Underneath the biochemical hook that made me an addict is other issues: I’m needy. I want love. I’m lonely. I want to connect.
Last week I celebrated seven years sober after making it through one of the most difficult years of my life. I have a published book behind me and who-knows-what in front of me. Reflecting on the new year, I realized that even in sobriety, some things will never change.
1. My Parents Will Always Worry That I’ll Relapse
As some of you know, my father was diagnosed with cancer last year. I’d already become my mother’s mom when she became wheelchair-bound and developed dementia two years ago. But my father’s illness hit me harder, like somebody had taken my heart and soul and thrown it mob-style into a wood chipper. (Yes I watched “The Irishman”.)
Dad’s on his way to full remission but he still talked about his death during my last visit. I was forced to go through boxes of his old manuscripts, photo albums, and more and pick out what I wanted (it’s called Swedish Death Cleaning or something uplifting like that). He made sure to tell me about a place in town that will make his ashes into a rock and how that seemed appropriate since I’ve always said he was my rock. The idea of my father as a paperweight wasn’t something I cared to entertain. Granted, he’s 82, but the Dresners live forever, even if we’re always a bit miserable.
“If you want to honor me after I die, don’t use or kill yourself. I’ve spent half my life trying to keep you alive,” he said. I started crying.
After years of relapses and suicide attempts, no matter how long I’ve been sober and out of the psych ward, my father will always worry that I’ll get tipped into that dark emotional abyss and pick up again. I can only hope that’s not true.
2. There’s Always More Work to Do
There’s no arriving in recovery. There’s no “I’m here.” Sure, I’ve done the steps. I’ve got a sponsor. I’ve got sponsees. I’m much less of an asshole than I used to be. I don’t think about drinking or using anymore…suicide sometimes. Now I’m realizing I have unresolved childhood trauma that’s driving my romantic choices. Join the club, right? Oh cool, I have codependency issues and have to work another fucking program to address them? Yay.
Underneath the biochemical hook that made me an addict is other issues: I’m needy. I want love. I’m lonely. I want to connect. Nothing wrong with any of that unless you pick people who are emotionally unavailable while you keep scratching at the door. And let’s just say, I’m a big scratcher.
3. I’ll Still Wonder What If…
I saw a picture of my high school friends all at dinner together. Thanks, Instagram. Of course, I wasn’t invited. They are all married with kids and huge diamond rings and jobs that make them crazy money. I know that doesn’t equal happiness because I’ve been there ever so briefly. But part of me still can’t help but think, “What if…What if I hadn’t spent 30 years battling mental illness and drug addiction? Where would I be now?” It’s a moot point but one I think all recovering addicts like to consider (warning: it’s a dangerous game).
And then the arrogant defensive risk-taking part chimes in: “Their lives are boring as fuck. I’ve had adventures! I’ve been arrested. I have great stories. Blah, blah, blah.” You gotta love the rationalizations.
4. I Don’t Need to Be Loaded to Do Incredibly Impulsive Stupid Shit
I’d heard people say they had more amends to make in sobriety than when they were loaded, but I thought “Nahhh that won’t be me.” WRONG! I thought my days of sending raging texts were over, but boy was I mistaken.
“Don’t do it,” I can hear my sober self say. But my fingers aren’t listening. They are flying away in hurt badly disguised as anger. In the moment, my feelings feel justified and necessary and oh so important. A day later, I feel like garbage and have to clean it up. It’s rarer than it used to be, but when it happens, I struggle with the shame and finding grace for myself.
Beating yourself up after you already feel ashamed is no bueno. As I’ve written before, shaming yourself actually lowers your dopamine and sets you up for more dopamine-seeking behavior which becomes a vicious cycle. So I try to think “oops” and “let’s try not to do that again, mmmkay?” (Insert trite but true “progress not perfection” saying here.)
5. I’ll Still Cling to the Hope That Something Outside Will Fix Me
I know it’s an inside job but I still cling to the illusion that the man, the job, the accolades, the money, will fix it. In some respects, I think this is human nature and not just an addict thing. The eternal “When I get this (or get here), I’ll feel….” Despite getting the things that I thought would make me happy or whole and finding that happiness was fleeting, or worse, nonexistent, I still haven’t given up on the illusion that this next job or relationship will be the ONE that makes it all right and alright.
6. I’ll Still Struggle With Nicotine and Caffeine and Sex and Love and (Insert Fix of Your Choice)
Yes, I’m aware there are 12-step programs for all of these. (There is actually a Caffeine Anonymous which should probably be in every Starbucks.)
Are these cross addictions or is just different arms of the sprawling monster that is “addiction”? From what I’ve gleaned, they are all part of a brain with low dopamine tone looking to balance itself out and a tortured psyche looking for escape.
Moderation is still something I can’t manage well. It’s all or nothing, no matter how long I’m abstinent from the substance or behavior. I don’t fuck with drugs or alcohol anymore because I’ve had my ass handed to me multiple times. However, these other things that are a slower kill or seem more innocuous…Yeah, I’ll still mess with those. Until I don’t, I guess. Plus, I’ll tell you, the face on the barista’s face when I ask for a 7-shot latte is fucking priceless.
7. I’ll Still Hate the Holidays
Ever since I was 19, September through December has usually been the time I eat it: nervous breakdowns, relapses, trying to stab somebody, or just deep depressions. I seem to do better when I have a partner: lavished with presents, dragged to their families, and when the relationships weren’t total chaos, I felt loved and part of. But it hasn’t been that way for awhile and the last few Christmases have been me, alone. I tell people I don’t care so that I can quietly slip into my holiday blues without them worrying.
Maybe it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder or my birthday or Christmas or New Year’s. Whatever it is, I’m far from being unique as somebody who struggles during the holidays or a person with a sobriety date in early January.
Being alone feels dangerous, but parties feel like some sort of festive waterboarding that I’m supposed to enjoy. I hated parties when I was loaded and even more so now that I’m sober. Like most people in recovery, I realized I was much more introverted once I stopped using and that people scared the fuck out of me.
As a work-at-home writer, I get a small pass on my reclusiveness. I can’t take the pressure to be happy amidst the charade of tinsel and silly hats. As a half-breed Jew who celebrated Christmas, I don’t really know much about Hanukkah but that doesn’t keep everybody from sending me pictures of menorahs. With my parents ill in two different states, I’m left without much ritual or connection except my friends and the support of the program for which I remain grateful. Maybe I’ll hit those endless marathon meetings with the other orphans or alkies trying to escape their families.
I may not know much, but I do know that it’s okay not to feel okay, this too will pass, Santa’s not fucking real, and I have no idea what 2020 holds. So chins up, bitches.