Addiction Road (A Very Personal Story)

Hi. It’s me, X, the guy who learned the hard lesson of discovering that I’m as stupid as anyone else. We’re all stupid; we take turns wearing the dunce cap. Mine fits a little too well. It opened my eyes to blind corners in my periphery, ones I was responsible for and failed to illuminate.

That’s my teddy bear in the picture. My friend Leigh gave it to me as a surprise when I was in the hospital. I named it Azon, short for “corazon” in Spanish. (It has a heart on its chest.) Because I didn’t want to breach her privacy, I didn’t say before that my ex-wife Dawn came to the ER and stayed there until 1 a.m. when the surgeons cut me open. She got to experience the joy of watching me throw up countless times, roll around on the cement floor, and semi-scream/groan at least five hundred times. Not many ex-wives would do that, especially with the rawness of the divorce so close. I won’t forget the kindness. Neither of us will forget the spectacle. It’s important to note that such kindness is the most difficult when we’re hurt. I’m not a Christian, but it’s as close to the ideal of “do unto others” as you’ll likely find. If she needed to see me suffer to get over the stupidity I put her through, this should adequately fill the need.

Life looks different when you’re older, after making mistakes and watching people around you mystify you with their decisions. When I was younger, I had an anger that has dissolved into recognition that I, too, contained slivers of the demons that possessed them. I’m grateful that I’ve avoided most of the dreck that worsened their lives. As a bystander, though, I paid the price.

I’m writing to a specific subset of friends and family, ones who might not otherwise see something like this and realize they have someone in their lives who needs attention.

There can be no preambulation or proverbial beating around the bushes. Time is short, even if you don’t realize it.

I wrote this with love in my heart; I’ve learned that my imperfectionism often jabs people unexpectedly, no matter my intentions. I’ve crossed the line a little by sharing parts of my experience that overlap with other people. It’s risky, but it’s also the most rewarding. Someone is going to read this and have a light bulb go off in their head.

Because of my history, I have a lot of experience around addiction. An inherent danger of such exposure is to fall into the hole, believing oneself incapable of succumbing to something that always originates with free will and repeated choices. Every addict started with no intention of losing themselves in the abyss and misery of addiction. Addiction is a byproduct, not a goal. I also hated to SEE that though I’ve acquired significant experience with addiction, my ability to pivot and behave differently in response to those in the throes of addiction hasn’t necessarily improved. I’m as helpless and stupid as the next guy when confronted with someone in my sphere who won’t “snap out of it.” When friends or family members ask for advice, you’d think I would be one of the most qualified people to answer.

Why should we shake our heads so violently at addicts? Most of us become obese, smoke, or routinely engage in detrimental behavior. We say, “It hasn’t killed me yet!” That’s true. Just as in the case of addiction, we don’t address our misbehavior until we are forced to. Addiction becomes unmanageable due to money, exposed behavior, or a decline in physical health. Addiction to things like heroin brings consequences more quickly than our national pastime of alcoholism.

In case you didn’t know, I drink. I love a good beer (and many bad ones, which many people claim tastes like dog urine), whiskey over ice, or vodka and sweet & sour. Oh, and wine, champagne, port, and several other things. Luckily for me, my like didn’t devolve into an unquenching thirst for it. I recognize how few punches it might take to drag me toward danger. I’ve experienced risk factors such as loneliness or uncertainty.

I’ll tell you a secret: no matter who you are, someone in your sphere has a secret addiction. Some take years to escalate to a point where the secrecy can no longer be maintained. Missing work, a DUI, increased self-isolation, loss of health, financial issues; these are but a few of the symptoms. By the time you note the signs, it’s challenging to pull someone away from it. In reality, you almost can’t. All such changes must start with the person in question. The harder you attempt to use logic and appeals, the more defensive the addiction becomes. They’ll appreciate the love and concern WHEN and IF they overcome their addiction. Until then, you’re just another person pointing a finger and drawing attention to their secret; disloyalty is always grounds for rejection. The agony of it is that if you love them, you’re powerless to resist the urge to try. That’s the bittersweet tendrils of love at work. It’s why I wrote the Bystander’s Prayer. All answers are unworkable. Until they’re not. Those who escape addiction look back and feel so much regret for what they’ve done to themselves and the agony of pushing away loved ones in preference to something they couldn’t escape. If the addict fails to survive, the friends and family always suffer regret.

For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m susceptible to addiction. Part of it stems from my childhood. Studies have shown that abuse and exposure to neglect or addiction hugely impact the likelihood of someone being an addict. My full siblings, parents, cousins, several aunts and uncles, at least two grandparents all suffer(ed) from addiction. For instance, I don’t have a single family member I know of who successfully stopped being an alcoholic. A few of them vilified me for my rejection of being around those who used alcohol to justify destroying their lives and those around them. It was a difficult road when I was younger. Addicts despise perceived disloyalty most of all. I was loudly disloyal and judgmental as hell. Part of that responsibility is on me. In my defense, the very environment that almost killed me taught me the lesson of escape, one I only partially implemented.

Paradoxically, I understand the addicts in my family much better than I did when I was young. As I’ve grown older, I’ve witnessed such a vast spectrum of people fail to “pull up” as their addictions wrapped themselves into their lives. It’s not about being intelligent, rich, having a family, or a good job. Addiction cuts a blind swath. I see many people doubt that their loved one or friend is addicted. They focus on the superficiality of there having been no crash. Yet. I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I can see the allure of yielding to something that gives dangerous comfort.

For years, I’ve known that addiction would be an easy road for me. As much as I got angry at my sister for her more outlandish behavior with the rougher end of the drug spectrum, I watched in horror and regret as my brother chose the traditional and cleverly hidden method to reach his addiction. He chose the slow way of drinking excessively for years. He lost his job, his health, and he died much too soon. I lost him as a brother more than once on his journey. He was as intelligent as any human I’ve ever known. Truthfully, his intelligence made any attempt to address his alcoholism dangerous and impossible. Like so many others, he had a massive wall of rationalizations to explain why he did what he did. That people fiercely loved him had little impact on his behavior. He used it to create an anger shield. I could have been him with just the wrong push. I see the arc of his progression differently now. I have a lot of regrets. Equally valid is that his addiction and intelligence outmatched me. Every course of action I chose to deal with him was turned into a fantasy of aggression.

My cousin Jimmy, who I loved, struggled with alcoholism his entire adult life. Both of his parents ultimately died from it. Cancer got Jimmy; had he lived longer, I would have loved seeing him beat his love of alcohol. I think he would have. It’s no irony that the job he loved best was for a beer distributor. He loved that job.

Recently, I posted my Bystander’s Prayer, one which outlines the grief of those around someone suffering from addiction. No matter how intelligent you are, no one owns a playbook that effectively helps us reach out to someone at the bottom of the well. I wrote it for my brother but finished it for others who were peering down into their own well, helpless, afraid, but possessed by a love that compelled them to try. Thank god for love, even as it stings as mightily as any emotion can.

Most of us approach the issue of addiction as if it is a logical one. It’s not. It’s not genuinely emotional, either. It’s a strange, impossible alchemy of pain that resists easy confrontation. Most of us walk toward the battle with underserved confidence and a lack of appreciation for how powerful addiction is. Words will not work. Love will not work. Love compels us, though. The addict can’t see our intrusion as love. It’s one of our most significant errors when we try to encourage someone to change.

People suffering from addiction loathe attention. Secrecy and omissions govern their lives. So much of a person’s life begins to tighten in on itself like a series of perverse and elliptical constrictions. Sunlight itself serves as a living metaphor for how reduced a person can become. The next black buzz or unrestrained and unseen high becomes its own reward, excluding more and more as it tightens. People, friends and loved ones alike, get flung off the carousel.

Addicts need time alone with the thing that gives them the most comfort. As the addiction grows, time and energy directed to friends, work, and loved ones diminish. Addiction is a zero-sum game; its presence removes vibrancy and connection from lives. It reduces the possibility of a full life. This results in loved ones feeling an increasing emptiness and drives them to greater heights to “get through” to the addict.

For those who don’t suffer from addiction, it’s hard for us to imagine it. We foolishly believe that it is a question of willpower or intelligence. It’s not. Addiction is the parasite that wills its victim to the next high. It is the worst of diseases: it is both physical and mental.

Alcohol is a painkiller, just like other drugs. It grants oblivion from the shortfalls or pain that the addict experiences. All addictions are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Even addicts know this. But the pursuit ensues, no matter how dark of a road it leads someone. If anyone has trauma in their past, it’s that much harder for them to give up the relief of the high to face a drug-free existence. Drugs and alcohol allow us to shortcut our way to temporary oblivion. I viscerally understand the temptation. I’ve been on guard about it most of my adult life.

Prescription painkillers are so popular because they inexplicably don’t carry the same stigma as using street drugs or liquor. There’s no distinction in terms of the effects, though. Usage of prescription drugs continues to rise. I don’t see it abating.

Most people don’t become addicts, even if they try drugs or alcohol. This fact confuses many people who’ve done drugs or drink lightly without falling into addiction. They fail to see that their brain chemistry, environment, or circumstances are not the same as that of an addict. Willpower and motivation do affect people’s tendency to fall into addiction. They are bit players in the drama, though. I won’t go into the complicated realm of brain chemistry or trauma. Science clouds the essential truth of why some are prone to addiction while others are not.

An addiction is ANYthing that grants temporary relief or pleasure yet causes later harm. And even if you’re aware of the effects, you can’t stop. It can be shopping, work, sex, food, and several other things. I’m just addressing the common usage of the word.

I learned from experience that addicts resist connections and thoughtful concern. Even mundane expressions of affection, much less pointed inquiries about someone’s well-being, can be catalysts to rejection. There is no subtle way to ask how an addict is doing without significant risk of being flung away.

With addicts, a straightforward thing you can and should do is learn the habit of lifelining. If you’re not familiar with lifelining, it’s just a word to encompass letting people know that you are, at a minimum, still alive – or available if you have an addict in your periphery.

Addicts who survive the ordeal also face the backlash of loved ones who endured anger and pain due to the addiction. It takes a long time for people to forgive such damage. Many families are forever torn. Forgiveness is a personal choice.

The pandemic accelerated drug use and alcoholism. Isolation is a precursor to more people succumbing to addiction. We had a record number of people overdose last year. We don’t have the statistics yet to know how many more chose to drink to quench the loneliness and hurt of their lives. People are social creatures, and addiction thrives on secrecy. Depression is also on the rise. It’s often a close cousin to addictive behaviors.

Again, you have a person in your life, closer than you’d imagine, who needs a little extra love and attention. There is time to attempt to reach them. Don’t be surprised if your hand gets bitten. It’s the first step.

Even as addiction rises, we don’t provide people treatment. We stigmatize them. Even with excellent health insurance, many plans will only pay for 10% of the cost, if at all. Everyone else? They have to destroy their health and lives to get help.

We all wish love would prevail.

Love, X

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