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.