I used to think addiction was something everybody handled, or not. For half of my life I lived with shame bred from the undeniable fact that I chose not. It never occurred to me that the experts were right, and addiction is a disease. I smoked because I liked it, drank because I loved it, abused pain meds because I needed it and went broke on cocaine because it made me feel invincible. Until it didn’t. And I kept at it anyway.
Nobody lit the smokes, or opened the bottles, or chopped the lines. I did it. I kept on doing it. I couldn’t stop. Until I did. First went the smokes, then the coke. The pain meds took a while, they were legal after all, and the booze stayed with me until I was on the doorstep of forty. I white knuckled the cigarette addiction, and through fear of my wife managed to kick that one. The cocaine was the easiest habit to break, it is difficult to continue doing something that you truly cannot afford and will ultimately lead to incarceration. As for the pain meds? I got lucky. They stopped working. I stopped feeling better when I took them, only felt worse. They never took my pain away anyway, just made me not care that I was in pain. Denial is no way to live.
Which brings me to the booze. It was my final hold-out, and without it I never could have stopped the rest. My mind processes things differently; as long as I have something – anything to distract me from myself I can handle almost anything. It was as if I needed some self-destructive habit to convince myself that life was worth living. I will never understand why, even now, with eighteen years of sobriety under my belt.
I did eventually manage to give it all up, in a roundabout way, but not without help, and a substitute. My first foray into drug rehab was at the behest of the court. I was twenty-two and looking at a three year stretch at the Adult Correctional Institute. The Clink. The Big House. Prison. And all I did was be in the wrong place at the wrong time, albeit with a giant pile of cocaine on my lap, a cooler full of cold ones in the backseat and a friend who was carrying a loaded .45, and just happened to be AWOL from the United States Navy. By the grace of the god of my understanding, which at the time resembled Ozzy Osbourne I told the truth of my addictions to the last person in a long line of people ready to put me away and throw away the key. His name was Ed Perry, and he kept me out of jail. He is number one on my gratitude list to this day.
I did everything I was told, and went to AA meetings, and NA meetings, and had a weekly visit with a drug counselor. I fooled them all and was drinking within weeks. At least I quit the cocaine I figured. But I never forgot their message, and it lingered in my subconscious mind until I was truly ready. It is said that once you get honest with yourself and begin to understand the nature of addiction you will never again enjoy the effects of your drug of choice. It is true, kind of. I found that I just didn’t enjoy drinking as much. I did manage to give up the smokes and the drugs, but man, Ethyl alcohol is one difficult habit to break!
It took a team of people who understood the nature of people like me, and people at home who actually had not completely given up for me to stop drinking. I learned that it helped to make a substitution, and I chose writing. I was forty (wait, isn’t that the same time you quit drinking!) when I wrote my first book. I’ve written five now, and a lot of other things. But even something seemingly benign has its pitfalls, and an addictive person who writes does so because it makes him or her feel good, and very little in my experience feels as good as validation. Social media is the king of self validation. Every person who participates in that forum creates their own fan club, even if only one member belongs. It is far too easy to become addicted again, and I am not immune. Fortunately the lessons I learned, starting at age twenty-two keep me from falling too far into the abyss. I feel it when things are spiraling, and know the triggers. When that nagging anxiety starts, bred from something I wrote, or a comment from somebody with the temerity to disagree with me, and the familiar spinning in my head begins, I know enough to take a break.
Addiction comes at us in a million different disguises. It is clever, insidious and relentless. Being aware is the first step toward keeping it at bay. Having tools at your disposal is imperative when those demons come knocking, and make no mistake, for people like us, they always will.
A good strong base will keep you focused and sane. Addiction treatment lasts a lifetime.