I sat down with my daughter recently, and asked her some of the burning questions about addiction that we all want answers to. Annie is now thirty-one and eight years in recovery. Not a drink or a drug in all that time. In view of the obvious risks involved, people are curious why anyone initiates drug use, and why one continues to use drugs in spite of extreme negative consequences. We also want to know what we can do as moms, if anything, to try and get our addicted loved one to stop using.
A few women from The Addict’s Mom group here in Oregon and in Washington helped provide some of these questions:
Q: Why did you start using in the first place?
Annie: Alcohol was my first drug of choice. I was nearly 18 when I first drank and wondered where it had been all my life! I found it helped me feel more socially comfortable… more comfortable in my own skin. It diminished my anxiety. I always felt kind of “less than” and drinking numbed that feeling. I continued to experiment with other drugs over time. The first time I used meth I was told it was cocaine. Surprise! I loved it for about a minute… until it completely took over my life. I was homeless within two months. Eventually, alcohol, meth, and other drug use wasn’t about getting high… I used so I didn’t have to feel at all.
Q: Do you think drug users become addicted to the street life?
Annie: Oh sure. There’s no accountability out there. There’s perceived acceptance from being around people just like you. But it’s an illusion. It’s not safe. Women are used and abused. It’s all about what one person can get from another.
Q: What finally convinced you to seek recovery?
Annie: I initially agreed to go to treatment as a bargaining tool… because I didn’t want to go to prison. The idea terrified me. I’d been to jail about six times, and was pretty sure prison was next. I kept relapsing in treatment though. I was about 100 days cleans and then relapsed again. It freaked me out to realize that a beer at a bowling alley could progress, literally within hours, to a weekend of meth use… and then going home with a drug dealer. I couldn’t believe it took mere hours to advance to a level of using that had previously taken me a year to get to.
Q: What was your bottom?
Annie: There were many. But the one that really got me to the place of “no more,” was the incident I mention above. I’d just finished 4 months of rehab and a month in a sober house, yet then went on this meth spree. Things went downhill instantaneously. I found myself sitting on the curb in front of a Borders in So Cal, with no where to go… except to some guy’s house. I was miserable, embarrassed, and broken. It was extremely painful. I knew I could either go get more drugs… or stop. My powerlessness was apparent. I walked into a bar, ordered a beer, and then walked out with the beer half empty. That was my last drink/drug… and ironically the only time I’ve EVER had just one.
Q: What is a bottom anyway?
Annie: I think it’s when the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of change (note: a parent’s “help” can keep the user from experiencing this.) For most addicts, the “fun” of using disappears pretty quickly. We continue to use because it’s just too hard, or too painful to stop. But then it ultimately becomes too painful to continue… if we’re lucky.
Q: How have you been able to maintain your recovery?
Annie: As cliché as it sounds, it really is one day at a time. Don’t pick up no matter what. Life is hard, but addicts tend to perceive life as being harder than it actually is. Asking for help from other people who have successfully achieved long-term recovery is very important for most of us.
Q: Does it get easier with time?
Annie: Yes! When you stop using drugs, the idea is to find a better way to live. It’s not all about the drugs. It’s about you (i.e. me). It’s about learning better life skills rather than throwing a substance at it. Drugs aren’t the problem. I’m the problem. Drugs are a symptom. Take the drugs away, and I’m still here. To achieve recovery one needs to change absolutely everything. Most people, that is “regular” people, are rarely ever given this kind of fork in the road.
I think addiction is on a spectrum like a lot of other diseases. Some of us are sicker than others. Some of us recover more easily than others. Some of us don’t recover. Some of us die.
Q: Are you still going to meetings?
Annie: I’m in a women’s group and I attend that meeting weekly. My husband rarely goes to meetings anymore, but the most important people in his life are in recovery. He knows where to go when he needs help. Most of our mutual friends are in recovery, so we don’t hang around people who drink or use other drugs.
Q: Do you ever have “flashbacks” or any lasting physical effects from having used?
Annie: Initially I had lots of using dreams, but those eventually fade. Now, eight years into recovery, I rarely do. But I’ve had moments where there’s a vivid memory of a traumatic episode. The guy who first gave me meth, and who once held me hostage for a day and a night, showed up at one of my 12-step meetings a couple of years ago. I was running that meeting and couldn’t bolt like I wanted to. It was one big anxiety attack. I had a hard time wanting good things for him, or to welcome him into the recovery community. He didn’t last though. He went back out within a week. I hate to admit it, but I was glad.
I can also get fixated on things, like when I pluck my eyebrows or clean the house. Meth gets you hyper-focused and there’s some residual from that. I also have some weird anxieties and OCD stuff that I didn’t have before. Like I’m always picking at my fingers and silently counting them.
Q: How long does it take to feel normal again?
Annie: Normal? What’s that? I’m resigned to the fact that normal doesn’t exist. I don’t want to “feel like myself” again because that’s what got me into trouble in the first place. I’m still figuring out who I am. One thing families can do to help their addicted loved one recover, is to have no expectations about who or what they’re supposed to be. Love and accept them for who they are.
Q: Do you have any advice for moms who have a child in active addiction?
Annie: Know that it’s not about you, or something being done to you. There’s nothing you’ve done to make this happen. There is nothing you can do to fix it. It’s an inside job. We (addicts) can only help ourselves.
Educate yourself on addiction and the recovery process. Help get your kid into treatment if you can. Let them know you’re ready to help when they’re ready to help themselves.
Meddling can push your child further away. Always crying and begging and pleading doesn’t help at all. Telling us how awful we are doesn’t help either. We know this already. We won’t react to your emotions or pleas because we don’t want to feel your emotions… or our own for that matter. You probably think you know your child, but chances are you have no idea who he or she is. And you need to accept that you have no idea what it’s like to be in their skin. We don’t want to hurt you, so we pull back.
That hard exterior you see is our defense mechanism. On the street, other addicts will eat you alive if you don’t toughen up. There is no trust. All people do is take from you. And you have to remember, some of the people we’re hanging around with haven’t felt anything for years and years. The street is drama magnified. Meth addicts hang with meth addicts and heroin addicts hang with heroin addicts. Everybody has sex with everybody else. It’s perpetual Jerry Springer. It is not classy. But it’s what we know.
When you’re wondering why the addict keeps using, in spite of tremendous negative consequences, know that we will ride this thing until the wheels fall off. It’s the nature of the beast.
Q: What do you think about interventions?
Annie: Interrupting the cycle can be a good thing. Introducing another option. And even if it doesn’t take right away, seeds can be planted. Exposing the person to something better can be a good kick-start to recovery.
Handcuffs proved to be a good interruption for me.
Q: There’s lot of talk these days about use of the word “addict” and how some consider it a demeaning label. How do you feel about it?
Annie: It’s ridiculous that people get all hung up on words. For me, the word “addict” is the noun for someone who suffers from the disease of “addiction.” It’s just like “diabetic” is the term for someone who has “diabetes.” I don’t think it’s demeaning at all. An addict is what I am. I’m not crazy about the word “junkie.” I do think that has a negative connotation that tends to marginalize… but not the word addict. At least not for me.
If you have more questions for Annie, please leave a comment, or send me an email at Barbara@BarbaraCoferStoefen.com. I’ll provide her answers in a later blog post.