While I wouldn’t want to go through it again, my personal story of addiction and the stigma of addiction has not been particularly dramatic. In fact, I am mostly lucky.
I grew up in an alcoholic family. Drugs and alcohol were attractive to me from childhood on. By college I was drinking lots of beer and booze and smoking marijuana daily. After college I married someone who liked to drink and drug and we were off to the races.
I first began a recovery program not so much because of dire consequences but because all the signs were there. I was frustrated by my wife’s drinking and drug use, and I began to see disturbing behaviors of my own even though I was still just an addict in training. I tried recovery, and I liked it a lot. I was 34 at that time. I was heavily involved in recovery for about 10 years. I had a slip which lasted 6 years and involved both alcohol and narcotics including heroin. I have been back in recovery since 2005.
But I cannot recount my own experience without involving my family. After all, this is a family disease.
- Remember waking up and thinking: never again. Two in the afternoon and I had already missed work. I’ll get fired. Never again becomes not today. What did I do last night? Where is everybody? Not today becomes not now. My wife is out. She has OxyContin somewhere in her room. Searching, searching, searching. Combing the carpet with my fingers. Every pocket in her closet. Finger touches little cool tabs. One, two three. Not now becomes now.
- Remember police at the house. Teenage daughter is high, I’m high, wife is high. There’s been a fight. Thinking, oh my God, I’m being handcuffed. Police look so big, fill up the foyer. I know one cop. He and his wife have a Christmas tree farm in December. Hands cuffed, “Hey Sean.” “Hey Steve.” He tells me that most of his job is with good people having a bad day.
- Remember driving back from Tennessee at night in the rain. Thirteen hours straight through on a mixture of OxyContin and speed. My 14 year old daughter asleep in the back seat.
- Remember the electric is off. Tell neighbors that something funny is going on with PSE&G. Can we store a few things in their fridge? Have to go to PSE&G office to pay bill. Stand in line with a bunch of other addicts and addict family members.
- Remember visiting son in rehab. Had found him late at night all messed up in Trenton. He was with a girl and four men were putting them in a car. “Are you his dad? Aw naw, naw, naw. We was just driving him home.” Had to wrestle him to the ground to get him to the rehab. He was 15.
He is dead now. After over 40 rehabs, halfway houses, jails, prisons, psych wards, and emergency rooms he died alone with a needle in his arm in a motel room in Belmar. He was 26.
The wife, who became my ex-wife, is dead too. She packed her lunch for work, laid out clothes for the next day, got into bed with an ice pop, and died of a drug overdose. She was 57 and living alone in an apartment in North Carolina. Done.
A few years ago that daughter who I got in a fight with contracted endocarditis from shooting heroin. The infection attacked her heart and kidneys. Today she is on dialysis, methadone, and disability. Lives in a room in Trenton.
I don’t know why I got clean and sober and entered long term recovery in 2005. Not sure why I got it and the others didn’t. I guess I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. My beautiful, once promising family seemed to be imploding, attacked by a deadly virus…a fatal disease. I came back to recovery because I began to understand that we were fighting a battle for our very lives. There was a war raging, and I did not want to die. I was desperate.
During the first weeks and months of recovery I felt a little crazy. Crazy in a good way…a way that would keep me sober. I went to meetings and listened. Probably the most important thing I heard was that I had little control over what other people did or said but that I could learn to control how to interpret and respond. Also: 90% of what we worry about never happens. And: be patient, it’s an inside job.
At the end of my using I had been so isolated. I felt disgraced in my neighborhood. Too many visits from the police. Too many arrests. I felt disgraced at work. I could not hold a job. I couldn’t even show up for a job. When I came back into recovery I was a shaken, incoherent mess, and I found myself among people who said Yep, come with us. We understand. I no longer felt alone. I no longer felt like a square peg in a round hole.
The first months of recovery had been a roller-coaster. I had money problems, work problems, and family problems. In time most problems simply went away. Ten years ago, crisis was a way of life. Today there is no crisis. I have a good job. My two remaining children are doing well enough. Their crises are not my crises. I have a girlfriend who has been with me through ups and downs. We have a great relationship. Quiet, supportive.
For me, the first thing to go in addiction was spirituality. It left me like a soul leaves a dying body. And spirituality was replaced with fear. Today I know spirituality. Today I have a sense of purpose. Today I love to watch and hear and touch, smell and taste this world. And while I would not call myself fearless, my life is no longer ruled by fear.