Trauma Speaks: On Addiction

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I believe I was twelve when I first got high. Granted, I had shot back some rum before then – fancy stuff with gold flakes floating in it, encased in this endearing little bottle my friend had stolen from his parents. It was disgusting.

The effect of it, however, was not.

Everything from the popping heat on the back of my preadolescent throat to the throbbing sense of dullness my body gave into as the alcohol entered my bloodstream – these were the sensations that made the taste worth it. These were the feelings I was willing to chase at any cost.

Later I stood in a circle of greasy teenage boys and my best friend in the tall grass of an abandoned lot, passing about a resin filled pipe covered with the slobber of those before me. I inhaled and threw up.

“Cough!” They told me and I did, and then all was well with the world.

As we walked home, stumbling with booze and pills and tetrahydrocannabinol in our system, my brain recognized something it hadn’t known before: peace.

A shadow of peace, admittedly – composed of illicit substances that overrode my central nervous system and all its concerns. But that was enough – that dim reflection of serenity – to get me hooked. Over the course of the next two years, I would sample every drug from LSD to meth. I would get arrested, go to rehab and miss so much of my ninth grade year that I had to go to truancy court.

But in the midst of it, none of that mattered. What did matter was that for the first time in my life I could exist for hours on end without anxiety or paralyzing fear. My parents were screaming at each other outside my room? That’s okay, I can light a joint and blow smoke out of my window to fall asleep in time for school tomorrow. My classmates are calling me fat and no one sits next to me at lunch? No problem, afterwards I’ll go home to my cooler, older friends and make them laugh when I sing drunk versions of Zeppelin songs. Nightmares and flashbacks of sexual abuse I hadn’t yet dealt with? Worry not, acid will skyrocket you promptly out of that reality.

When I was in Alcoholics Anonymous there was a saying that “your worst days sober are better than your best days high.” I was a freaking AA poster girl, and I never bought into that. One time I counted and I had been to eighteen meetings in one week. But I never looked back at the glorious moments of being so incoherent nothing could hurt me with regret. I was broken and continuing to be abused by people that were supposed to be protect me. It’s no wonder an intoxicated stupor seemed more attractive to me than my life.

During my time in the 12 Steps it seemed like recovery was supposed to be a very linear thing. You’re sober or you’re not. If you relapse you start over: new sober anniversary, new 24 hour coin. Very black and white. This ideology plagued me my entire college career. Every time I made a mistake I was back at square one, having learned nothing, totally bereft of progress.

But addiction isn’t hard and fast. It’s grey. It’s taking ten, sometimes twenty steps forward and half of them back. It’s occasionally (at best) stewing in your mistakes, giving up for a while, hurting more people or yourself. It’s wanting to die more than you have ever wanted to live. It’s hiding. It’s shame. It’s moments of peace and healing and forgiveness that seem to last forever until they’re gone, and holding on to those times for dear life when it gets hard again so you can cultivate some semblance of hope. It’s believing, sometimes having to lie to yourself to believe, that it will get easier. Addiction is avoiding stupid petty things that other people can enjoy and want to be able to in your presence. It’s constant vigilance, like Mad Eye Moody tried to explain to Harry. It’s inconvenient. Its re-brainwashing yourself, reconditioning your very neurons and synapses. It’s believing the world works differently than the way it always has for you. It’s facing who you are when you embody everything you hate. And it is beginning to believe that you are worth more than destruction, which is especially difficult for those of us who were abused as children – and there are a lot of us out there who suffer with addiction issues.

What some people seem to not understand is that, for addicts, our dependency is the only way we know how to cope. You know how you crack open a beer and watch the game on Sundays to relax? That’s it. How you go for a morning run, have a conversation with your friends, drink some tea? That’s it. We’re learning how to not treat ourselves like scum, how to adopt these healthier coping mechanisms.

But I do know I’m not where I was a year ago, or even six months ago. I understand myself more and that allows me to extend grace to the parts of me that indulge in darkness. I don’t want them there. But it’s not an overnight fix. And none of us should expect it to be – not the addict or their loved ones.

Bearing all that in mind, myself and a friend of mine (who is a recovering alcoholic that wishes to remain anonymous) have discussed at length what the process of relapsing is actually like. Analogous to the Five Stages of Grief, here are our (tongue in cheek) Six Stages of Relapse:

1. The Prelapse (see what we did there?)

The Prelapse is the period during which the addict is triggered. Now, some might tell you that a “trigger” is normally a stressful event, negative emotions, or something that would be easy for “normal people” (as non-addicts are called in AA, sort of like Muggles VS Wizards – yes, we are the magic ones in this analogy) to understand. They, however, would be wrong. Speaking from first hand experience, a relapse can most assuredly be triggered by something negative. And these experiences are likely the easiest to process and extend grace to yourself for. But more often than not, relapses are caused by a general shift in thinking: from “I desperately need help” to “Nah, I got this, watch me whip,  watch me nae nae, watch me make a series of bad decisions that results in my own demise.”

Relapses happen when you get promoted, when you have a particularly romantic outing with your partner, when someone gives you a great compliment, when your eyebrows are on fleek or (in my case) if it’s a Monday. Prelapse is the time during which, if most of us were honest with ourselves, addicts should hit the brakes and seriously evaluate their state of mind. But if we don’t then the next stage is…

2. Relapse Proper

This of course is the actual act of indulging in our addiction. Personally speaking, this is the point at which I’ve allowed the temptation to “build a nest on my head” as my parents would say, and it has reared it’s ugly head enough that a feeling of urgent desperation takes over. My body goes on autopilot. Logical thought is a distant memory. Of course there is a tiny voice inside me gently saying, “Lyric, this is not who you are, this is not what you are worth.” But Relapse Proper is when you refuse to listen to anything rational or honest and dive headfirst into destruction, knowing the risks you’re taking and saying to your self affirmingly, “Yes, Addiction, this is 100% worth it. I’m not going to hurt my family this time – they won’t even find out! I know I have to go to work tomorrow, but I’ll drink a mere two boxes of wine and wake up early for my job. Hangovers don’t exist! Look! A unicorn!”

3. Hiding

Ah, the giant metaphorical game of hide and seek we addicts play with the universe at large. Hiding is the stage wherein we slightly realize what we have done but are nowhere near ready to admit it. Now it should be noted that this and the next stage are totally optional. If you just relapsed and are reading this article, skip to step five! As Rob Schneider used to say: You can do it!

But most of the time, we go through stages 4 & 5 anyway because we choose to, because we don’t believe forgiveness and freedom is something we deserve – especially immediately after a mistake.

4. Shame & Guilt

Speaking of things we don’t deserve, this is the stage where we realize we deserve nothing. Not the air we breathe or the nice secure job we have, or the bed we’re crying on, or that necklace our grandmother gave to us when we were ten. Mostly I envision myself here as an old school Catholic paying penance during some dark times in the faith. Like, before Luther’s 99 theses told us we probably don’t need to attempt to beat ourselves in order to earn God’s forgiveness. At times I actually have hurt myself. These are the things our addiction convinces us are good. (Getting it yet, muggles?)

5. Admittance & Acceptance

With time and practice this step will come sooner. Ideally it would be immediate, and even more ideally it would be a catalyst to breaking the cycle altogether. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

For me, this step has come quicker and quicker as I learn more about what triggers me and why. During this stage we get the simultaneously terrifying and sublime experience of sharing with a safe person (or people) what we have done. If you are lucky this person understands enough about addiction to know when to draw lines with you – when relapse isn’t a relapse anymore but you’re in full-throttle-addiction-mode. This person will agree that you’ve made a stupid decision but will also inform you that we all make mistakes. They will remind you to look back on what happened during the Prelapse stage, and say, “I’m proud that you told me.” It’s amazing what hearing these very simple words from a loved one can do for an addict’s psyche: it gives us perspective, helps us remember the progress that we have made, and reminds us that there are people who love us in a safe, unconditional way.

(Note: if you do not have a safe person/group, find one here or here. Or start being honest with those who already are concerned for you, and tell them to read this article for a little context on what you’re going through.)

6. Fleeting period of abstinence followed by [see step one]

I say this both sarcastically and seriously. As I mentioned, my addictions were not easily defeated, and still cause me trouble today. At a point it looked like 80% abstinence and 20% struggle: I would have weeks on end without a poor decision and then suddenly I’d fall. The awesome gift in continuing to try is that, eventually, you notice these periods of abstinence grow longer, and the falls become shorter and less devastating. But that’s the key for us: we have to try when nothing in us is willing to, when giving up is a much easier, safer and less scary option. As they say: If you’re going through Hell, keep going.

(And leave a comment on your way there).

Want me to make money writing? That’s nice of you. If so, check out my article here. 🙂

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