This week is significant in my recovery journey. I have 38 days clean, sober and abstinent today, which in and of itself is a miracle. But a year ago today, I hit my spiritual and emotional bottom – and took action to get myself in treatment. Quite literally, I chose life. Since then, I’ve been on an amazing journey of growth. My life has changed dramatically since then, but even amidst the change and the losses, I’ve been able to see my Higher Power at work in my life. I’m truly grateful for where I’m at today. It’s in the spirit of gratitude that I wanted to share my mini-lead today — to help me remember that feeling of emptiness, loneliness and despair that almost had me take my own life — but more importantly, to celebrate the recovery and growth I’ve found in these rooms with the help of my Higher Power.
I introduce myself as an addict, because at the heart of my disease is the mental obsession and compulsion to avoid pain, to numb the feelings I don’t want to feel, to escape reality, to find acceptance. In my experience, I’ve used sex, relationships, alcohol, and drugs — it really doesn’t matter what the substance is. I could just as easily substitute any of those tomorrow for something else — shopping, gambling, smoking — whatever. But, the result would be the same. None of those people, places or things can fill the emptiness in my gut or make me whole; they all get in the way of my relationship with my Higher Power and my healthy relationships with others. So I
choose to focus on the broader disease – the mental aspects of obsession and compulsion – and on the tools and gifts of recovery, rather than a particular substance or label. So please accept my sharing with that in mind.
In fact, as I’ve started to study my addiction history with the help of a therapist, I’ve learned how progressive this disease is. I used to listen to other people’s stories about how they started drinking or drugging as a teenager or in college. But, I was the goody-two-shoes over achiever in school and never touched alcohol or drugs in high school. Even in college and into my early 30’s, I drank socially and never touched any drugs. So, at 41 when I admitted myself to a local treatment center and disclosed a daily meth habit that had been going on for a couple of years, it shocked my friends and family. Only my ex- had an inkling of what was going on, and even he had no idea had bad things had gotten.
The dots I hadn’t fully admitted or connected were when others were drinking or drugging in high school or college, I was having sex or getting into sometimes unhealthy, co-dependent relationships as a means of escaping, filling the void, feeling good. Looking back, these attempts to escape wore thin in their effectiveness — so like any addict, I sought more — more sex, sex with alcohol, and eventually, at 33, picked up my first drug and spent the next 8 years of my life mixing sex, alcohol and drugs in greater amounts, with greater frequency, more intensity because in my emptiness, I no longer ultimately cared whether I lived or died.
That’s how progressive this disease is — it’s the disease of more. One is too many, and a thousand is never enough. Sex, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, relationships — it’s all about the obsession, the compulsion, the escape. But, in treatment, therapy and the rooms I’ve finally found freedom and a new way of living.
At the root of my emptiness are a couple core issues. First, growing up, I learned that what’s it important is what you do, not who you are; it’s your accomplishments that others value, not your convictions. That approach served this young gay man well. All around me, I heard that being gay was bad – not acceptable. So, rather than deal with that in my formative years, I compensated by becoming the quintessential overachiever — which of course, got all sorts of validation from my family and friends. This carried into my 19 year career. Even though I have been out now since my mid-20’s, that drive to succeed, that sense of self-worth from doing rather than being was so strong, I continued to climb the corporate ladder as hard as I could.
Another deep part of my sickness was in ability to cope with my feelings, to effectively deal with change. Some of this was tied into what was valued in my family; around the dinner table and over the phone, we would talk more about school, work, accomplishments — less about feelings and emotions. I learned that anger wasn’t healthy, and you didn’t show your feelings. I also moved around a lot growing up — I moved 4 times between the ages of 0 and 17. A lot of change, a lot of loss. But, I had learned not to show my feelings — so I stuffed the sadness, the resentment, the anger over the losses growing up and learned how to survive with the “it’s all ok – I’ve got it under control” mask. I had learned – it’s the image you portray – the mask you wear – that matters, that gets you accepted, that fills the void. So I thought.
Let me fast forward now to a year ago — when all of this came to a head. As I shared at the beginning, I sought treatment a year ago. My last two years of active addiction were pretty bad. I had tried to quit on my own and never could; I finally gave up even trying and just succumbed fully to my disease. I had fought so long to hide my addiction, but it was beginning to wear me down. So, when I reached out for help, I set things in motion so there would be no backing out – I know I needed help so badly. I called 911, was taken to the hospital and admitted myself to a local treatment center. I completed treatment and started coming to the rooms as soon as I got out. Looking back, I think my pink cloud was so strong — I was simply grateful to be alive, that everything else was a blessing. But, in that slightly naive, overachiever approach, I was unprepared for when the pink faded to black. And for me, the black wasn’t losing my job — being forced to sell my house at a significant loss — or facing charges with no prior criminal history. For me, what caught be off guard was facing my feelings.
For this addict, because I got real good at wearing masks, my self-deception — my lack of self awareness — was so strong, that eventually I relapsed. I had started to face some of my demons, and tried to do it on my own. It was too much for me. Until I learned to let go, and ask for help, I would continue to repeat my mistakes and relapsed several times. I spent a couple months working a half-hearted program. I was still making meetings, but I wasn’t sharing honestly about where I was – what I was feeling. Sometimes, I didn’t even know because I was so incapable of staying with the pain or living through the feelings. The way I’ve learned to survive in my 42 years of change, loss and rejection is to run from my feelings, numb them, maintain a facade of “I’ve got it under control.” But, I’m learning I can’t survive if I continue to run. I have to slow down, reach out for help and allow myself to feel. I can’t be the patient and therapist at the same time – I spend way too much time in my head with that approach, get overwhelmed and eventually would say “f*%& it.”
I can honestly say that the last 38 days have been different. I’m working a stronger, more focused program – to the best of my ability. I’m not pretending to know everything when I don’t — using that survival technique that served me well for so many years. I’m learning to say, “I don’t know” and ask for help, ask for suggestions. Literally, sometimes people close to me will ask me how I’m doing, and my response is “I don’t know.” Then, with their help, I figure out how I’m feeling and why. That’s how incapable I had become at being self-aware.
What I’ve been told is just focus on today — do whatever it takes not to take a drink, pick up or use someone — today. And that’s all I have to worry about. It sounds simple – and it is. But, for this addict – who suffers from “figureitout-ism” and likes to make things super complicated – it’s about getting back to the basics. Go to meetings, share where I’m at, call my sponsor, call others in recovery, work my steps, and pray.
I’ve also learned some humility – learned to be aware of my ego – my over-self confidence and arrogance that shuts people down and cuts me off from getting close. Again, years of practice – but I know I can’t survive without help, without friendships, without community. When I respond to people’s suggestions or insights with “I know” or “I understand” or “I get it” — particularly when I don’t know, don’t understand, don’t really get it — I starve myself of the very experience, knowledge, insight that I need to survive. My best thinking got me here — my trying to control, manipulate and manage people, places and things doesn’t work. Instead when I accept where I’m at, surrender my will, I am able to grow. I’ve grown more recently because I’ve stopped pretending and focused on being authentic — first to myself and then to others. And I’ve only been able to do that through prayer and with the help of others.
In closing – back in February, fresh out of treatment, if I had tried to predict where I’d be today, I would have been so wrong it’s not funny. First, I would have never imagined I’d be fired from my job after 19 years; be forced to sell my house; worked through a plea bargain; and be in a position to launch my own startup business. And second of all, in predicting the outcome, I would have then tried to control the outcome – and would have fallen so short. Instead, despite and through my relapses, I’ve learned how to let go of outcomes and focus on doing the next right thing. By doing that, my Higher Power has then blessed me with far more than I could have ever imagined. There’s no way I could have come up with the plan that unfolded. But, in letting go and letting God, He’s done for me what I was unable to do for myself. And THAT is the beauty of surrendering…that is the beauty of this thing called Recovery.
- Overcoming Addiction (psychologytoday.com)