a setting sun.”