Getting Free

Notes Along the Journey From Addiction to Freedom

I thought I would have written this post a long time ago.

I thought I would never have to write this post.

After 245 days, I relapsed. Just once, and once again I am promising never again.

This sucks.

But I've got a lot of new tools in my toolbelt. If I can make it 245 days I can make it 365 days next time.

So, here's to next time. It starts now.

-A

For various reasons, life is a bit more stressful right now than it has been. The usual stuff: money, family, work. Just

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to

as Hamlet would say. In other words: daily life.

But with that stress has come an added temptation to turn back to the addiction. This is also expected. It makes sense. For decades that was my approach to dealing with stress in my life.

Never mind the fact that, in the end, the effects of the addiction usually make the stress worse.

Never mind the fact that being addicted was a massive source of stress during those decades.

Never mind the fact that I always feel worse about myself—and my situation— when I'm coming out of the effects of using than I felt before I used.

Yes, you're right. I'm saying all this to remind myself of these facts. The urge is strong right now, but as I remind myself of how foolish it is I can feel it loosening just a bit. Probably enough that I can wriggle my way free and avoid using for another day. Enough that I can look for healthy ways of dealing with life. Enough that I can recognize that I need to face my stresses, not try to cover them with the chemical blitz that comes from using.

205 days clean. That's more than half a year. Here's to the next 205.

-A

A day or so ago I was driving, listening to the radio, and a song came on that I have tried to avoid. For me, a year ago, it was full of hooks that would pull me towards my addiction. As I changed the channel (no reason to tempt fate) I had a flashback to the last time I had heard that song. I remembered thinking, at the time, “man, how can I not use, hearing that?” Here in the present, the hooks seemed silly, even trivial. They did not make me feel like I had to go use right away, not at all.

Of course I still changed the channel, but it was a startling realization. The song itself wasn't really a hook, the hook was inside me the whole time!

It was a good feeling, and some needed confidence, especially before last night.

What Happened Last Night?

Last night the urge was strong. I'm not sure if it's been three weeks or what, but I was sorely tried, and it felt like sneaking out of bed and going out to find my addiction was inevitable. I forced myself to stay in bed (staying in bed shouldn't be an act of will, I know. But it was) and then I dreamed that I was using. So when I half-awoke I was sure that I had already ruined my streak, and felt like I was back in the depths...until I realized that it had just been a dream. I still felt like I had failed when I got up a few hours later. Dreams are hard to shake sometimes.

Anyway. 191 days clean, according to the app I'm using to track that number in my phone. Almost two thirds of a year. I'm enjoying a clean life and looking forward to clean holidays; time where I can relax with my family, enjoy my time, and not feel like I need to sneak off and find the addiction. Here's hoping that I will stay clean through New Year's Day, and beyond! Here's to a happy holidays!

-A

This seems to be the best first response to cravings. When I feel the craving hit I can also feel my breathing get more shallow as my system anticipates the dopamine hit that using gives. I feel my heart beat faster.

So I’ve been practicing, whenever I get that feeling, even if it’s not a craving thing. I sit back, take three deep breaths, try to get my mind, heart, and lungs back to calm.

This also gives me time to make a deliberate, rather than knee-jerk reaction. Is this really what I want to do? Am I heading down a road that will lead back to addiction? What can I do instead?

Usually by the last deep breath I have a plan of escape, and I’m ready to move to a better activity. And if I haven’t thought of a way out after three breaths, well, deep breaths are free. I can take a few more.

184 days so far. There have been some close calls lately, but I’ve stayed free of the stuff.

-A

Not sure if this is any sort of “official” milestone, but I just realized that I have passed an internal milestone.

I can be alone, and still be calm.

For the past few months being alone has been dangerous. When I'm alone my brain has been spinning into the “hey nobody's watching, let's use” mindset, and I've had to do some pretty fancy footwork to move out of that mindset into something healthier. This has also meant that I'm trying to limit my time alone, trying to stay close to people I love, people that support me and also look to me for support. That's definitely helped a lot.

But I realized that I can spend time alone and not be totally hijacked by cravings. My brain doesn't immediately start planning the route from where I am to where I can get my addiction, like it used to. I can just read a book or watch a show for a while and be fine.

That doesn't mean I'm letting my guard down. If anything, I'm training myself to plan the other route, the one from where I am to where I can get help. Cravings still come up, and they aren't actually on a schedule. I'm still keeping myself under observation, but I'm less terrified than I used to be. I've made it 178 days, and I have more hope that I can keep going.

167 days straight isn't bad! Keeping the streak alive this long has really started changing how I view the world.

I laugh a lot more now. I am investing more time and energy into the people I love. I'm no longer holding people out away from me, because I'm no longer afraid they'll discover my secret. I don't have that secret any more. Mostly because I'm no longer afraid of letting people know. I don't say “I used to be addicted to the addiction”, I say “I struggle with addiction, but I've been doing pretty good lately.” and for the most part people are fine with it.

Three Weeks and Two Peaks

This was going to be a separate post, but meh, I'll just put them together.

I've noticed a pattern lately. Cravings come on a three-week cycle, more or less, and when I think I've finally weathered the worst of it, there's a second peak a day or so later. I'm not saying this is how it'll work for everyone, or even how it will work for me next month. But it's helpful for me to know that the first “attack” of cravings isn't alone, that it's got an aftershock that will be along in a bit, and I need to keep myself steeled up and busy that much longer.

Staying busy and active is easier, though. I'm more involved in people, like I said, and so I have less free time to just sit and stress about relapsing. I'm slowly trying to build the rest of my life into something I'm genuinely happy about, taking on new projects or commitments at a rate I think I can handle. There's a lot of time and “brain space” open to me now that used to be tied up in being addicted. It's nice.

I obviously am not totally out of the woods, not sure I will ever be, but I'm in a very good place right now and I'm happy.

-A

It's been over 130 days now. I have been free from using for over four months.

And I still think about using every day.

This is a bit frustrating, because I kind of hoped 90 days would be the cut off point. The point at which I stopped needing it so badly. But it still gnaws at me. On some level I feel like I'm still just staving off the inevitable moment when I fall back into using. Part of me feels like my freedom is a sham.

But yesterday the title of this post popped into my head, and brought with it all the context I'll lay out below. What did I Expect?

Did I expect thirty-some-odd years of off and on again addiction to disappear in three months? Did I think that the deep, deep ruts I've made in my brain would smooth out and disappear in a matter of weeks?

Did I expect this to be that easy?

And in a surprising way, that thought was comforting. This fight isn't over. It won't be for a long time. I'm not failing because total freedom wasn't achieved in three months, I'm still winning because I'm still resolved to win, and I work towards “winning” day after day. Every. Single. Day.

So the urges can come and I will fight. The desperation can set in and I will weather it. The guilt and shame and depression and attack and I will call on every resource at my disposal to assuage them. And I mean all of them. I have been more open with my spouse and religious leaders this time, letting them help me and letting them know that I need their help. I have been more serious about my therapy, letting those who are skilled in addiction recovery help me overcome my weakness.

What did I expect? Did I expect I would be free? Yep.

And I still expect that, someday, I will be. I got the timing wrong, but that doesn't mean I was entirely wrong. I'm in this for the long fight. And this time I brought backup.

I'm so tired of trying so hard. I guess this is the next step, the next challenge. The novelty of staying free is wearing off and now I just need to keep at it.

Reality is boring and dull and difficult and I would sincerely like to dive back into using. I would really like to just give up and fall apart. Except I know it's only appealing before I give up, the actual world of addiction is hollow and frantic and guilt-ridden and miserable.

But right now I almost don't care.

I'm still holding strong, and I'm going through all my usual avoidance rituals, including, well, this blog.

Still hanging in there, over a hundred and ten days clean. Might be near 120. Not sure.

Still hanging in there.

-A

This isn't the first time I've experienced a period of being free from this addiction. Many years ago, when I had been addicted for only a year or so, I broke free for a while. And it made a noticeable difference.

“What's changed with you?” one of my friends asked one morning, apropos of nothing.

“What do you mean?”

“I dunno... you seem, older, wiser, more serene, somehow.” She said.

I don't really remember my response. Something along the lines of “I've been making some changes in my life” or some such noncommittal nonsense.

But obviously her words have stuck with me, down through all these years. Now that I'm more than a hundred days free, I ask myself, am I again “older, wiser, more serene”?

Self inventory:

Do I feel:

  • Older: Always. Day by day. More on this in a moment.
  • Wiser: Not...terribly. I've been through all this before. It's entirely possible I've learned everything I can from the cycle of addiction and freedom and now it's time to leave that cycle behind and just stay free so I can learn new things.
  • More serene: Actually yes. I no longer feel haunted by self-loathing. I no longer feel like every person I meet might be able to see my secret shame somehow. I'm able to own who I have been and who I'm trying to be. (Well, to a degree. I'm still not going to publish my name and addiction here. I may be learning serenity, but I'm not stupid.)

But back to “older”. What I've found this time around is that I'm feeling younger. I randomly sing songs around the house more freely. I laugh a lot more. Because my guard isn't always up, I can be more silly and excited and laugh more.

The Inevitable Cautionary Part

In a group meeting a person who had made it to 270+ days free had a relapse. It was a crushing blow for them and their loved ones, and we spent a lot of time helping them feel like they can still move forward. They were almost three times farther out than I am now, and a momentary break still led to a setback. I may be feeling younger and more serene, but that in no way means that I should let my guard down.

-A

Just over 100 days free. Three digits, right? Cool, right?

To be honest I'm less concerned with the number of days behind me, I'm trying to keep my focus on this day, same as always.

But here's something that has changed.

When I started this blog I still very much though of myself as an addict, pretty much first and foremost. For the past two years I have called myself “an addict who is trying to get free”. But “an addict” has been my main personality trait for a long time. Not that I would have ever admitted that to anyone else, but if I asked myself “what are you?” the first word that would come up would be “addict”, or something even more derogatory.

But it's not anymore. Now I'm a person who deals with addiction. The addiction has moved down the list, from the main noun I use to describe myself, to being an external noun with which I am dealing. It's still there; I'm still keeping an eye on it, doing everything I can to avoid it and keep it at arm's length, or farther, but it's not me anymore.

There are even moments, each day, quiet moments where nothing is on my mind and I'm not instantly seized by the desire to go find my addiction and use again. I know that sounds like a small thing but I assure you it is not.

So hey, here's to progress, and to little steps. Words matter. I'm glad that I'm able to use slightly less condemning words about myself now.

-Not-just-“A”

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