Last week, I wrote an essay detailing my addiction to Oxycontin and my eventual journey to recovery. The feedback I have gotten has been overwhelming to say the least, and the amount of people who claimed that I have helped them is more than I can count. However, I know internally that I have left a major component out of that essay, mainly, what sobriety is like. I graphically detailed some of the more unpleasant side effects of addiction, but for me, as well as for most addicts, the real troubles come during recovery.
When I first got clean I didn’t think I would last three months, much less twelve. It seemed like a pretty far away landmark to get attached to. I was encroaching on unidentified and largely intimidating territory. As I got closer to that year mark, it became a bigger and bigger accomplishment in my eyes. This was a true sign of strength, I thought. But now, I’m here, a year under my belt, without the lure of this once seemingly unreachable giant carnival prize of being “365 straight days clean” to inspire me to move forward. And initially, I wasn’t scared about that potential lack of motivation because to a certain extent sobriety had become second nature. I was just doing it, no questions asked. Routine. Easy.
But it never is. Last week Phillip Seymour Hoffman died after being sober for over twenty years. Do you understand what that means? That means this man spent over twenty years of his life reinforcing the idea in his head that he was an addict and will have to do whatever it takes to stay sober. He attended meetings. He spoke with other addicts. He was dedicated to his sobriety. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, something changed and soon enough his addiction had gotten the better of him. I obviously don’t know anything about Mr. Hoffman’s personal life aside from whatever is on the front page of the Post, yet the idea that this disease can come back after two decades of being “in remission”, is quite frightening. Really, really frightening.
Now, whenever I catch myself thinking anything along the lines of “staying sober isn’t so hard”, like in the paragraph above, I get scared. Not just any old type of scared either. Really, really, scared. And how could I not?
Suddenly, I realized I may not be far off from the same fate myself.
Is this too easy?
The first two weeks of sobriety are hard to describe. Withdrawal pains run you; your eating habits, your sleeping patterns, and any semblance of anything that resembles a “normal” life, is thrown off center like a blind man throwing darts. Anything that involves any physical effort or energy is a non starter. I stayed home from work, checked into the detox center every day, peed in a cup, and got some anti-anxieties and non-addictive pain medicine to help with the insanity that my body was experiencing. When you take a pain killer every day for so long and you suddenly stop, your body is in pain even if there was no real cause for it. My knees, my back, my arms…..everything hurt without reason, even though I’m relatively in shape and did nothing to physically exert strain on these areas. That pain aside, my body shook like a cheap motel bed. I woke up in pools of sweat deep enough to drown a small animal. The anti-anxieties I was given left me so zonked out I wouldn’t have been able to meet up with my old dealer even if I wanted to. The combination of pain and confusion paralyzed me.
The physical pains were like a nightmare produced by Stephen King, but what hurt me even more was the idea of having to trust myself again. Had my story have happened to someone else, and I was able to watch it unfold objectively from a distance, I don’t know if I would have let that person house-sit for me, or watch my children, or sign for a package for me. Therefore, if I wouldn’t trust somebody else who has done what I have done, how in the world could I trust myself? I just spent a year doing whatever I could do to damage my own well-being, including a multitude of things which almost nobody knows about because of how unspeakable they are, and now, suddenly at the drop of a hat, I am supposed to restore some faith in my long and short term decision making ability? The physical pain was intense, yes. Treating myself like some back stabbing friend was something else.
When the initial physical pain ended after a few weeks, and I was able to resume being a real person again, life all of a sudden got amazing. I had strung together a handful of consecutive days of sobriety, or at least enough to start trusting myself again, if only a little bit. Life, something I had totally forsaken in the previous year, was flourishing all around me, slapping the smile right on my face. I had spent so long bullying myself that to finally be sufficiently awake to see some of the enjoyable things that it had to offer felt like I was eating MDMA for breakfast every day. Any and every thing was invigorating.
This euphoria lasted for a while, but eventually it gradually decreased, and within a few months, basic elevator rides were no longer putting a Joker-esque smile on my face. And that’s when it hit me. This shit is hard. Real hard.
As a drug addict I didn’t want to be alive all that much. That may sound like an intense statement, but it’s the truth. I had no desire to be partaking in the world going on around me, and found it significantly easier to numb myself with pills and to slowly die than to try my best and live. That’s what these pills do, they put you on a faster track into the ground. And now, at this point in my sobriety, I had started to sense the same void growing within me, but didn’t have the same solutions available to quell it.
I’ve heard from a number of addicts about a period of post-recovery depression. For the length of my dependance on opiates, it was fairly easy to cure any sudden moment of sadness. All I had to do was crush a few pills, roll up a dollar bill, and within seconds I’d stop feeling so sad. Now however, I had the same tough feelings but no easy way to deal with them. Sure, I was alive and healthy, I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be.
I had the same job as before, the same friends (for the most part), the same apartment….nothing had changed except for me. Everything was exactly the same, but it was so completely different I had no idea what to do with myself. Could I really adapt to this and survive long term? I wasn’t sure. The basic drudgeries of life seemed to cast a big shadow over me. Simple tasks, conversations, relationships….all very basic things most people can tolerate and juggle, had started to seem too heavy and burdensome to bear. Getting my job done at work, dealing with friends and family, and even simple things like budgeting my expenses would send me off into a whirlwind of emotional instability. If I’m having such trouble with such elementary tasks, how am I going to survive the Big Leagues? I’ve seen enough to know that life gets tougher than a bad bank statement.
This depression built up to the point where it started to impact my every waking minute. I would hang out with friends, go to Knicks games, and do all the things I used to love to do, but the more time that passed the more I realized I couldn’t answer “How am I going to do this?”. I had somehow stayed sober through all of this, but I didn’t have a rational reason for doing so. I might as well have been a drug addict. I couldn’t possibly last.
How could I continue to fight this wildly uphill battle, one which history and statistics were begging me to accept the fact that I was going to lose? And, if I was going to lose and be a drug addict again, I might as well have been dead. There’s no way I was going back to that.
Within the next few days I had an appointment to get a full on mental evaluation, and hopefully, find something to correct the waywardness of my mind, because this was no way to live. I couldn’t imagine sitting in the room with a trained psychiatrist for two hours and him not prescribe me anti-depressants. It seemed so obvious.
After two hour of answering questions, I was given a surprise. It would be the first of many.
The doctor didn’t give me any medication because he didn’t believe I needed any. Here is a man who is paid to hand out pills but didn’t. Instead, he suggested that I study and practice Mindfulness with him.
Mindfulness is a state of being which cultivates a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. After years of conditioning, we often react to stimuli out of rote because we’ve seen these situations before, and we then automatically react with muscle memory, not giving the present moment it’s fair chance to show how it’s different. Living this way, out of habit, completely sucks the freshness out of the fruit of life, leaving us holding onto a dried out grape fruit we’re quick to dispose of. Mindfulness promotes the newness and uniqueness of each moment, being whatever it is being – independent, unjudged, being as it is, open. Fresh.
This practice struck a chord with me because I had always let my thoughts pull the strings of my emotions . My practice, what keeps me balanced and prepared, is a method of listening to the breath which brings me back to the present moment, distancing my train of thought from the occasionally damaging machinations of the mind, which often used to lead to making ill-advised decisions.
After a few weeks, it all came very naturally to me, and the bleakness which has tinted my lens for so long had started to dissipate. It was relatively simple to learn, even easier to practice, and it’s benefits are so completely obvious to myself and anyone who has anything to do with me that I’ve jumped on this bandwagon without thinking twice. The research and statistics on mindfulness are overwhelmingly positive, but I don’t need them to know how much it actually helps.
Almost a full year later, I had finally found a way to channel this inner energy and unearthed my strategy to beat these discouraging odds. What impressed me about my story is that I went almost this entire year, sad, confused, and without knowing how I was going to do it. I acted on strength and strength alone. Strength I didn’t necessarily know that I possessed.
Now however, I know that I possess not just the strength, but the tools necessary to beat this disease. Even that though, with all of my strength and tools, without my concentrated effort, may not be enough. My prayer is that I’m as vigilant about this in twenty five years as I am today. If you know someone in recovery, do what you can to show them strength. It’s often the little reminders which keep us going.