The rain is pelting my windshield with the same velocity that the thoughts in my head are bouncing off one another. I woke up today believing it was a new day. I woke up believing that the world was shiny and forgiving. I woke up today and told myself that it was my first day on a different path.
Tears stream down my cheeks. I propel myself towards more of the same nightmare I’ve been living. This happens to us when we’re in active addiction. It happens over and over and over again. It is a compulsion. It is like being possessed. It is the ultimate way I’ve ever experienced helplessness.
They call it “using against your will”.
I know there’s a debate about the whole addiction thing, even now. In fact, a recent ruling in Canada has brought “the disease of addiction” to the forefront of a lot of conversations. You would think, as an aside, that the continuous, steadily climbing death rate from accidental drug poisonings would have done that.
If you take a quick look through the commentary on the ruling linked above it’s easy to see why. I don’t know if stigma is a strong enough word for what drug users face, and I think there ought to be an even stronger term for the way addicts are viewed and spoken about. It’s as though they are subhuman. It as though they are less than dirt. I notice one word pop up again and again in these comments. It’s a common thread throughout the discussion, from both advocates and those who believe we should be shipped off to an island.
This is the age-old debate, I’m sure it’s news to no one. Science and the people in charge say that addiction is a disease. They say that substance abuse disorder is a complex mental health issue that is characterized mainly by the compulsive use of substance to the continued detriment of the user. There’s a callback here to the first paragraph, see? It’s a lack of control over the urge to use that defies reason.
Only a handful of people will react this way to drugs. There is a very clear line between doing something over and over again because the effects are enjoyable and doing something over and over again when you don’t want to, or when it hurts you, or when it hurts the people you love as you let them down time after time. There is a world of pain between those two scenarios that I couldn’t begin to put into words.
The thing about addiction is, thank god, if you haven’t ever been addicted it can be hard – maybe even impossible – to wrap your head around.
I’ve had it said to me by so many people in so many ways, and bless each one because I know it’s not said to minimize my experience or to hurt me.
“Lindsay, if your drug of choice is ruining your life, just stop using it.”
“No one is forcing you to use.”
“Don’t put that shit in your body anymore.”
“Just don’t pick up – under any and all circumstances.”+
I know how it must look. I mean, I know how it does look. I know how bewildering it is because I’m puzzled myself. Some moments I remember as though I’m watching myself on a tv screen. Some moments I don’t remember at all. Some of my active addiction flashes before me on a regular basis but sometimes a smell or a sound will trigger something inside me from a time and place I had no prior recollection of.
On the other hand, one of the things that I have shouted many times should be mentioned too. It is prevalent enough to be chosen as the title of this post. It’s said with my hands in the air, or clutching my face. I say it in whisper, but more often I shout. I say it in anger, exacerbation, sometimes I say it sadly. Because at the end of the day, it’s true.
I feel overwhelmed. I feel overpowered. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in diagnoses and I resent the cocktail of medication I have to take.
I face guilt and shame over my past every day while also trying to walk through a journey of self-forgiveness. I’m expected to do this while still simultaneously holding myself accountable for the damage I did and the hurt that I caused. It’s a real tough nut because I have to accept the fact that I did things that went against my values and I put the wrong things in my priority zone for a long time. It’s not that I’m trying to let myself off the hook… In group we learned that we need to forgive ourselves for things that we did that were out of character and harmful. We were taught to separate who we are when we act in our right mind versus who we are when we are acting under the influence. With any luck, you’ll never have to be that person again.
I have to be honest with myself when I reflect upon my addiction because it had a huge impact on the people around me who had to watch as I struggled. The real kicker is that if you haven’t lived in active addiction, you can’t possibly know how it feels. In this same way, I can’t possibly know what it was like for you.
It hurts to read comments about this topic from people who have an obvious bias against drug users and even more of a bias against addicts. I have to be in a very strong place mentally to expose myself to these opinions. It’s unfortunate that people feel this way, but it’s not this that hurts the most. What hurts the most is hearing supportive people – allies, people who love me – without malice or ill intent, using the word that stops me dead in my tracks.
Because, frankly, it kills me to know that you think I chose this.
It’s complex. I know it is. It doesn’t make sense to you that we keep going back, day after day. I promise you that it doesn’t make sense to us either. I know that, on the surface, it probably looks a lot like we don’t care, but we do this constant internal song and dance that you couldn’t possibly relate to.
“okay, I said I wasn’t going to do this anymore but I did it and here we are. It’s alright though, it’s okay because I’m going to get clean. I am. I’m going to be better right after this.”
As I was coming to terms with some of this stuff, I was angry. I was mad at myself because I let this get so out of hand. I was angry that I couldn’t manage it on my own. One of my support workers gave me some words that I hold dear to my heart. He said, “Don’t hate your addiction. It served a purpose. Whatever trauma and hurt you were going through at the time might have done you in if you hadn’t have found a way to subdue it. You did what you had to do to stay alive, and that’s okay.”
That method of coping isn’t ideal, and it’s not a long term solution, but it was the only way you knew how to get yourself through. It’s okay. But it’s important that we recognize that that method of coping doesn’t serve us or heal us, it keeps us stuck in our grief or trauma cycle and perpetuates itself.
Drugs are incredibly effective at turning off all of the things that plague us. Why else would we all turn to booze after something emotionally taxing? Socially, it’s not just accepted but encouraged that we wind down with some wine after a hard day. In fact, culturally, alcohol is a widely accepted method of taking the edge off or drowning one’s sorrows. It’s understandable and acceptable to a point, until you’re dealing with one of us. The handful of us who can’t switch it off.
When it comes to drugs, for me, there is no off. I’m told that normal people can have a little of this, or a little of that and then go on with their lives, but for people like me it doesn’t look quite like that.
When I am safely standing in a place of clarity, I have the power to choose not to pick up. Once I reach a certain point in sobriety I can use the tools I have gained to get me out of crisis without going backwards. In other words, when I am acting in my sane brain, sure, I might have the capacity to talk myself out of old patterns and continue on my own red road.
But addiction isn’t something that is ever really cured. Every moment that I encounter big feelings, any time when I feel frustrated or unheard, any slight sense of injustice might be enough to push me off the cliff. I will always, always, always be followed by the undeniable truth that if I open that door, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever shut it again. The second that synthetic rush hits me, I lose myself and I lose the power to choose.
I am no longer the one behind the wheel and it could be hours, days, weeks or years before I can climb my way out of it, gasping for air.
We approach drug use and addiction in a punitive manner, pushing people into the criminal justice system to teach them a lesson about their bad behaviour. I mean, with this model is it any wonder that so many people regard addicts as being scum? But if the medical community and the guys doing all those science-y things swear that addiction is an issue of mental illness, is any amount of jail time or community service going to lift a person out of it?
I wonder what it might look like if we all started viewing substance abuse disorders as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal one?
Because there’s no room for debate on that, really. The way we handle our marginalized people is a choice. The way that we turn a blind eye to a crisis that is killing record amounts of those people year after year is a choice. The lack of funding for rehabilitation centres is a choice.
And vilifying sick people for being sick? That is also a choice. It’s a choice that each one of us makes for ourselves, but I beg you, before you do… please know that 21% of people in Canada will struggle with addiction in their lifetime. When you make your choice, someone you love who fits into that category will be watching.