Getting Free

Notes Along the Journey From Addiction to Freedom

And that's part of why I'm doing this. I want to celebrate Christmas without thinking about when I can get away from my family and use. I want to celebrate the Fourth of July without the addiction. I've been clean longer this time than have in a long time, and this Fourth of July I'm celebrating independence from addiction.

I'm slowly re-learning all the good things that exist in the real world, and being able to experience them without that specific haze is adding a new sheen to them. I still have cravings, I still have the physical pains that my recovery support friends and therapists say are just part of the process, but they're fading, and I'm starting to feel more hope that maybe, juuuuuuuust maybe, this time I can be free. I don't need to fall back into it again.

-A

Made it. The craving has subsided again. If history is any indicator, I'll be fairly okay for another week or two. But one feeling remains:

The feeling that, no matter how far I've come, how many days I've strung together, I'm always roughly five minutes away from relapse.

I've learned to stop imagining the steps that lead to using, because I swear it stirs up the same feelings. It's self-sabotage. That's just an avenue of thought that I have to cut myself off from completely.

I've learned (I hope I've learned this...) that I'm never so free that I can stop being careful. I rail against this some times. I want to just be normal, to just go through life without constantly watching myself to see if I'm backsliding.

But that isn't my lot in life. And really, this isn't actually a huge problem. Many people deal with far larger issues. Ya know, things like war, poverty, abuse, discrimination... I have it easy. I have one little problem that I have to deal with.

So I'm dealing with it. One day at a time, watching my own back for signs of backsliding, cutting myself off from certain things that might draw me back in.

Tomorrow marks eighty days free. That's the longest I've gone in three years, as near as I can tell. Here's hoping for eighty more.

-A

Here's the worst time for cravings to kick in: 1 AM. Here's why: I'm trying to sleep. My whole job at 1 in the morning is turning my brain off and somehow slipping across that boundary from awareness to dreaming. This is very easy if I just let it happen, and impossible if I'm trying to make it happen.

At 1 AM all the justifications and rationalizations for relapse sound reasonable. This is a hard fight because I am literally fighting both sides. I want to stay clean, but I also really, really want to give in.

The side in favor of giving in is still me, and has heard all the reasons for staying clean before. So the “give up” monologue sounds like this:

Yeah, I know, I know. If I give up and get really stuck this time I'll lose my family and probably my job and live in a crappy apartment working some dead end job and using all my money on rent and food and video games and the addiction. I'll end up a fat, loser, loner slob and die alone but you know what? Good. I'm tired of trying to live the “good life”. I'm ready to just give up and sink into addiction entirely and just. Stop. Trying. It's too hard and using takes the pain away. I'm done with the pain.

And in the middle of the night there is a certain appeal to this.

But I didn't fail this time.

Here's the response that worked this time:

I thought about the people I love. Not just like, a list of names. I thought about their actual faces, their actual personalities. One by one. I thought of what would happen to each one of them if I just gave up. Spoiler alert: It never ended well. If I give up it will hurt people.

And in that half-dream state I imagined each of these people, and I imagined my bond with them as a physical thing, a golden chain. I took that chain between me and them, and I tied it around the cravings. Chain after chain, person after person, wrapping those cravings tight, constraining them, removing their power. I know it was just a semi-dream, just my brain making a metaphor for itself, but this time it worked. This time it was enough. Eventually I rolled over and fell asleep.

I'm still feeling the cravings this morning, but in the daylight I can deal with them. When I'm up and active I have developed a number of strategies to dodge the cravings. I hope they will have dissipated by bedtime tonight. Or I hope that I'm tired enough to fall asleep before they make themselves heard in the dark of the night. But if I not I have one more tool to deal with midnight cravings. I have a new metaphor to help me remain strong, and a new mantra: If I give up it will hurt [the name of one specific, real person], repeated, cycling through people I love, fighting back for them.

Wish me luck.

-A

Not much going on. Just keeping on. So far, so good.

Which is probably for the best. I was pondering the nature of relapse the other day. It's easy to think that I could indulge “just a little bit” but in my heart of hearts I know that isn't true. I know that if I let myself use at all I'd dive straight down to the lowest, most broken, most addicted depths immediately, Because when cravings come I'm not craving “just a little bit”. I'm craving the full on experience, using like a real addict.

There was a time where “Just a little bit” was enough, but that time is far in my past.

There's a common saying that “relapse is part of recovery.” Or “A relapse doesn't undo progress”.

And that's...true...ish. Those are phrases that should only be said after someone has relapsed, to help them stand back up and keep moving forward. If you (or an addict you know) are on a streak of non-relapse days you should put those thoughts right out of your mind, because they feel like permission to just give up for a while. Falling down and getting back up is good, but not falling down is better.

The “big goal” of addiction recovery is finding Lasting Freedom, a term that definitely earns its capitals and italics. Every day I don't use is one day closer to Lasting Freedom.

But...what is Lasting Freedom? It's just a long string of days where I don't use.

So, here's where I have to be subtle with myself. It's okay, even good, to enjoy each day I don't use on it's own, not just as a step to something bigger. Even if I'm not fully free (will I ever be really free? Probably not.) I have made it through this day without using, and that's pretty good too!

But I don't want to get too excited yet, because I've learned by experience that complacency leads to relapse.

So the trick is to celebrate each day as a victory, without getting too excited, but still celebrating.

Imagine trying to throw that party!

-A

NOTE: This does contain some words from the Bible, but no judgement, or fire-and-brimstone, or conversion attempts. I'm in no position to judge or preach to anyone.

Ever. At all. In any way.

This is just a parable that I have found helpful as I seek to understand—and hopefully escape—addiction. If the Bible is uncomfortable for you feel free to skip this one.

Read more...

An advisor in a recovery group I work with recently mentioned that in many cases (not all cases, everything is individual) recovering addicts report a little added “bonus” that seems to kick in at around ninety days clean. At that point, apparently, people find that their mind seems sharper. They see colors more brightly, they see the world around them more clearly, and feel more engaged. I'm looking forward to it.

I'm in no way trained to understand this phenomenon, but here's how I conceptualize it:

Addiction takes up a lot of space, and it re-wires the “reward” pathways in your brain. People get addicted because their addiction offers huge (at first) rewards for using. So our brains rewire themselves more and more. I have definitely seen, in my own life, that any time I'm not using the world feels gray. It's like using sucks up all the color and life in the world. All the brain reward pathways lead to addiction.

So breaking free lets other things be rewarding again. I have started to feel that, and it's a good feeling. My guess is that three months is around the time that an addicted brain reconciles itself to the fact that the addiction isn't there anymore, so it should start looking for other ways to be happy.

Like I said, I'm really looking forward to it.

-A

There's a genre of video games known as “run-based games”. They can have any other characteristics they like, but run-based games are built with the expectation that you won't complete them the first time you play them. Think of old arcade games and you generally have the idea. You start the game, make it a little way in, then die. New quarter please! The next time you start at the same point, get a little deeper into the game, and die. Next quarter.

Over time you build up the skills to make more progress. You learn how to dodge, how to counter the attacks of the enemies in the game. In more modern run-based games you might acquire tools or permanent upgrades that make the game easier. The expectation is still that you will try, fail, try again. The kicker is this: if you were somehow perfect from the get-go, you could theoretically beat the game without any upgrades, on the first try. You won't, nobody will, but technically the only thing stopping you is your own lack of experience.

So that's the metaphor that makes me feel a little better these days. My current run is just over sixty days. But man, I have had some bad runs at getting free. In theory I could have just...walked away, right? Using is a choice, an action that I take using my own agency, so I can just choose not to. I could complete the game on the first run.

But, for me at least, it doesn't work that way. I tried and failed. And learned. And tried and failed and learned and tried and failed and gave up for a while. And tried again. And again.

And now I've made it deeper into recovery than I've been in years. I might fail again. It's very possible. But I might not. And for the first time in a long time that feels possible too. Maybe this time I'll beat the end boss.

-A

One of the things I've started to notice more was how much my addiction is in my environment. It's all around me, all the time. Even though I thought I was doing a good job of hiding my addiction, even though I thought it was a “little secret” that nobody could detect when I wasn't actively using, it turns out I've filled my environment with it.

Which, I guess, makes sense. For years I've been involved in this. I have built a framework around me that was full of hooks...I would say “triggers” except that word has a different meaning these days.

So now I'm cutting a lot of things free. Not people, pleasantly enough; most of the actual people I know have been good influences and have been more than willing to make some little accommodations for me when I tell them what I'm trying to accomplish.

And it's an odd mix. I've started to look at things more subjectively instead of objectively. Even if, on the surface, a thing has nothing to do with my addiction, it still goes if it feels like it has “hooks” in it. Turns out addiction isn't about logic. Who knew????

That podcast that I like: it's not objectively about my addiction, but when I listen to it I can subjectively“feel” the hooks. It's gone. Same with that Netflix series I used to love. I don't know if the hooks were there to begin with or if they were embedded by being a show I watched when I was using frequently, but at this point it doesn't matter. And on and on. It's not just media, it's a lot of things. Certain clothing. Books. Some restaurants.

Now I'm finding new things to fill those spaces. And...it's kinda fun? I like listening to new podcasts. I kinda like spending time away from Netflix and reading instead. (And yes, those books that have “hooks” are gone now too. Which means I get to find new books!)

It's almost become a game: every time I feel “hooked” by something, I turn it off or push it away and there's a moment of excitement:

What new thing will I find to fill this space?

-A

Most of the time, when I've found the ability to open up to someone else about being addicted, that person has been wonderful, supportive, and helpful.

But there are a few things that still get said, both in person and online, that are... less then helpful, shall we say. Let's save some time and get them all out of the way at once.

Have you tried just...not using?

[Bright smile] Yes. Yes I have. Many times.

The best answer I've found is, “have you tried just...not being afraid of spiders?” Rationally you know that most spiders are harmless, but you keep going back to being afraid of them. With work you can get over that fear. This is similar.

Well, can't you just like, try harder?

Yep! That is definitely part of it. But that's just part of it and I've only got so much strength on my own. Which is why I'm seeking help and trying to fight smarter, not just harder. The hard part about “trying harder” is how hard it is.

You can't be addicted to that! It's not addictive!

This one is very common in online forums. And it's really rough.

A therapist I worked with for a while told me about this one. She said that she's heard people say “you can't get addicted to that!” in reference to just about every addiction, and it usually comes from one of three places:

  1. The person is also addicted, and is still in denial about their addiction. They're in the “I can stop any time I want” phase. They want to believe that you can't be addicted, because then they can tell themselves they aren't.
  2. The person is one of those lucky people who just doesn't seem to get addicted. There are people who can partake “socially” or from time to time and they just...don't get hooked. I am intensely jealous of these people. I'm trying not to be.
  3. The person has never really dealt with any addiction, and in their mind “addiction” means being a strung out junkie like in 1980's “very special episodes”. In their mind, if you don't snort/inject it, it's not addictive. If I am interacting with this person for real (not just on an online forum) I might spend some time explaining a more realistic model of what addiction is (like in my introduction) But most of the time I just shrug and try not to let my mood collapse.

Do you actually like that? (Alternately “how could you like that?”)

No, I absolutely hate it.

Except for in those moments when it's literally all I can think about and I would gladly trade something unimportant—my arms and legs, say—to use again. When I do relapse I like it right up to the moment the hook it provides starts to fade. Then I hate it again, but now I also hate myself for giving in! Fun!

(A big part of recovery programs is getting over the self-hatred part because it's amazingly detrimental. Feeling like a bad person inevitably leads to a “binge”. Learning to accept yourself and stand up and try again is more likely to lead to success. Or so I have been told.)

Some Helpful Things to Say

There are some good things you can say. They can be uncomfortable because, well, this is an uncomfortable topic. But here's some of the best:

Wow, that sounds rough.

Thank you! It really can be.

I'm not judging you.

Seriously, please say this if you know someone who is struggling to get free. I promise you they're judging themselves to pieces. It's an awkward thing to say, but bite the bullet and say it. Please.

Listen, if you ever need to talk, like, even at 2AM, just call or even just text, okay? I'm here for you.

You'll have to say this a few dozen times. But if you have the strength to make the offer it will mean the world to them. At some point they might just need it and you will have saved them.

Do you have the help you need? Is there a professional or someone you can call or something?

You don't have to take on an addict's problems yourself. There is support, and just encouraging them to find it is a major help.

Do you want to go get some lunch? I'm starving.

Let them know that you still accept them, still want to hang out, still think of them as a person, not a problem.

It takes a lot of strength to say any of these things. I know, I get it. All I can say is that any little bit of understanding helps immensely.

Thanks for reading, I appreciate it.

-A

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