There are few things about drug and alcohol addiction that are easy, especially when it comes to overcoming the disorder. Detox is physically and mentally uncomfortable, therapeutic growth is a 24-hour investigation into the deepest and most painful parts of your life, and the decision to avoid relapse is one that is made repeatedly throughout every day.
With all the difficulties that come with recovery from addiction, is it worth all the hard work and effort?
The Addiction Struggle
Leah* believes that it is. A longtime drinker and stimulant addict, she identifies as a mother first and a recovering addict second. Says Leah: “Honestly, without [my kids], I don’t know if it would be worth it every day. I probably would have relapsed 100 times by now. It’s hard. It’s really hard some days. It’s all I can do to not drink. But if I drink, then I can’t see my kids, and there’s pretty much nothing harder than that.”
Leah was an active alcoholic who abused cocaine, crystal meth and prescription stimulant drug Adderall: “Pretty much anything that would give me a boost, I would take it, and I would take it to excess. I mixed vodka with energy drinks because I told myself that vodka didn’t smell, and it would help me to relax while the energy drink kept me going. I even abused herbs like gotu kola and guarana. I bought tinctures online and put them in my coffee – and not just in the morning but all day long. That’s how it started.”
When the herbs, coffee and energy drinks weren’t enough to help her get through the day, she began to use cocaine and crystal meth, sold to her by her teen son’s friend. “I got pretty much everything from him, whatever he could get that was an upper, I wanted it. I even got Adderall from him sometimes. That was my favorite.”
The drug use quickly began taking a toll, however. Leah began experiencing serious mood swings as well as health problems.
Says Leah: “I began having panic attacks where I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t function. I would freak out and have to lock myself in the bathroom until I could stop sweating and get my heart to slow down. And my heart – I started having heart palpitations, arrhythmias, where it would beat irregularly. I started having fainting spells, just passing out.
“That’s the only reason that I stopped. My husband – my ex-husband – took me to the emergency room one time after I passed out. I tried to blame it on not eating enough, not drinking enough water, but the doctor told him I had drugs in my system. My husband left me that night. That same night, and he took the kids with him. After a couple of days, I realized he wasn’t coming back. I went to see a lawyer and she said, ‘Get off drugs or you’ll never see your kids again.’ So I went to rehab.”
Looking back, Leah concedes that as hard as recovery can be, addiction was no picnic. Maintaining lies, trying to act sober when she wasn’t, and dealing with mood swings and health problems caused by drug use, not to mention the shame of buying drugs from a teenager and her constant struggle to hide that fact – and hide all of it from her husband who was becoming increasingly distant due to her erratic behavior, paranoia and mood swings. Leah says, “In some ways, recovery is a cake walk after that. All I have to do is not get high, not drink. That’s it. Everything else is negotiable.”
Being honest with oneself and others, not only about drug use but also about the big and little things in life, is a big part of recovery. Keeping secrets can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, anger, and self-loathing – all of which can trigger relapse.
Conversely, addiction is defined by deception and hiding. It’s a complete 180-degree turnaround for many people in recovery to learn how to be honest about who they are, who they were, and what they are doing to reconcile those two people. For many, this is a difficulty that must be faced unexpectedly in recovery, and it’s one that Leah struggles with as well.
“I have had a hard time with being honest. I know it’s important, but at the same time, I don’t want to cause myself more pain or loss due to my addiction,” says Leah. “In certain situations, I have to stop myself from lying to cover up things that I did or trying to gloss over the details. Instead, I just say, ‘I made bad choices. But I’m making good choices now. I can’t fix the past. But I’m working on making today a good day, and I’m working on making sure that my future is very different from my past.’”
When Leah begins to feel the weight of omission pulling her down, she goes to what she calls “confession.” Meeting with a therapist and sharing her past in detail, admitting whom she hurt and how while under the influence is painful, but it helps to stop the feelings of guilt from overtaking her.
“I have to forgive myself almost every day for the pain I caused my children because of my drug use and drinking. And for the pain I caused myself because I can’t see them every day now. I kept a lot of secrets during my addiction, so now even if it’s something small, I’m honest about it or I say nothing. It’s all I can do.”
Sticking with It
They call it “showing up” in 12-Step meetings. Continuing to go to therapy, to stay involved in group meetings, and remain actively engaged with one’s recovery is a big part of staying sober for the long term. It’s also difficult for many people in recovery because it can get tedious – even boring.
“Focusing on just me can be a real bore. My life is really boring now. And having to talk about the same things every day – there are definitely more interesting things that I could be doing,” says Leah.
It’s not just talking about herself in group meetings and at therapy that can be boring; it’s listening to other people’s problems.
Says Leah: “When you’ve had a long day
at work or you’re just kind of dealing with your own problems, you don’t want to go to a support group or a 12-Step meeting and listen to someone whine about stupid stuff.
Like ‘Oh poor me, my boyfriend didn’t call me back when he said he would,’ or ‘They were out of my favorite cereal at the store!’ It’s like, ‘Shut up! I have real problems. I haven’t seen my kids in three weeks and my stupid ex-husband won’t let me talk to them on the phone!’ I mean, sometimes those meetings can make you want to drink just to drown out the annoying people.”
On the other hand, she credits continuing to go to 12-Step meetings and other support groups with saving her life and giving her the chance to enjoy the life she has today.
“Without those meetings, I would have gone crazy with boredom. I can’t see my kids. I can’t get high. What am I supposed to do? Go to meetings. That’s what you do. Because the alternative – for me, anyway – is a life without my kids and killing myself with drugs. Continually showing up for therapy may be boring, but you will survive it.”
During the haze of addiction, people do things that they would never do when sober. When the haze finally begins to lift in recovery, and they are faced with their behaviors and choices – and the consequences of those choices – it can be devastating. For many, feelings of guilt, shame and horror at what they have done and what they have lost due to their addiction is enough to cause them to relapse, and learning to live with their past and move forward can be one of the most difficult things about recovery.
Leah has lost a great deal due to her addiction. She lost her marriage, custody of her children, and her home. She still struggles with health problems that began due to her stimulant use, and she is working through some drug-related legal issues as well.
Says Leah: “Accepting what I lost because of my drug use is
impossible. I can’t accept it. It’s too much. I have to put it on a shelf, do what I can about it and keep going, but I can’t dwell on it because it will never be okay. I can deal with the health stuff and the courtroom dramas will end eventually, but I’ll never be able to get back my kids’ trust, that time I lost with them, that I’m still losing. It’s something I have to work on every day and hope that time will help me to heal.
“But what’s the alternative? To go back to drinking and drug use and make it even worse? No. That’s not a choice. It doesn’t make what happened any easier to deal with today, but there’s just no option but to go through it. I know there are some people that think, ‘I can’t deal with it. I have to get drunk or get high. It hurts too bad.’ Or, ‘I can’t fix it anyway; I might as well get loaded.’ But I don’t think like that. I may want to [drink], but then I just think it all the way through, and I don’t. That’s my process.”
Leah, like many addicts in recovery, was faced with the monumental task of starting a whole new life from scratch, with little or no support from friends and family at a time when she was feeling most vulnerable.
“I had to find a job, find a place to live. My health insurance only covered me until the divorce was final, so luckily, it covered the cost of treatment, but I had to find a job with benefits to cover everything else,” says Leah.
She also had to find a way to pay for a lawyer to help her through her drug-related legal problems and another one to help her sift through the divorce.
Says Leah: “When I got out of rehab, I literally had nothing but the bag of clothes that I brought in with me. Everything else was gone; I had no access to my old accounts, nothing. It’s been more than two years, but I still remember that feeling when I walked out those doors of just – I don’t know where to go, what to do. It was beyond desperate. It was numb. It was terror.”
“I stayed in a homeless shelter the first few nights. I had to go on cash aid and food stamps for a while until I came to a financial settlement with my ex. Then I moved into a hotel for a few weeks because I needed time to get my references together and find a place for me and my kids, plus find a job, save some money for first and last. Those first six months after treatment were horrible. That first year, even. I mean, just awful. Everyday I felt like I wanted to give up, but like I said, what’s the alternative? I can’t just choose not to go through it. Either I stayed focused and did what I had to do, or I started drinking and using again and made it last longer, made it worse.”
“As hard as it is, as hard as everything is about recovery, addiction is much harder. And the difference, too, is that things are always getting better in recovery. You may have a bad day, but your worst day in recovery is better than your best day in addiction.”