A Vise Wrapped With Flowers

My recovery, as I’ve written in some other places, involves being willing to do some things that feel awkward or silly at times. Trying something out, even though I am completely unconvinced that it can possibly be useful. Desperation is truly the mother and father of open-mindedness. I used to think that this kind of open-mindedness was nothing but an invitation to be led or exploited; a sheeplike attitude that would invariably end with the equivalent of distributing flowers in airports.

I’ve learned a few more things about desperation since then. What it feels like to be so poised on the border between life and death that I no longer care if I am right or wrong, or if I look stupid, or if my intellectual friends think I’ve lost my mind. What it feels like to have nothing more to lose except my pride, and to know that, truthfully, that ship has already sailed.

Inpatient treatment for substance abuse is something of a crucible. The immediate detox phase can have the most intense suffering, but the entire stay is a rollercoaster of mood swings and other brain chemistry shenanigans. This is true even for those with no mental health diagnosis; indeed, it can be quite tricky to tell if a person in early recovery has a condition or is simply suffering the effects of acute or post-acute withdrawal.

As someone with a diagnosis that predated my drug use, I knew that rehab would be likely to have some tough spots for me. I tried to take the sleeplessness in stride, and I was prepared for the physical pain and the depression. But when I reached day ten or so, one morning I couldn’t breathe. I’d had attacks like this before, and used tranquilizers to control them. Not an option here, of course. It wouldn’t last forever, I told myself. After twenty-four hours, I told myself that it would surely pass soon.

For four days, I stayed awake all night, gasping like a fish on land. I sat in the groups rocking back and forth obsessively, fighting the panic that told me I would surely die if I could not get one deep breath. For four days, I listened to well-meaning people tell me to breathe deeply, biting back the  frustration that made me want to scream that if I could breathe deeply I wouldn’t be in this situation! The staff were probably wondering how long I would hold out before demanding to be taken to the ER and medicated; I had seen others go that route.

On the morning of the fifth day, the counselor in my small therapy group passed out paper and markers. She suggested that I draw how I was feeling. My intellect had gone south about two days ago, so I didn’t hesitate. Grabbing the markers with the ardor of a five-year-old, I drew some kind of blob representing my self, heart and lungs, then with fierce strokes I drew a four-way vise closing around it. The colors were black and brown and red. When I was done, the counselor had me show it to everyone, then asked me to draw it again, but this time give it some help. Change it to be less overwhelming.

You have the power.

You have the power.

I dove in. I drew myself again, but put more colors in. I drew the vise again, but not pressing quite so closely. Then I started drawing green vines wrapping around the handles of the vise, wreathing in and out and around until it seemed as if they controlled it. I drew red roses growing on the vines, and blue sky surrounding the whole thing, and a golden aura around myself. I let my symbolic fancies run wild, imagining this vise as a force of natural destruction and renewal.

The rest of that day went a little better, and I fell asleep for a couple of hours that night. By the next evening, the pressure around my chest was gone. For the rest of my time in treatment, I was a convert to expressive arts therapy. No exercise was too cheesy for me! The counselor even spent a little individual time with me, having me draw and narrate my abstract images. In groups, I wrote negative words down and drew brightly colored opposites on top of them. I did inner child pictures where I drew my sad baby self and comforted her with pretty things.

OK, my inner turtle.

OK, my inner turtle.

This discarding of my “adult” sensibilities has stayed with me and proved to be an important part of my recovery. Handling stress without my drugs of choice–and later, without overeating as well–means getting creative. Learning to play and laugh, by any means necessary. Embracing my geeky self. Trying to let go of my eternal fear of being thought a fool. My insecurities still come up often, but I try to remind myself that I’ve made a decision: I want to live. If that means being a live fool, so be it.

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