(Star formation in the nearby galaxy M33.)
It was a warm and sunny weekend morning – early and quiet. My back didn’t hurt and my coffee was hot and sweet, just the way I like it. Pooh had been out and my kid wouldn’t be up for another couple hours. Everything was great. I plunked down at my desk to peruse the yard sale section on craigslist when I got distracted by the discussion forums in the lower left corner of the front page. I decided to have a look around. I skimmed the titles to over a hundred different forums before choosing Marriage and LTR. I decided LTR must stand for Long Term Relationship. “Bring it. I’ve had a couple of those.” I said to the screen.
I read maybe seven or eight ho-hum posts before opening one that caught my attention. It read: “Addicts who drag friends and family through attempts at sobriety time and again are nothing but a drain and the friends and family eventually wish the addict would just die.”
“Wait, what?” I blurted. The post ended before I had a chance to recognize what I’d read.
I read it again. “Addicts who drag friends and family through attempts at sobriety time and again are nothing but a drain and the friends and family eventually wish the addict would just die.”
“What the Fuck?!” I felt like I’d been sucker punched. Why would someone post that in the marriage and LTR forum? Craigslist had a recovery forum.
How could someone wish their loved one death just to alleviate their own suffering? And people think addicts are selfish.
On entering the forum I expected to add a splash or two of color to a discussion on the hurdles of learning to trust again after your third divorce or something. I wasn’t prepared to tackle a statement like this. I needed more coffee and a cigarette. I had to address this post.
What if it was true? What if friends and family really wished an addict would eventually just die? How awful!
My attempts to sever my long term relationship with alcohol had taken years and I knew that no one who cared for me had ever wished I’d just keel over and never resume consciousness. Actually, I didn’t know that, but I needed to believe it. I’d be horrified if I found out my friends and family had once wished I no longer walked the planet. I wanted to be worth all their worry and sleepless nights. I wanted their love for me to be more enduring than their fear or exhaustion.
The author’s post struck me as sincere, hopeless and bleak. I assumed the author was female and not an addict, and I wondered how many people could relate to what she’d written. Probably a lot.
I refilled my coffee cup and went outside to smoke. I thought long and hard about how best to answer her. Nothing, I got nothing. Rather – I had so many ideas my mind short-circuited. Sometimes, too many options kick my ass – I freeze up.
I went back inside and stared at the screen. I moved my arms into typing position resting them delicately on the desk. My fingers hovered above the keyboard. I wiggled them in anticipation – waiting for the first word to travel from my brain, down my arm and out through my finger- tips. Pooh rolled over on his back in the sun and splayed his legs. Nada. I had no idea what to write.
I knew all about addiction, relapse/choosing to drink and early sobriety, but how and where would I begin to answer her post? I re-read it aloud. I had to hear how it sounded.
“Addicts who drag friends and family through attempts at sobriety time and again are nothing but a drain and the friends and family eventually wish the addict would just die.”
I decided to warm up my fingers. “Look here you selfish, uneducated, clueless BITCH! If you had one OUNCE of stamina”
She’s in pain, Jennifer. Find your compassion. She needs to read something she can identify with, something useful. I decided to read between the lines of her statement and found questions. They asked: Why do addicts relapse? Why do addicts choose to start drinking or using again after they’ve stopped, with seemingly no concern for consequences or how it will affect their loved ones? I also noted the author used the word “drag” as though friends and family have no choice but to take the ride.
“Think on this.” I blurted as I began typing. I’m going to make a comparison I think you’ll be able to relate to. It might give you some insight as to why some addicts continue to relapse or – in other words – choose to start drinking again. I’m going to write about alcoholism because I know it intimately.
Imagine you have an enormous mosquito bite on your left forearm. Do you remember how maddening itchy mosquito bites can be? Okay, now multiply the intensity of that itch by 100. That’s an offensive idea, isn’t it? Would you agree that an itch that powerful might make focusing on anything else a real challenge? Would you agree that alleviating that itch might be somewhat of a priority?
Your first, automatic response is to scratch it, right? That’s obvious. The problem with a mosquito bite is that although the initial scratch usually feels really good, the itch comes back. Scratching only exacerbates the itch. You might get creative and slap it, pinch it, put cream or ice on it or even snap it with a rubber band, but eventually you learn that you simply have to suffer through the itch and try to ignore it because nothing really works at alleviating it.
To add insult to injury, what if the bite never healed and couldn’t be removed? What if it was permanent? What if you knew the itch could flare up at any time for the rest of your life? How do you think that might change things? Do you think you might begin to resent having such a ridiculous affliction? Do you think you might begin to feel like a victim? Do you think you could continue to remain serene and optimistic and positive in the face of this ongoing absurdity? Or might you be overcome with temptation to scratch the bejesus out of the bite with sandpaper or dig it out with something sharp?
The itch from your bite can be compared, fractionally, to the ravenous compulsion or thirst an alcoholic feels to drink. Let that information marinate for a minute. It needs to sink in. Our addiction – born of habitual drinking over an extended period of time – is our bite. Our compulsion to drink – our thirst for alcohol is the itch. The itch doesn’t rest in some small space like our forearm or at the end of our big toe, it fills our entire bodies and minds. Drinking is our way of scratching. Drinking relieves us, temporarily, of our itch. It also increases the size of our bite and infects it, making it more itchy later.
Now, can you begin to see the enormous internal struggle that takes place inside the addict once the bite starts to itch?
In early sobriety some of us are taught to distract ourselves from our itch. We might begin new hobbies or even new relationships. We might focus more on work or family or church or whatever in an attempt to avoid scratching our itch. The problem with distractions is that we have to keep replacing them with new ones because no matter what we do or where we are or who we’re with our compulsion can and does find us.
Some of us choose to focus on our itchy bite and how we might avoid scratching it by talking about it at an AA meeting or other support group. The problem here is that these meetings put our bites and the itch under a microscope and that can inflame it. In the meetings we’re encouraged to discuss what caused our bite, how we feel about it, what makes it itch and how we avoid scratching it. We discuss steps to take that will make us successful at sobriety if we follow them. Focusing on all this can cause the bite to constantly radiate at a low level for some people because the spotlight is always on it. It’s constantly under scrutiny. Instead of living a life without alcohol, life becomes about no alcohol, thus it’s still about alcohol. So, avoiding the scratch through distractions or focusing on the bite in meetings doesn’t work for some people. Those people have to find a way to live with and manage their itch.
I drank alcoholically for years. The last four were spent in and out of treatment learning how to live with and manage my itch. It seemed the more effort I put into stopping drinking the more intensely my bite itched. I gradually learned three things; I learned to compare my compulsion to the mosquito bite so I could communicate with non-addicts. I learned that when my bite flares up I need to acknowledge it and then suffer through it – same as I do a mosquito bite. And third, I learned, not in any of my five treatment centers mind you, that I had to divorce my relationship with alcohol and drinking. That meant choosing a death.
Making a decision to stop drinking isn’t enough. Stopping swallowing alcohol isn’t enough. For me, a huge internal shift had to take place before I could be free of alcohol on all levels – physical, psychological and emotional. To successfully sever any relationship a person needs to not only understand exactly what that means, a person needs to realize exactly what that means. If understanding is a five ounce magnet then realization is the earth’s gravitational pull.
I realize a lot of people think addicts are weak and that we don’t know our limits. They think that stopping drinking should be or is easy because they can do it. We’re judged by a formula that isn’t applicable to us. It’s no more appropriate for a non-addict to say to an addict, “You’re weak and don’t know your limits!” than it is for an alcoholic to say to a non-addict, “You’re weak and should be able to drink half a gallon of vodka a day!”
I had a hell of a time trying to figure out how to free myself from the madness of both the compulsion to reach for and swallow alcohol and my attraction to the effects of it. They caused me nothing but agony and defeat and I used to suffer greatly, one way or another, whether I drank or not. When I drank I suffered severe intoxication and withdrawal. When I didn’t drink I suffered from sober awareness, which I found extremely intimidating and challenging. I became resentful and bitter. I wasn’t simply unhappy or angry or depressed, I was powerfully uncomfortable in my own skin and in life.
I had no peace and couldn’t find any to save myself, literally. I found myself repellent. And then I got angry. I got fed up with the entire fiasco that was taking place inside me. Alcoholism is lonely, tiring, humiliating, debilitating, expensive, terrifically painful physically, psychologically and emotionally and eventually – it’s a boring hell. It’s monotonous and tedious.
Addiction is a no-holds-barred war for a lot of people. The compulsion to drink battles a desire to escape or even die, which competes with the will to live. It’s a colossal internal on-going event that kills many of us. Hopefully, eventually we learn that to win the war we must choose to lose the battle. Choosing to suffer, sober, however we manage it, through everything that makes us uncomfortable is the battle. Living alive without resentment and in awareness is the war. (I had a small problem with using the words battle and war because I don’t really feel it’s appropriate to look at life as though it’s about warring and winning or losing, but I figured it was the best I could do right then.)
I stopped typing and blinked. I felt spent. Writing a well thought-out reply on craigslist was hard work. I’d stopped and edited myself a couple of times. An hour had passed. I re-read my post to double check for spelling errors and insightful excellence and then clicked the ‘submit’ tab to post my reply. The error message from craigslist came back saying my post was too long. I’d exceeded the 2400 character space limit.
“Come ON! You can’t be SERIOUS!” I yelled at the offending message. “Why isn’t the damn character limit warning at the beginning of my post?!”
I didn’t have a clue where to start editing. All this invaluable information just glared at me and I couldn’t share it. No one on craigslist would see a word of it. I couldn’t stand it. I decided it’d be easier to start over than edit my entire reply, but when I refreshed the page I found the original post at the bottom of the page. By the time I responded to it, it wouldn’t even be on the front page any longer – no one would see it.
And then between sniffles I had an epiphany. The only things missing were several deafening cracks of flashing lightening and some rolling thunder as a fade out. “I need to write a book.” I said in awe of my revelation.
“Who are you talking to?” Messy Tom asked sleepily.
“No one. I’m talking to myself again.”
I looked up to watch my son walk past me through the living room wearing his blue navy comforter over his head and clutching it under his chin. He looked like a 14 year old lanky Mother Superior with a brown wispy mustache.
“You’re going to write a book?” He asked, falling heavily on the couch.
“Yeah. I think I am.”
“Can I be in it?”
“I don’t know. Have you cleaned your room?”
From a chapter in my book, Saturation.