Addiction: The Monster Within
We were sitting in a circle and couldn’t contain ourselves. The atmosphere bordered on locker-room raucous — no surprise for a room full of addicts.
We’d forgotten how to laugh. We’d lost that spark in the darkness of our addiction. Now it poured out recklessly.
Dirty jokes. Name calling. Poking and prodding sore spots and insecurities. The laughter was a little lewd, but it was better than soaking in our shame.
The pandemonium was a potent brew: One-part reclaimed joy; one-part unfamiliar, no-longer-malnourished energy; and two-parts anxiety avoidance.
Ranging from early 20s to mid-40s, this group of eight men were weeks into a month-long residential treatment stay. Alcohol, opiates, crystal, coke, Adderall, edibles, benzos, DMT. These were our weapons of mass distraction.
We were quite the rag-tag bunch.
A middle-aged lawyer with a marriage on the fritz and an iron grip on a handle of vodka. A young body-shop mechanic who chased the dragon and turned blue, twice. A cocaine-binging PhD candidate. An HVAC repair man who ingested anything available. A defense contractor gifted an 8 ball of blow to celebrate his last night before rehab. An Adderall-addicted financial analyst who’d worked his way into a psychotic break. A vodka-guzzling transportation exec. A coke, booze and Adderall titrating accountant. And me — a burnt-out, public relations exec who’d imploded into a puddle of Tito’s.
We’d all turned to alcohol and drugs to silence the invisible, inner voice of unspeakable trauma. We kept taking them to blot out our unmanageable lives and social disconnection.
Now we squirmed in our seats, like stir-crazy toddlers with an unscratchable itch. Our bodies ached to sprint out for smoke breaks and slam paper cups of coffee before they locked up the caffeine.
Inpatient Shock and Awe
Our group facilitator was not amused. She had a show to run, and we were burning her minutes.
A gentle approach couldn’t cut through the din. So, she shocked us.
“Listen up! You think this is a joke? Look to your left, look to your right. In six months, one of the people next you will be dead.”
That got our attention. Not in a good way.
How dare she! We were reclaiming life, goddamnit. Sure, we’d gone over the top, but doomsday threats don’t work with us. We’ve lived our lives defiantly thumbing our noses at bosses and bucking social norms. We push back. We flash our canines and crack our knuckles.
Thereafter she would be known as Nurse Ratched — a derogatory moniker based on the harsh, tyrannical nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I made a case to my counselor for her to never lead our workshop again:
“Counter-productive to the compassionate approach to recovery that resonates with my cohort” — Or maybe some other corporate gobbledygook designed to appear diplomatic and mask (poorly) the outrage seething beneath.
And she didn’t lead our group again. In that moment, I felt I’d won in advocating for our needs.
This was but one of many battles that my fellow patients and I waged with the treatment center administrators.
Finger Pointing and Blame Shifting
We had a litany of complaints.
Staff locked up the coffee too early. Too many workshops. Draconian limits on withdrawals for the commissary. No delivery food. Tiny time windows for visitors. Too little phone time. Aggressive blood-drawing nurses.
Pat, one of the other patients around my age, accused them of barging into his room “like storm troopers, holding him down and drawing his blood against his will.”
Never mind that he was going through the DTs and needed close medical monitoring.
I complained that another patient was disrupting the group’s treatment. Every day, he clutched his pearls and stole entire group sessions twisting his rabid, reckless cocaine benders into woe-is-me sob stories.
My wet brain’s distorted solution was to attempt to secure his ejection from our residential treatment house.
My counselor’s redirect was to focus on my own treatment, not on his.
He told me a story about a CEO recently in treatment, who had his own list of complaints and recommendations for how the facility could be better run. He spent his days and nights meticulously drafting a PowerPoint slide deck for the administrators.
What happened when he left treatment?
Immediate face plant into a catastrophic relapse.
He tasted the asphalt because he spent his treatment pointing the finger at others, blame shifting, avoiding accountability and deflecting away from his own recovery.
Message received: Focus on your own shit.
And, for the next year, I did just that.
After rehab came intensive outpatient treatment and daily AA meetings. Next came diet changes, a long-overdue return to the gym and a manic tear through dozens of recovery books. Recovery was my full-time job, and I’m forever grateful for the financial support that enabled me to do the work.
The Real Shock
We’d only enjoyed four months of freedom when we found out Pat was dead.
I still have a voicemail from him on my phone. It’s an apology for repeatedly calling me drunk.
In rehab, he boasted about how he’d detoxed himself over 50 times, clutching the porcelain altar, retching out bile and white-knuckling his way through the panic and shakes.
This time he didn’t.
His ex-girlfriend discovered his body after watching newspapers pile up on his doorstep. I think it was a stroke, but I couldn’t bear to find out more.
I never called him back. The shame still sits in the pit of my stomach.
Jeff only lasted a few more months. For him, it was a coke-fueled, multi-day bender. He learned he’d lost custody and then found out his wife had been cheating on him.
It was too much to absorb for someone a few months out of rehab.
Their obits didn’t capture their wonderful, bright souls, ingenious minds or warm hearts.
They had so much to give to the world and to themselves. They’d struggled through so much pain and trauma.
It’s been years of therapy and recovery meetings, and I still haven’t fully processed the loss.
Note to all: Alcohol withdrawal is deadly. Do not attempt without medical supervision.
The Monster of Addiction
Nurse Ratched was right.
Addiction is a ravenous opportunist — roaming the streets in darkness, stalking hopeless souls in alleyways. The monster lures the desperate with the promise of anesthetized pain and snatches them from the jaws of life.
In rehab, we wasted our precious hours of treatment. Instead of processing our pain and fully absorbing the risks of our addictive behaviors — we dodged our problems and deflected.
For many, it’s simply too painful to face our trauma, unmanageable lives, ruptured relationships. The memories are too violent to witness.
That’s the thing about addiction recovery. When the substance use stops, the problems remain. But we no longer have our primary coping mechanism.
Our addiction uses these problems to fuel our desire to pick up that bottle, pop that pill, kiss that pipe.
My monster wants me to focus on other people, to shift blame, to point the finger, to accuse others for my lot in life. The more I shift the focus onto others the more room it has to grow, thrive and justify poor behavior.
Every time I run from my problems, engage in self-righteous anger or claim I am a victim of an unjust world, my monster eats away at me from the inside, patiently chipping away at my resolve to stay sober.
This Life or Death Struggle
I was a lucky one. My counselor broke through. He helped me stop deflecting and focus on myself.
He gave me the gift of sobriety. It’s a gift that I’m trying to pass on today as an addiction counselor.
It’s not easy work. I bear witness to my clients’ horrifying traumas. Like my rag-tag inpatient crew, they all used substances to try to fly from their pain. But they flew too close to the sun and rained down wreckage as they plummeted to earth.
Last week, I had a tough day. A client complained to the director about the treatment team. It wasn’t even about me, but I felt it and scrutinized myself, as I do.
Ready for the night to be done, I raced down Canal St. to catch the 6 Train home. My headphones were in — so I almost didn’t hear the screaming.
Outside a McDonald’s, a twenty-something man sat cradling a young woman convulsing violently. He was attempting to talk to her while her friend screamed at him and desperately pleaded with EMS to come quick.
It was a scene of such deep chaos, horror and raw emotions that it will stay with me forever.
Paramedics were on the scene fast, but I’ll never know what happened. I didn’t want to be part of the crowd of gawking, video-taking onlookers.
The truth hits hard in moments like these. Their desperation, agony and panic shocked me back to the friends I’ve lost along my recovery journey.
Again Nurse Ratched was right: Addiction is not a joke. It’s a fucking social disaster.
What I witnessed is not an uncommon scene on the streets of NYC.
People are dying everywhere: overdosing, passing away from alcohol-related diseases and dying by suicide. “Deaths of despair” have been on the rise for years and are a major contributing factor to the recent drop in U.S. life expectancy.
I do this work because it matters — much more than the fancy titles and inflated paychecks from my ego-drunk life. I’ve witnessed some of the most incredible transformations and rekindling of spirits I ever could imagine.
Watching others put down the distractions, stop the deflection and actually do the work gives me hope in what can easily be regarded as hopeless times. Supporting the steps my clients take toward recovery helps me honor the friends that I’ve lost.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction (and the odds are you do), try to invest the time and empathy to make an authentic connection.
Addiction is a disease of despair partly because it involves social disconnection. Your helping hand might give them hope in their darkest hour.
Sometimes nonjudgmental compassion, acknowledgement of their pain and emotional presence are enough to help someone turn a corner.