When I got clean I sofa-surfed. There was never a shortage of people who needed a little help with their rent in exchange for a place to stay. After nine months, I moved into my own place: an apartment next to MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. The Asbury is a gorgeous art deco building in a city full of peach colored pre-fabricated stucco luxury slums. Six floors above the street with a view of the park, I felt like I was living on Central Park West. It was $400 a month. They offered indoor parking for an additional $50 but it seemed pointless for a ’68 Dodge Dart.
A year later, I realized I was sitting inches from my television with the volume turned to the max. I asked a friend in the building what was going on, if there was construction or something causing the racket. She laughed. There’d always been constant noise. If it wasn’t the traffic thundering down 6th Street during the day, it was police helicopters over the park, or waking to middle-of-the-night police microphones shouting “Get out of the car with hands raised. Lay face down and chin up in the center of the street.” Apparently this was life at the Asbury. Shortly after this, walking several blocks from my car to the building at 3am, I noticed how sketchy my neighborhood was. Rifles wrappers on the stairs of my entrance, blood on the sidewalk. I got it – you didn’t pay to park to protect your car. You paid to protect your life. At the time the Rampart Division had the highest crime rate in the city.
It took eighteen months of being clean to land back into my body. I was present. It was an amusing new experience because I thought I had been present. The reason I hadn’t noticed the noise in my apartment for a year was because the noise in my head was twice as loud. As for my neighborhood, I was so used to bad neighborhoods and a certain element of danger when I was getting high that it was normal to me. Suddenly I felt visible. Not a good thing for a girl coming home from work at three in the morning.
There’s a lot to be said about landing back in your body. For one thing, it means you are no longer completely consumed by the noise in your head. The noise that blinds us to so much outside of ourselves. Being a captive audience to our internal dialogue is nice way of saying self-involved and self-absorbed. It’s something all addicts and alcoholics have in common. It’s not big news that when left unchecked after days in isolation, we can go straight back to that place even with years clean.
Let’s go back in time. At the end of our using, our inner dialogue distracted us from the simple fact that our lives were unbearable, and drugs kept us numb enough that we didn’t have to “feel” our loneliness. Inner conversations kept us company, kept us distracted, and helped to keep us loaded by repeatedly traveling down memory lane until we felt horrible and worthless, filled with regret and remorse. We’d revisit every single resentment (no matter how old) toward whoever we believed had done us wrong, and when that soundtrack ended we worried about money and drugs. Once we’d get high, these thoughts were replaced by fabulous future events in which we all somehow imagined we’d have our shit together. Our thoughts kept us company in the abusive relationship we were having with ourselves.
It makes sense when people say the disease of addiction lives between our ears. After our physical addiction is over, it’s our head that’s always searching for something to make feel uncomfortable enough that we start to think about using. It starts out subtle – a series of random thoughts eventually moving toward the usual repertoire of negativity and anguish or it fill us with so much fear and anxiety it feels like we can’t breathe. If the pain is great enough long enough we’ll start thinking about getting high – maybe just one time – to straighten our “head” out. In recovery, we can’t afford to let pain reach this level.
Remember how the noise increased when we were detoxing. We thought we were losing our minds, convinced we weren’t going to be able to handle the insanity without getting high. But – we did. As the days and weeks passed newly clean, the intensity of our inner dialogue lessened and we began to feel better. This happened because we were in twelve-step meetings, in rehab, in outpatient groups, with a therapist, or surrounded by loved ones. We weren’t doing this alone. By moving out of isolation and connecting to others, our head began to quiet.
When I started writing this blog, it was because I wanted to talk about anxiety – but it’s all sort of connected.
When we isolate in recovery, the old inner dialogue – the one that likes to torment us – returns. The funny thing is that most addicts and alcoholics will be the last to recognize that they have cut themselves off from the world for too long. Instead they try to control their thinking. They’ll throw themselves into a home project or into workaholic behavior, hoping that if they stay busy and not “think about anything” it will go away. And when this fails, addicts spin out of control until they are wracked by anxiety. A small problem or decision can get caught in the loop of obsessional thinking until it becomes so intense that you feel like you can’t even breathe. Sound familiar?
Ever lay in bed watching the clock, freaking out as hours continue to roll by, now adding the fear of sleeping in to the anxiety list. Ever arrive at a destination without any recollection of how you got there? What roads you took? Were the streets empty or did you pass anyone while walking? Stay so busy that the hours flew by and when you looked at the clock it was four-am and you had to wake up at seven? Making wrong turns, losing your phone, umbrella, keys? Spinning, spinning, spinning, so you don’t have to think? So you don’t have to feel? While you’re busy trying to make the thoughts go away you’re actually making the world disappear.
When you get to this state, do you call a friend, make plans to get out of yourself by spending time with another person, confide in another recovering addict? Most likely, these things won’t occur to you until you realize you’ve been thinking a drink would take the edge off, until you realize you really want to get high.
Most of us started out drinking and getting high in a social environment, at parties, clubs, with friends. In the end we used alone. In recovery, our solution was based on connecting with others but as time passes we often we drift back into our cocoon without realizing it. We tell ourselves we’re tired, that we need quality time alone. Though this may be true, if we aren’t connecting with others, it’s easy to slip back to old ways. Without warning, the noise returns. Never underestimate how powerful the disease is. That saying “an addict alone is in bad company” isn’t talking about a cozy weekend at the cottage with a book and a fireplace. It means endless days avoiding the phone and avoiding people until, like old times, we end up either consumed by anxiety or inside an existential bubble – watching life with detachment. Most of you know what I’m talking about – that peculiar feeling that we’ve become somehow estranged from the world and can’t get back.
There may be other mental health issues going on but next time you feel depressed or crippled by anxiety, take an inventory of the prior week. Have you spent too much time alone, are you avoiding friends, are you returning phone calls? When these uncomfortable feelings come up do you coddle them or do you take positive actions such as eating properly, fresh air, exercise. Are you going to meetings or connecting with your support group? Are you helping others in any way? Is there balance between work and play? If you have been having difficulty sleeping, what actions do you take besides listening to your endless inner-monologue.
In recovery, there are always actions we can take to not remain stuck in painful situations. The antidote usually begins by reaching out to another recovering addict or someone we trust who can help. Without action, our thinking often leads us back to using.
Eventually you become capable of enjoying time alone and a new desire will rise up to seek out ways to quiet the mind even more – though this time instead of quieting it to rid yourself of pain, you are seeking a deeper level of inner peace. There’s a huge difference between peace of mind and inner peace. You have to stick it out in recovery long enough to discover what that means.