In the early years of my recovery, a lot of my friends tested positive for HIV and the AIDS virus. I went along with all the lifestyle changes to support them. Overnight we became non-smoking, macrobiotic, vegan, aerobic-class enthusiasts reading A Course in Miracles and quoting Marianne Williamson. Considering we’d all been art-damaged, punk rock-nurtured criminals and sex-working gay & straight IV drug users, throwing ourselves enthusiastically into every possible holistic and spiritual way to heal ourselves expressed our collective desire to live. And we never missed an opportunity to laugh at ourselves. Some of our adventures in spirituality-seeking bordered on the ridiculous but we needed more miracles – the first miracle being that the desire to use drugs had left us.
Years passed, we accumulated clean time, and life-saving HIV cocktails became available. The miracle had happened. Without the threat of impending death motivating lifestyle change, some people started picking up and putting down cigarettes again, ordering steak, going from sex-abstinent to sex-abundant, opting out of cardio for yoga. Over time, we exited the self-help route and found therapy.
In recovery we continue striving to enrich our lives, our relationships with others and most importantly, our relationship with ourselves. I encourage people to seek professional help whenever needed. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. For many addicts, learning how to live with our feelings must come before we are ready to dig deeper. We do this by staying clean, building a foundation, and gaining courage by living life on life’s terms. For others, staying clean would not be possible without healing the wounds of trauma with a professional early on. Wherever you fit in this spectrum, the combination of listening to your heart and the suggestions of those with more experience will be your guide.
Therapy is a commitment to show up and be honest so it is important that you find a therapist who is a good fit. This can be done with a little research and interviewing. You can often get names of therapists from various centers connected to organizations dealing with GLBT, Women’s Services, victims of violence or sexual abuse, sex workers, runaways etc. You can Google “therapist, your location and whatever specific issues that may concern you” and see what comes up. You can ask your doctor, ask friends about their therapists. Once you begin seeking, names will come. You can find sliding scale often connected with larger university mental health facilities, some therapists take insurance and others are cash only. Prepare questions for the first meeting – it’s okay to ask them about themselves and their practice. You will intuitively know who you feel safe with. Remember, you are building a new relationship so don’t expect an instant fix. It takes time for many of us to build trust before we are able to be thoroughly honest. This is not surgery. Healing happens over time. Therapy is really a case of “more will be revealed”. The willingness to begin is all you need to start the ball rolling toward change.
People often ask “Was it worth it?” and want to know what I got out of the experience. Often during therapy I’d be asking myself the same question. I tackled many different issues according to what was happening in my life, how I was handling situations, and feelings. For example, nothing ever seemed to get me angry yet I would cross a line (usually because I felt I wasn’t being heard) and literally see red and start swinging. I knew this was strange and wanted to know how to have a different experience. That was one reason I sought help. In retrospect, what I have gained from therapy is that I now experience my feelings as they come up. I don’t intellectualize them and I don’t check out. This has enabled me to live fully in my body and be present in the moment in my life.This had not been the case for most of my life. I numbed out feelings that either were painful or scary first with drugs and then clean with escapist behaviors. These days I wouldn’t even know where the switch was to flip it to the “off” position if I wanted to. I believe this change is definitely the key to the contentment I feel most days.
I’m going to talk for a moment about medication. Personally, I’m not against meds in recovery. I do not believe we have to suffer to prove our willingness to be clean. I also know addicts have a history of preferring a pill to hard work, that we are self-deceptive and very skilled at deceiving others. So this is my own personal philosophy on the matter. I was offered anti-depressants a number of times by my therapist. It is her job to offer solutions – and medication is a solution. I decided to exercise, meditate and get fresh air to see if it helped first. I also pinpointed things in my life I could change (people, places, jobs) that were bringing me pain. I did the work and felt better. The depression lifted without medication. If you do not try alternative methods first, my guess is you want a pill to fix it. Now there are people who will not find relief from depression or anxiety no matter what holistic avenues they take or what lifestyle changes they make. And there are people with other mental health issues. It is important to be completely honest with your psychiatrist and to choose one who has a lot of experience working with addicts. I know a psychiatrist in NYC who believes no one needs more than 3 medications to deal with disorders common to addicts. I’ve had clients come to me who have a regiment of 8 pills a day. Since I’m not a doctor all I can do is insist they get a second opinion. Also, if you came into recovery on anxiety meds, Adderall, antidepressants and sleep medication, my question is always “Did your doctor know you were abusing drugs? The symptoms that he treated, could they have been partial withdrawal symptoms from your drug of choice?” I don’t care if you’re 30 and you have been on these meds since you were 16. It is possible you were misdiagnosed because you were using at the time. Be willing to get honest with a psychiatrist who specializes in working with addicts in recovery and trust him to evaluate you.
At the end of the day, we have to learn to be honest with ourselves and honest with mental health professionals. We have to be willing to make lifestyle changes and to heal old wounds in order to find peace and comfort in our skin if we are to stay clean and sober for the long haul.
I posted two blogs already about the holidays but the amount of email and conversations I have lately seem to keep going back to this subject. Here is what I noticed: people who have been clean and sober for a period of time (18 months or more) have a built in memory of the sneakiness of the disease at this time of year so they have upped their recovery time, maybe by going to more meetings or by making extra effort to connect with their sponsor and support group. They are not living in fear of the holidays – they are simply taking the actions needed for a smoother ride through the month. Almost everyone I know who has less than a year down to early days in recovery do not seem to think the holidays are going to be an issue for them. Some have even thought it out logically and are convinced that all this ‘high alert” stuff program people keep talking about will not apply to them.
I don’t fault the newcomers for it. From their point of view, they are being honest in how they feel. What they don’t seem to have yet is an awareness of how the disease of addiction continues to lurk, waiting for an opportunity to strike. Before I got clean, the insanity in my thinking and the level of stress I experienced was intense and only seemed to hit a level of calm and clear thinking after I used. Part of this was because the stress of withdrawal was removed by using but since the disease lives in the obsession/compulsion part of my mind it would come up again even while I was high – to get more, to say that amount wasn’t enough or it wasn’t strong enough – get more. Basically, the disease really only ever had one thing to say “MORE” and the rest of me – body spirit and mind – was enslaved to make it happen. Trying to exert control over it “I’ll get more tonight” resulted in a subtle level of mental agony and physical discomfort until the whole idea of getting more “tonight” turned into “getting more within the hour”. I’m sure we all know what it was like to be controlled by the disease, cave in to the compulsion and obsession by putting everything we wanted to do second to feeding the disease. When we first stop using, we are so amazed to look back at how completely enslaved we had been. We recognize how – despite our intelligence – the disease was more powerful. So we get clean and around the holidays, a sort of amnesia comes over us in early recovery. We can’t seem to connect with how powerless we had been. We feel like the disease is in the past (if it even is a disease) because we’ve been free from that level of obsession and compulsion for a while. In fact, most days, we feel all right.
“What’s this holiday panic we hear about in meetings?” This is how the disease works – newcomers often hear the experience of old-timers as if we are all panic-stricken about the holidays, living in fear of using. Meanwhile, this “panic” is not happening. People with clean time are simply stating that this is the time of year to be vigilant because the disease is “cunning powerful and baffling” and is capable of sneaking in and gaining a foothold if we are complacent about recovery. We say this because we have years of experience going through various feelings, early recovery emotional rollercoasters, core issue trauma and pain surfacing out of nowhere at this time of year and we have watched many people relapse. Old-timers are not biting their nails anticipating crisis. Instead we acknowledge the power of the disease and do what we have been told so that we can stay one step ahead of it – so it can be a smooth sailing holiday season. But – the newcomer doesn’t hear this – the newcomer hears fear but since they don’t feel the fear themselves this must not apply to them. This warning must be meant for someone else who is new at the meeting. Not them. But this line of thinking is precisely how the disease gains foothold, making them believe they are the exception to the rule. Closing their mind to recovery tools that will strengthen and protect them.
What I know as an addict with 23 years clean who has watched numerous friends with 20 years relapse, is that when it comes to the disease, we are never fully free of it. It lurks in the shadows of our Being waiting for ways to make the “program” experience of others no longer apply to us, as if we are cured. Someone’s advice on jobs, dating, or financial matters – it really may not apply to me. But their experience with recovery usually does. I am not immune to relapse but as long as I continue to take actions the disease can not blind me and move me away from recovery, there’s a good chance I will stay clean.
This time of year – if you are new to recovery and you hear people sharing about their struggles during the holiday season recognize that this sharing is recovery in action. If you feel fine but notice yourself attending less meetings, feeling like you are “over” some of your friendships with people you’ve met at meetings and decide it’s time to clean house on your cell phone, you start spending a lot of time alone because it feels better than being with others – beware. Take the opposite action to what your head is telling you is true.
If you are new and starting to feel like this recovery job takes up too much time and you miss the simplicity of your life before you got clean – this sort of thinking will put you in a dangerous place this month. Even if it’s true you that miss your old life and old friends and hate going to so many meetings – do yourself a favor, put in the extra time this holiday season and trust me – it won’t always be like this. Being self reliant shouldn’t come so early in recovery. Remember – your best thinking is why you ended up in meetings in the first place. This holiday season, keep and open mind and let experience members guide you. This is not the time to do it alone.