As promised, as part of my writer’s hustle to support a family scholarship, here is another article in a series.
First, a bit about who I am, and a bit about who I am not. I am a sober alcoholic, clean and sober two years this coming May if I don’t fuck it up. I have a good life today. I come from a large family who drank and drugged throughout my childhood, and I share my writings about this, and about my life today, trusting it will help you to read a bit – and hoping my personal and public information won’t be used for exploitive or hurtful purposes. One of my passions is working with and helping other alcoholics and addicts, as well as their families and friends, and to that end I pen this piece.
I am not a therapist, doctor, social expert, or chemical dependency counselor. I am merely an addict who works daily in the field with many other addicts. I don’t earn money or a professional reputation, and I’m not trying to sell you anything. So: there. Those are my qualifications, or lack thereof.
As I see it today, here are some things I wish more people knew about addiction.
Everyone has an addiction – or several. YOU are addicted.
One of the most interesting things about substance abuse is how quickly people want to be on one side of the fence with this. “We” aren’t as bad as “They” are. ”Poor so-and-so, her father was a such-and-such.” “I like a drink – but I’m not an alcoholic.” Even the most honest of those who admit they might indulge a little too much are very loathe to have their behaviors pathologized or even remotely subject to criticism (as the refrigerator magnet says, “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings. Drunks go to parties.”)
Addiction is not relegated to narcotics we might put into our body. Gambling, eating disorders, codependency, rage, self-harm are all examples of process addictions and behavioral illnesses that can be as deadly as a heroin habit (and not just to the individual with the behaviors; I have a close friend who ran over someone while driving and in the throes of food-binging). When you become willing to see similarities instead of differences, and when you become curious about your own addictions (rather than frightened of or ashamed of them or actively resisting the label No Matter The Evidence), you are beginning a wonderful journey of self-discovery and healing. So very many people never get to this place at all!
Finally: addiction is a continuum. The things we do compulsively and obsessively rarely start off with a bang, but instead creep up on us, progressing quickly or very slowly. They are as personal as a snowflake and to my mind, as beautiful too! Recognizing our compulsions and obsessions with great kindness and curiosity is a wonderful way to ensure they do not metastasize into something incredibly harmful.
Another person’s addiction has nothing to do with you.
When we think “addiction” we usually think of another person, or persons. At this moment I invite you to realize you will never, ever, wrest control of another person’s addiction and their pathway to healing, if they ever find one. Addiction is one of the most personal experiences I can attempt to describe; it is as personal as sex, as parenthood, as childhood, as our deeply-held moral or spiritual convictions - and it encompasses all those things, as well. When you meet someone in addiction who tells you they are in addiction, recognize they are handing you a gift, almost as if they offered to let you paint them in the nude. You can be confused, terrified, or repulsed – but remember, it is not all about you and if you act like it is, you are missing a tremendous opportunity.
Your addiction has everything to do with you.
No one can diagnose you an addict in any meaningful, lasting way; even if they did, you could continue to resist this as much as you like. I have seen people resist the awareness and admission of addiction to the most astonishing lengths; conversely, I have seen those who’ve only felt “the first nip of the wringer” demonstrate profound awareness of their addiction. Addiction is personal; you are an addict when, and only when, you say it and know it for yourself. As the phrase goes, when you “fully concede to [y]our innermost [self]” (and I’m going to add, when you admit it to another human being). In my story so far, one such moment of concession was both the worst in my life, and my most sublime.
This profound necessity of self-diagnosis is, to reiterate, true of other people, even those you might lie awake wishing they would only wake up and see. They will see when they are ready. The question is, are you ready to see what you need to see?
If you’re not getting help, you can’t be much help.
There are plenty of resources for discovering the nature of one’s own addictions and taking that first step in learning to care for them; there are plenty of resources for learning how we can help the addicted in our lives. To name a few: yoga, a variety of forms of spirituality or religion, meditation, counseling, reading, behavioral therapy, and avocational peer-work. Personally, I caution against relying wholeheartedly on anything that involves you paying a professional. I also believe altruistic peer-work to be the most effective strategy (although I have utilized all others listed here). With regards to substance abuse, or imbedded troubling familial patterns, 12 Step groups and Al-Anon (which is a 12-Step group for the families and friends of the addicted) are often regarded as one of the most effective and widely available peer resources to help – not to mention, participation is free. My husband and I are both members of Al-Anon which thrives even in our relatively small community.
Remember, it is more difficult to ask for help if you are invested in the self-soothing act of arrogance.
Here are a few practical tips if you’re having trouble with the whole Existential, “we are all addicted” stuff. This is kind of the section of, “please don’t make life Shit for other people unnecessarily, while you’re bumbling about with the rest of us trying to find the way”:
Please, stop calling people tweakers, junkies, crack-whores, drunks, whatever – even in jest. How individuals refer to themselves is their own business – not yours (although if you’re curious feel free, if the relationship is appropriate to do so, to ask why they use the terminology they do). Even in cases where you do not have a pet name for someone suffering an addiction – perhaps someone with an eating disorder or who compulsively works out, or who has a gambling addiction – please hold this person very gently in your mind and heart and quit setting them aside as an Other. The moment you start pretending their suffering is elementally different than yours or their plight is one they “deserve”, is the moment you lose Consciousness and you cannot help them or yourself.
Addiction is an illness; it is a disease. If you would not call someone with a physical disability a “cripple”, then stop saying “dusthead”, or “tweaker” or whatever. If you keep using these terms myself and others will likely identify you as ignorant, lacking compassion, and part of the cultural problem that helps facilitate addiction at the unprecedented levels we see today.
Stop trying to “get it”.
I work every day with many addicts and it seems the more I do this work, the less I know. Addiction is one of the most fascinating, cunning, baffling, and simply amazing phenomena I’ve seen. In addiction – mine and those I work with – I have experienced the most genuine Buddha-belly laughs, the most heartwrenching tears, the most terrifying rages, the most sublime highs (while actually high, or while clean and sober!), and the deepest quietudes.
I’ve long enjoyed the term “spiritual malady”, as it puts its finger on the Unknowable that medical science still – still - has not been able to define, let alone cure; this phrase sums up the endemic nature of the illness. If you don’t understand addiction – your own, or anyone else’s – that’s okay. That means you might be able to do something intelligent from here on out.
Stop being a buffoon.
Since becoming clean and sober I have been treated with almost universal kindness and consideration by my friends and family – those who are clean and sober, and those who are not. However, there are a notable and very small population of people who’ve been most unskillful or even rude. Since I understand the topic of addiction, especially substance abuse, can be a very confusing, embarrassing, or frightening one, I offer some practical advice.
To wit: do not offer someone in Recovery a drug or alcohol, nor offer someone close in their family a drug or alcohol. If they want drugs or alcohol they’ll find it somewhere, trust me. The same logic extends to someone with an eating disorder. Put food out at a gathering like you normally might, but do not harass or cajole your friend into eating or drinking.
If you know someone in Recovery, do not point out their addiction unduly and do not joke about it (sorry! You get to joke about this shit only if you’re in Recovery, and even then, please do commit to sensitivity and tact). Do not gossip about it, and by gossip I mean, use their life’s experiences to get that juicy ZING in a conversation. You know if you’re doing this; I don’t need to describe it to you.
Conversely, don’t make a big show to alter your own social behavior, or whatever, out of fear you will trigger a relapse in the addicted. I am not going to get drunk because you’re drinking; your friend is not going to go on a gambling spree because you bought a scratch ticket. Obviously. Remember: the addicted friend or family member has trusted you with something very special, something very personal and amazing. So if, say, he has told you he has an eating disorder, to make self-effacing comments about your own food habits is the height of unskillfulness.
I am convinced some addictions are more stigmatized than others; some are downright tacitly encouraged. It is the process of a lifetime, weeding through information and mis-information, but there are plenty of passionate, humane people out there who are bringing great awareness, sensitivity, and intelligence to the field of addiction and healing. As we educate ourselves we learn more and more that the power of our speech and the import of our actions both have the ability to help heal; conversely, the ability to further harm.
Which path shall we choose?
I will close this piece with a little anecdote. From the beginning of my sobriety I was “out” about being an alcoholic in Recovery, which is a pretty brave thing (I add, however, that many people view these kinds of things as medical and/or private, as is their right). For the most part, my friends and family rallied around me and were incredibly supportive and loving.
A month sober, I was invited to our friends’ house for a barbecue. As we walked across the grass, one of my friends turned and asked if it was okay they served beer at the gathering. Let me tell you, that was a beautiful moment in my life. Not just because of the vulnerable uncertainty and care my friends were showing me in that moment, but because of the intense relief of being able to be Out and honest about my illness. These days, when I’m at social gatherings hardly anyone knows or notices I don’t drink; when offered, the times I’m with people who do not know me, I simply say “No thanks,” and that’s it.
However, I have also excused myself early from social engagements, not because the drugs and/or alcohol distressed me, but because I have spent enough time in the company of maudlin, sentimental, violent, self-pitying, drunk people being asses. Because, you know, sometimes that’s how people who drink and drug act. When I was a child I didn’t have a choice to excuse myself; today, I do. I can always treat myself with the same courtesy as my friends did on the night of that barbecue.
Living in Recovery is one of the most amazing things; it is a true freedom I thank the Universe for on a daily basis. I hope in any way this little piece extends some of that exciting, breathtaking world from my heart to yours.