Category Archives: Addiction and Recovery

Reminder

Hello, reader. Remember, I’m moving all of my activity to my other page, Not My Last Words. If you follow me here, you may want to go and follow me there. Not This Song will disappear in June.

Check out my newest entry, Oak Tree Debate, at notmylastwords.com and continue watching me deal with life, creativity, poetry, and weird ways to hang on for one more day.

Nine For Mortal Men

“Three rings for the elven kings under the sky.
Seven for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone.
Nine for mortal men doomed to die…”

I have been thinking about death quite a bit lately. I don’t mean the dwelling on death and related subjects that can come with a depressive phase, although I certainly experience that. What’s going on right now is something else.

On the day I turned ten, my younger brother died in a car accident. He was not yet two. Such a tragedy is hard on any family, and it tore mine apart–especially because we were unable to mourn. There was an unspoken rule, after the funeral, that he or any feelings or memories about him were not to be mentioned. My sisters and I became what therapists call “forgotten mourners.”

I don’t blame my mother or stepfather for that…how can I, imagining what pain they felt? But it did continue the lessons I had been learning about keeping my harshest feelings inside, not acknowledging loss, and not letting go.

As part of my recovery work recently, I did a ritual about honoring the dead in my life. My little brother, my father, and my stepfather were the main people I had in mind. Many people write a letter and read it out loud, but I wanted something more. A friend encouraged me to consider using something from the person’s heritage as a way to speak to them.

I thought about it, and settled on looking at my father’s heritage. I never knew him well, but I knew he grew up working-class in the Midwest and his ancestry included Catholics from Poland and Germany. When I thought about this, the rosary came to mind. I imagined women in dark houses centuries ago, murmuring the repetitive prayers over their dead.

I’d studied the Catholic rosary briefly in a course on world religions–the symbolism of it and how it parallels other rituals. Catholics pray the rosary regularly; there is nothing death-specific about it. But there’s a ritual, called a novena, that is used when someone wants to make a special effort of prayer for a person or a cause.

Novena comes from the Latin word for “nine.” When a Catholic makes a novena, they pray the entire rosary (not just the parts customary for a given night) for nine nights in a row.

I, in my naive enthusiasm and my desire to get this work done, decided that in honor of my dead I was going to make a novena. I got some beads and strung a primitive rosary; I looked up the prayer order and quantity online. I knew I would almost certainly do it wrong, but that was okay.

Before I was half done with the first night, I regretted my decision. The full rosary takes only a little over an hour for me to say once I get into the rhythm, but I had no idea how time would dilate while repeating the endless phrases. I’d feel ahead in the strand of beads I was using for counting, praying to encounter the knot telling me that this was the last or the second to last set of ten.

I did it, though. All nine nights. I did not often feel very spiritual about it, and it began to feel much more like a punishment than a healing ritual. I tried to see it as an exercise in following through and get past the part of me that felt stupid.

I learned a few things about prayer, though. I learned that repetitive prayers like this do, sometimes, get me into a useful meditative state (although it seems fifteen or twenty minutes would work better than an hour.) I learned that my mind wanders everywhere as I repeat the prayers, and I can track my biggest worries as they come and go. I learned that it feels really weird to find myself thinking about sex while I’m saying Ave Marias.

Now it’s finished. I have had no epiphany; I don’t feel lighter or freer except in the sense of being glad I’m now free to do as I please in the late evening. But I did it, and I did try to think of the people I was honoring.

I thought about a man who early lost a fight with unfavorable genes, toxic environment, addiction, and rage. A man who hurt others and never grew past a very narrow range of the spirit.

I thought about another man, similar though less abusive and dark, who also lost the fight, living and dying in our disease of addiction.

And, of course, I thought about a toddler who got taken from this plane of existence too early to know if he would have to fight against the same monster. Were you the lucky one, Johnny? I don’t know, but I remember you.

Goldilocks

I have come to the conclusion that Goldilocks is not an addict.

It’s not a difficult conclusion, really. It’s not that she is without issues, most notably a lack of personal boundaries or respect for those of others. But her behavior is clearly abnormal when observed from an addict’s perspective.

Come on–she samples two bowls of porridge and and finds the third one to be “just right.” She eats it. Satisfied, she goes and finds a nice place to take a nap.

What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she rummaging through the bears’ kitchen, trying to find more of that perfect stuff? Or trying to mix the hot and cold porridge to capture that “just right” again? Or just gulping down the hot and cold porridge, because it’s better than nothing? How is it possible that she is moving on?

As I write this, I’m several weeks into a food plan I’ve been resisting with the mental equivalent of kicking and screaming for many months. You see, in the past year I’ve alternated my very low-calorie weight loss plan with episodes of uncontrolled binge eating…and, after a lot of suffering, I weigh almost exactly what I weighed last January.

I have longed for sanity…but I wanted it on my terms. I wanted to take off some of the weight I had gained in the previous year, and then eat sanely. In early December, I admitted it wasn’t working. No matter what I want, I have to hear what my body is saying to me: I demand to be accepted and dealt with exactly as I am, and every time you starve me I will torture you with cravings until they bring on a balancing binge.

So I gave in. I wrote down a plan every day, involving specific amounts of healthful food. Real food, not weight loss shakes and artificially sweetened protein bars. I ate what I wrote down, no more and definitely no less.

In a week, I was virtually free of cravings. I felt stronger, calmer, my body ached less, and I seldom thought about food in between my planned meals. I had found the circle of grace…and it has lasted for nearly a month now. My body and mind have continued to send me messages amounting to “About time, dumbass!”

Great news, right? There’s just one problem–I am nothing like Goldilocks. The concept of moderation, of just right, of enough…my addict brain squirms in discomfort.

No quick gratification from fast weight loss? No resolutions to starve virtuously after the latest episode of overeating? No “tomorrow will be different?”

Weird.

I’m not new to this idea. I’ve written often about how foreign consistency feels to any addict, let alone one with bipolar disorder thrown into the mix. Acting too normal for too long; struggling to keep my self-care away from any concept of virtue or vice…yeah, that’s my strong suit.

Embracing, again, the severity of my eating disorder and my need for structure and surrender without discounting or sabotaging my other recovery…yeah, I’m great at balancing acts. My brain doesn’t ever whisper that food would be less of an issue if I took painkillers again, or that I wouldn’t be hungry at night if I took sleeping pills.

Accepting that this process will never end, and loving myself anyway? Sure, I don’t have any critical voices shouting that I should have done this years ago and stuck with it.

Being willing to write honestly about this aspect of me, no matter how much I am sick of dealing with it and no matter how much I fear being boring or repetitive? Sure, I don’t have any egotistical qualities urging me to make my struggles look cool or edgy.

Who am I kidding? There’s no way I can do this alone.
Oh, wait, I remember now…I’m not alone.

Lighthouse

There are many reasons I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder. There are many reasons I wish I weren’t an addict. None of them compare to the gut-wrenching regret about how these conditions affect my legacy to my daughter.

No matter how hard I tried to minimize the effects back when I was using painkillers, no matter how hard I tried to keep my mental issues from overcoming the good things in our relationship, it all had an impact. Today, there have been many improvements and I’m able to do a lot for her that wasn’t possible before.

However, some things don’t change. This incredible young woman still got issued a breathtakingly imperfect mother, and that’s not going to change. She sees me struggle with the large problems and the trivial ones. She sees me be inconsistent with self-care and the tasks of daily life; she sees me go through times of being weepy or rocking back and forth with anxiety or staring at the wall with a flat affect.

I try, as always, to strike a balance between honesty and appropriateness. I have enough observing ego to know when I’m in an episode, and we are matter-of-fact about them and the truth that they will pass.

I do not make a habit of beating myself up about these things, and I know I am passing on some important good messages to her. She sees me fail–but she always sees me try again. She sees me struggle with the impulses of my addictions–but she always sees me work humbly on my recovery. She sees me be sad–but she always, in an hour or day or week, witnesses me hauling myself up with the sheer power of imagination and metaphor. She sees me be down on myself–but she always sees me come back to a place of love and acceptance.

I’m teaching her that we fail, and the world doesn’t come to an end. I’m teaching her that there’s a way back from the dark places. I’m modeling humility, and perseverance, and the willingness to keep trying. I know this–but, like any parent, I want to be better. As a mother, as an addict in recovery, as a person who lives with mental health issues, I want to be a message of hope strong enough to accompany her through anything. I want her to see me fucking win.

I want to be an ever-present, shining beacon. I’m not.

I am a lighthouse.

I shine, and sometimes go dark, and shine again.

Do you know why lighthouses shine intermittently? It’s to help them stand out from stars, or airplanes, or lights from the shore. They catch the eye because of their changes.

I have no intention of taking this metaphor to the point of concluding that my daughter has a special snowflake of a mother whose light is actually better or more guiding than the steadier ones. I’m simply using this image to comfort myself, because it’s what I do.

Perhaps I can use the image to help me accept the truth more, and give myself permission to shine brightly when I shine. Does the lighthouse apologize for the dark period each time its light returns? What a waste of time and brilliance that would be!

Still In Recovery?

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a special women’s recovery event. Part of me didn’t want to show up–what else is new? I always want to wait until I can present the best version of myself. I want to wait until some magical moment of good health and behavior arrives and appear then, proclaiming “Look, I’m here, this is me! None of those other things are me!”

But I’d been invited, specifically, by a friend who knew I had no money for a ticket and offered me a place at her table anyway. It meant a lot to me, and I was determined not to flake out. So I showed up as I am, carrying the extra weight from my latest bout of self-destruction and the extra weepiness from my latest bout of depression. I did a load of laundry, and washed my hair. I couldn’t wear my jeans comfortably, but at least the yoga pants I did wear were clean.

Hearing women chat about their lives and the people they know, I felt the usual welcome shifts in perspective. My own problems felt a bit less overwhelming as I listened to those of others, and I had the usual–yet somehow always surprising–revelations about how little these women care about my own standards for myself.

Yes, I’d been struggling with food and money and depression. I wasn’t the only one. Others had been struggling with relationships, or battling cigarettes, or had new and serious health problems. There was just one battle we were all still winning at the moment: being drug addicts who were not using drugs.

On my keychain, I carry the medallion I got on my four-year anniversary of getting clean from drugs. If I stay the course, I’ll get a five-year one next May. Lately, it’s been harder and harder to take any joy in these things because I am so aware of the insanity I’m experiencing around food.

I’m well aware that in a different fellowship I’d just be considered in relapse, period. Periodically failing with the food would mean I’m no longer clean and shouldn’t be counting any anniversaries. I don’t choose to go by these rules for a few reasons, the most important one being that it’s nearly killed me in the past by creating a “might as well” attitude and encouraging me to use drugs again. Now, I choose to keep my anniversary, despite the eating-related insanity I have experienced off and on in the last four years. I choose to believe that staying off of drugs matters enough to be acknowledged.

That being said, it’s important for me to admit to myself when I’m in relapse mode. Insane behavior with food is diagnostic for me, and it’s not very compatible with the values of recovery. If I’m binge eating to punish myself or drown my anxiety, I’m probably not using a lot of spiritual tools at the moment. So even as I hold on to my accomplishment of staying clean, I need the humility of admitting that my life is in relapse mode lately. That I need help, need to put my program first more often, need to admit I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s said that abstinence does not equal recovery. I, like any addict, can be free of my best-known demon but making myself insane with another behavior. Looking around that room at the tables of women, I knew that each of us fell somewhere in the gray zone between living in our disease and living fully in recovery.

Am I still in recovery? Are you? Where is the line?

I can’t tell you the answer, but I can tell you about the moment I let go of the question for the rest of the day.

“Have you seen ******** lately?” a woman asked.
“She went out,” another woman answered sadly.

Out. It’s what we call it when a person disappears. Stops answering their phone. Eventually, maybe, someone hears something. Friends might try to track them down, but there’s often not much that can be done until the time is right. We wait, and pray we will see them again.

I felt the usual wave of sadness, the woman’s face vivid in my mind. I looked around the room and wished she were here with us instead of where she was.

The Stiff-Bristled Brush

So many memories that come into my head are vague. It takes concentration to bring them into sharper definition, and sometimes I don’t want to. A memory is most vivid when it includes several of the senses, and the senses beyond sight and sound are usually the ones that come when I concentrate.

Recently, I did a poetry exercise with the prompt “Skin.” What came out catapulted me into recalling a time when my skin was trying very hard to save my life.

When you think about the stereotypical picture of a drug addict, bad skin might be part of it. Some common drugs like meth produce a tendency to pick at skin, and injectable drugs can lead to abscesses. I didn’t have these particular skin issues: what I had was intense itching, which can be a side effect of opiates.

The stiff-bristled hairbrush was a part of my life more than four years ago, during the peak months of my using before my last trip to rehab. I had no idea, then, just how sick I was. The amount of pills I was taking must have had my metabolism struggling to maintain itself. My periods had gotten irregular, and my hair was beginning to come out. I had injuries from falling down while trying to get from my bed to the bathroom. I routinely threw up from drug-induced nausea, only to take more of the same drug.

Opiates and opioids depress the body’s reflexes, including the one that says the default action is to keep breathing. A respiratory arrest from overdose is the most common way for an addict to die.

It is said that the itching that often occurs with these drugs is an attempt by the body to arouse itself from the “everything is fine, no need to spend energy on this pesky breathing thing” state. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know for sure whether this is true, but it makes sense to me.

What I know is sometimes that hairbrush was the only thing that got me moving. It was what I used to scrub my skin everywhere I could reach, leaving red and white lines and patches all over myself. Its bristles were black, and so hard they seemed more suitable for a horse than a human.

Yes, I thought about that brush the other day. I closed my eyes and let myself sink into the memory–the dusty nightstand it rested on; the bed beside it in the dim bedroom. Drawn drapes, always drawn. A huge heap of old paperback books (read while waiting for the latest dose to kick in) scattered on the floor beside the bed. Against the nearby wall, a larger pile of unwashed laundry. The dirty bathroom with its seldom-used shower and the bottles of pills hidden in the drawers.

There are obvious reasons it’s useful to remember this time in my life. When I’m overwhelmed with the desire to retreat or escape, I need to remember the price and the parts of the scenario that involve giving up huge chunks of my humanity, not to mention the parts about being on the edge of resigning from the breather’s club. It’s good to make a point, as I sit here writing this, of looking my sometimes-neglected but no longer actively abused skin.

But it’s not only that. I also want to keep the recall clear simply because it was an experience I had. I was there, and it happened; I don’t want it to be a diffuse blur or treat it as just a gap in my life’s resume.

The Turtle Cried

Magic works undercover. Important moments aren’t always recognized as they are happening. They don’t look important, or feel important, or have any obvious effect right away.

It was eight o’clock on a Monday morning in May of 2011. For me, it was the morning of day 4 in rehab and day 6 with no painkillers.

At this particular facility, we were supposed to strip our beds every Monday morning and change the sheets. I was able to get the sheets off, but while leaning over and struggling with getting the new fitted sheet on I triggered my lower back pretty badly. My default pain level spiked, and I rolled onto my back gasping. Then I started to cry, scaring my roommate a bit until I caught my breath. I laid still for ten minutes or so, then I managed to get up and she helped me get the sheet on.

I cried because my back hurt a lot; because the screwdriver that always seemed to be jammed into my lower left spine had been brutally twisted.

I cried because I knew this meant I faced another long day of fidgeting in chairs during classes and group.

I cried because I felt humiliated at being sprawled sideways on a bed not my own, ungainly as a turtle on its back, weeping.

I cried because I missed my family; because I would have given anything to hear their voices asking if I was all right or to have our dog jump up on the bed and sniff at me quizzically.

I cried because I didn’t want to be 45 and in rehab.

So what made this moment magical? Why do I remember it well? It certainly wasn’t the first, or last, time I cried in treatment. It was only one of many times I had to experience intense feelings.

I realize now that it feels magical to me because it marked one of the first signs that this recovery thing might really be different for me this time.

The moment was a moment in which I was not making any excuses. Not rationalizing anything. Not trying to find a way out, or blame someone else, or making a plan for it to get better. I was expressing distress in the moment, but I wasn’t trying to escape the moment. Nor was I trying to escape the day ahead, or the realities that had led me here. I wasn’t telling myself that it wasn’t that bad.

For the addict I am, and especially for the addict I was then, that is truly a phenomenon worth remembering.

My whole life was about escaping my thoughts, my pain, my feelings, and my responsibilities. I could and did rationalize constantly to make what I was doing seem like logic, or not that bad, or at least the lesser of evils. The real or perceived ordeal of my days led to a nightly ritual of retreat; a ritual enacted during the day whenever possible as time went on.

I’m not immune to this mindset now, by any means. I struggle with it every day, with varying degrees of success. I fall into it more when my stress level is high, so it’s up a lot lately.

Today I remember that unmade bed, that muscle spasm, and those tears because I need that simplicity. I need it badly, and I broke through into some of it yesterday. I broke through, perhaps more so than I have in many months, and even as I write this I feel near tears with a sensation of relief and gratitude.

What brought me here? Several things, possibly; perhaps I’ll write more about them later. It was no effort of mine. I’ve been trying to fight the good fight; I’ve made lots of efforts, but I did not climb some mountain or solve some puzzle. I didn’t “figure out” how to return to that magic circle.

The turtle cried, and the circle appeared around me.