Tag Archives: Alcoholism

The Watch-Fires


Damn, it’s been hard to know what to write here lately. I shut down completely for the two weeks or so following the election–not proud of it, but every bit of energy and strength I had was going into not doing stupid and irreversible things to myself. Then there was Thanksgiving to get through.

I’ve been writing and discarding multiple essays in my head. There’s so much I could say, about so many subjects. So many populations for which I fear. But the thing that is helping me sit down and write today is a return to my most basic principles: what is the purpose of Not This Song?

Well, the main non-selfish purpose is trying to make others feel less alone in navigating difficult lives, with an emphasis on a few particular conditions. If I go back to this, I can rein in the part of me that thinks I have to write everything. I don’t need to discuss specific issues right now. I need to support those that are doing so, but my work has a different focus. I don’t need to change anyone’s mind about anything outside the confines of their own psyche.

So what I want to say is: Are you okay?

What are you doing to take care of yourself? What is helping you? If you are disabled, what is helping you resist the voice that makes you feel guilty for not being able to do as much as others? If you are an addict, what is helping you resist using? If you have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions, what is helping you not go there?

What I want to say is: if you have things that are helping, do them. Do them as much as you need to. Don’t you dare tell yourself you have to earn them by doing things you aren’t able to do at the moment. If you don’t have anything, seek help in finding something. Easier said than done, I know, but just keep the option in mind. Don’t you dare tell yourself that you don’t deserve it because others are suffering more. You can’t help them if you aren’t here a month or year from now.

I won’t tell you things are going to be all right. I’m just continuing to operate on my basic premise that giving up is not a good option. Given that, it makes sense to do what is necessary to stick around. We will all operate in different ways and at different speeds. Some of us find action is the best soother and we’re already out there. Others, like me, are taking weeks or more to get back to a non-dangerous level of functioning. It’s okay. Yes, I admit that’s much easier to say to you than to myself, but I mean it.

One of my favorite metaphors for the inside of my mind is a small village, in a jungle, at night. This particular jungle is full of terrifying creatures that attack the village frequently. The creatures stand for any malign influence on my psyche, whether external or self-created. Messages of shame, terror, despair, envy, compulsion, apathy, nihilism, and everything else destructive. It doesn’t matter if they are from childhood, from media distortions, or from real-world catastrophe…if they get in, the effect on my psychic strength will be the same. The village is circled with a defensive ring of watch-fires and a guard of warriors. The warriors will fight whatever gets in, but they need the fires to be able to see it. The fires also keep much at bay just with their light and heat.

When things are not going well, I imagine the attack. I can almost hear the cries of the warriors and the snarls of the beasts. As I consciously concentrate on generating opposite thoughts to combat the destructive attack, I imagine positive turns in the battle. Most of all, I imagine the fires blazing more and more brightly.  If I am taking good enough care of myself to do any regular meditation, I visit the fires and add fuel to them. Fuel, of course, is made up of things that make me remember why I want to win the battles. Music, poetry, experiences of love, beauty, every non-linear belief I have…the fires need them to burn.

Right now, the fires are low and the jungle is crowded with danger. And I know that, too far away for me to see, other villages also fear the darkness. I hope you’ll try to feed your watch-fires, as I try to feed mine. Only if we survive the nights of our spirit will we be there to give anything during the days.

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.

What Do You Do?

There are few questions that I dread like this one.
There are few places more guaranteed to produce this question than a reunion.

I graduated with my counseling degree in 2005. Last weekend I attended the ten-year reunion of my small cohort of classmates, knowing that my answer to “What do you do?” or “What have you been doing?” would be, to say the least, uncomfortable.

Here’s my timeline of the last ten years:

2005-2008: A few internships and a job from hell. A slow slide into worsening mental and physical health, combined with gradually increasing use of painkillers.
2009: First hospitalization for major bipolar episode. Later, first visit to detox and treatment for painkiller addiction.
2010: Worsening depression, exacerbated by heavy bipolar meds. Relapsed on painkillers by autumn.
2011: Extreme addictive behavior, near-death in May followed by rehab.
2011-2015: Recovery, working on living with a dual diagnosis, homeschooling, beginning to write.

It’s not the kind of resume I hoped for when I graduated. I was prouder of that degree than I’d been about any other educational achievement, because it was purchased not only with work but with extensive pain and personal growth. I dreamed about being a therapist, and I thrilled to compliments from my teachers and moments of rapport with my clients.

Many of my classmates are licensed therapists now, and those who aren’t have reasons way cooler than mine. I did not want to look them in the face and explain why I am not a part of the professional community now.

So why did I go?
Why did I answer the dreaded questions truthfully?
Why did I answer not only truthfully, but completely?
It would have been simple to soften the impact by telling partial truths.

I could have said I was homeschooling my daughter, and talked about why, and let them assume that’s what I had been doing for most of the last years.
I could have said I experienced the onset of bipolar disorder, and not mentioned the drugs.

But I didn’t. I talked freely about all of it–the drugs, the psych treatment, the daughter, the recovery, the poetry, this site. I tried to present myself authentically, without being apologetic.

There are two reasons I showed up and said what I said. The first reason is simple: These are some great people, and I regret losing touch with a few of them. My values of humility require that I make myself more available to others and worry less about what they will think about me.

The second reason is, of course, you.

You, the person reading this, whoever you are. You, with your own insecurities that might make you believe you’re not good enough to go out and talk with people you think are more successful, educated, together, virtuous…you, who might not be sure you have something to offer.

Because I know very little in my life, especially when my symptoms get bad, but I know this: No matter who you are or what your story is, I would have encouraged you to go to that reunion.

I would have told you to go, and meet their eyes, and be who you are without apology. I would have reminded you that you are no more or less worthy than any other soul; that you have you to offer. I would have reminded you that something you might say, or just be, could help or inspire someone in ways you’ll never know.

So I acted on that belief. I might not have gone there for myself, but I went there for you. If it was a brave thing to do, it was you that made me brave.

Thank you.

Never So Simple

There’s been a lot of buzz online in the past week about addiction. An article published in the Huffington Post (“The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” by Johann Hari) is claiming to have reduced the causes of all addiction to cultural and social factors. The article has garnered many responses, both positive and negative. While most welcome the attention drawn to environmental factors, some worry about the dismissive attitude toward medical aspects and current methods of treatment.

I’m not going to write a long, academic rebuttal to the article, even though I do agree with some others that a certain amount of cherry-picking was done in the studies quoted. In putting forth the primary point, the author tended to pooh-pooh some facts about the genetic propensity for certain types of addiction: a concrete physical phenomenon present despite environmental factors. The author ignores the physical reality of the addicted body and brain when he claims the problem to be solely cultural and psychological.

That’s the part I don’t buy…the idea that everyone who has enough healthful connection in their life could use in moderation. There are those who can’t. There just are, and you can therapize them to death and not make moderate users out of them. Abstinence seems to be necessary for their healing. And, if these people start to experience better circumstances and closer connections, beginning to use leads rapidly to losing them.

It’s not that I don’t respect the intended spirit of the article: I do! I agree completely that lack of connection is a primary element in addictive cycles. It’s one reason recovery fellowships exist and are promoted as important in recovery: we need community, and sometimes these are the easiest places for an addict to find it. Even the spiritual quest suggested in these groups is, after all, just another type of connection. If there were other widespread and easily found networks of recovery, I’m sure many would choose them. But, for historical reasons, the 12-step fellowships are still the largest (and cheapest) option.

I agree with the article’s call to change in the USA’s attitude toward drugs and addiction…parts of the system are broken. I once met a man who has three sons, all serving 25 to life for nonviolent offenses solely related to drug possession. Broken, clearly.

But turning the article into a condemnation of all the work that’s been done–and simplifying its premise into an entire re-interpretation of addiction in general–is a mistake. It ignores the work so many professionals are doing, and the caring they put into it, and the positive changes they have made in the last decades. And it ignores the work those in recovery do for themselves.

Let’s look at just one addict out of so many I’ve seen. One day I watched this man celebrate one year clean, congratulated by his recovery friends. He was a big guy who’d had a rough life. He’d done time, had the prison tats and such. After about a month of treatment, he’d thrown himself into his local fellowship and managed to stay clean by spending a lot of time working a program.

His life’s still rough. Nobody’s fixed the cultural and economic problems that set him up to start using, or made life without using suck. You might think the chances of him staying clean forever are slim…and, statistically speaking, you might be right. But think about this, even if there’s good reason to be cynical about his long-term chances.

Think about what this year might have meant to his family. For a year, his children lived in less fear. Because he could hold a job, they had better food and clothes. Maybe they didn’t witness violence, or see the police come to their house. Maybe he, or their mother, was able to give them some attention that wasn’t divided by the drama of addiction-related chaos.

Think about what this year meant to you, as a member of his community.
For a year, this man wasn’t breaking into your house and taking your things. For a year, you weren’t in danger of being terrorized at gunpoint by him. There was one less driver under the influence sharing the road with you and your children. Your tax dollars weren’t paying to feed and supervise him in custody, or pump his stomach in the ER, or cover the costs of his court proceedings.

It matters, goddamn it. As imperfect as it is, it matters, and so do the other chunks of recovery other addicts are managing. Take the new perspectives emerging about addiction and incorporate them into a balanced view–but don’t sneer at those who are doing their best. Remember that few things about humans have only one explanation, or only one solution.

We Are the Kings of Tokyo

There’s a new game my family received as a holiday gift. We’ve played it many times now; it’s called King of Tokyo.

In King of Tokyo, each player takes on the role of a monster from those old-style movies featuring some type of huge rubber thing devastating the city. You roll dice to determine damage, healing, chance to buy special abilities, and victory points, the object being to reach a given number of points or be the last monster alive.

Here’s the thing: A certain spot is defined as Tokyo, and only one monster can be occupying it at a time. That monster gets extra points each turn they remain.

If you are in Tokyo, all attacks by the monsters outside Tokyo can only damage you.

If you are in Tokyo, all attacks you roll do simultaneous damage to every monster outside the city.

It reminded me (as many things do) of the destructive nature of addiction. What it does to us, to our families, to our friends. Therapists are taught about family systems, and how different family members can take on certain roles. When one member’s behavior gets worse or better, it affects everyone.

A person active in their addiction is like the monster in Tokyo. The damage he or she does is a barrage, hitting multiple targets without discrimination. Those around the person might or might not be hostile, but their energy is probably directed into the center of the circle.

You know what else is interesting? The monster currently in Tokyo is unable to do any healing of itself, even if the dice roll would usually allow it. So it stays there, the center of the universe, growing sicker and weaker and continuing to do damage…sound familiar?

The damage of addiction, manifesting in more ways than we realize. Some of it’s obvious when it leads to violence, or legal trouble. Some of it’s obvious when we look at financial problems. But there’s so much more. The damage of neglect, total or partial. Of closed doors and half-assed participation and phoning things in. The damage of modeling toxic or despairing attitudes for children. The damage of a void where the life we could be living belongs.

So how does a monster get out of Tokyo? Is there a way, or is it trapped forever? No. Whenever the monster in Tokyo takes damage, it has the choice to flee the city and let the attacking monster take it over. If the player feels they’ve taken too much damage now and are in need of healing, they leave. If they don’t think so yet, and still think the payoff in points they are getting is worth the danger, they stay.

As addicts, we don’t tend to “flee Tokyo” if things are going well. We flee when we’ve taken damage recently, and become desperate enough to acknowledge that we need help. Or–ambivalent–we stay, not wanting to let go of those bonus points we think we need.

In recovery, especially if we make it past the earliest stages and rack up a little time, we discover that–even though we are doing it by means other than substances–trying to level Tokyo works less and less well for us. We do not thrive in the center of the universe, and the consequences of putting ourselves there show up more quickly.

The game–and the fun metaphor–came at a good time for me, as I finished floundering through the holidays and tried to begin some healing from the way December went for me. How do I get out of Tokyo, and begin to heal? How do I tear myself free of self-absorption and shame?

Ummm…why am I phrasing it as “I do this” and “I do that?” Have I forgotten it isn’t just me? Have I forgotten that I have a spirituality that can help; one I can’t do well without? Of course I’ve forgotten. That’s what I do. I forget…and then I remember. And, if I’m ready to, I look toward the path out of Tokyo–a path trampled by something bigger and more powerful than I am.

One Year, Two Stories

Let me tell you about two women I know, and what kind of year they had.

Susan didn’t have a good year. In fact, 2014 sucked for her. Susan is kind of a loser, and 2014 was just another in a long line of years in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to be something else.
Susan fought a losing battle with a mental illness, repeatedly failing to be as productive as she longed to be or relate to other people the way she longed to do. She was lazy and self-absorbed, allowing her depression to keep her from reaching out to others.
Susan was, at best, a mediocre parent. She failed to do so many things she could have done to improve her daughter’s life, and the efforts she did make were inconsistently performed.
She also failed miserably at her efforts to maintain and improve her health. She gained almost 35 pounds this year, a little at a time, by falling to her compulsions and engaging in horrific sessions of self-destructive eating. When she did get her act together, it didn’t last, and she reenacted her lifelong pattern of failure in this arena.
Her efforts to be creative were laughably underpowered. She neglected countless opportunities to spread her work, make contacts, submit efforts and deepen her knowledge.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Just thinking about Susan’s year makes me feel exasperated and tired. I really wish she would get out of this rut and work harder next year.


Then there’s Mary. I admire Mary because she worked really hard this year. Mary is a person with a special inner quality that makes her willing to keep trying, using humility and courage to come back to the game no matter how many times she loses a round.
Mary learned a lot more about her mental illness this year, and continued to grow in both awareness and acceptance. She left her comfort zone many times, doing things that made her anxious or afraid in an effort to improve her life or the life of others.
Mary sat with her daughter and taught her about subjects ranging from Shakespeare to the Napoleonic Wars to algebra. Mary was a mother she could, and did, come to if she felt anxious at two in the morning. Mary made it possible for her daughter to get a more accurate diagnosis for some of her health issues. Mary overcame her phobias and insecurity to call, write, and meet with people to advocate for her daughter’s education, and thanks to Mary her daughter is doing better and making friends.
Despite some really tough struggles with her eating disorder, and the panic and despair they caused, Mary continued her years-long abstinence from drugs. In doing so, she broke a very old pattern of alternating the intensity of these two addictions and making it impossible to progress in healing either. She did not let financial fears, pain, shame, intense depression, bipolar symptoms, or loneliness drive her to put drugs in her body. She showed up for meetings and service positions even when she desperately wanted to hide.
Mary wrote many essays and poems this year, continuing to unearth this neglected part of herself. Some of them encouraged or inspired other people, and all of them enacted the precious ritual of creating something from nothing. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Go Mary. Hope next year is even better.

So, how obvious is it to you that Susan and Mary are the same person?
And that they’re both me?

Crafting these two stories is part of a technique I once studied called narrative therapy. A person is encouraged to “spin” the story of their lives or an event in two or more different ways, noticing just how different in content and tone the stories end up being. It shows us how we filter our lives inside our heads, emphasizing or deemphasizing things to fit a storyline a part of us has already decided. It shows us that the things we think about ourselves are, indeed, a kind of story, and encourages us to experiment with different writing styles.

What story do you tell yourself about 2014, and how is it slanted?
Does it need any alternate versions?

Happy New Year.