Facing Addiction: My Lifelong Battle with a Monster
Sunday, February 17, 2013 found me sitting in a parking lot in Newburg Oregon. I had just sent a text to my dad – ‘How do I do this?’. It was a vague question with an unknown number of answers. The number of ways one could read that question are limitless, as are the ways one could ask it. How did I ask it; I still don’t know entirely. All I knew at that moment is that everything just changed.
Addiction always had the face of an alcoholic or homeless drug abuser. It’s a simple correlation to make and an easy one to accept because it means that it is someone else’s problem. If that were true, how did I end up on a slightly overcast day checking my wife into Hazelden’s inpatient rehabilitation center?
The question I asked my dad that day, ‘how do I do this?’, was so loaded there was no possible way for him to answer. How do I leave my wife here, how do I drive home, how do I face my two children, how do I go back to work, how do I go to church … dammit dad, how do I breathe? Ironically enough, addiction's number one means of survival began to work in me that moment. I felt isolated, misunderstood, overwhelmed and very alone.
A logical examination of my current situation would tell me that an untold number of people had been here before, many were going through it now, and many more would follow me.
But an emotional examination of my current situation led me to sitting in my car, in a parking lot, crying.
I began in earnest to understand what had happened to my family. How did addiction come about, how does it work, and most importantly, how do I beat it? These were the questions I was determined to know the answers to. I started with the knowledge that my wife didn’t have a broken moral compass that is so easy to ascribe to the alcoholics and the homeless drug abusers. So how did I end up here?
Addiction is first and foremost, a disease of the brain.
Let that sink in for just a minute. Addiction is a disease of the brain.
Everyone is aware that the heart can become diseased, that the liver can fail, lungs can have a difficult time filling, muscles can stop functioning, but how many of us have truly considered that the brain can misinterpret the signals it is being sent? When someone's brain misinterprets, or doesn’t receive, visual signals from the eye we call that person blind. If their brain misinterprets, or doesn’t receive, audio signals from their ear we call them deaf. There is nothing wrong with these people and, as a society, we go out of our way to make accommodations for them.
When the brain misinterprets the signals of pleasure being routed through the brain’s hedonic system; well… there must be something morally wrong with them. Maybe they just need a little more will power.
In addiction the brain mixes up correct and incorrect decisions about what will bring the body pleasure. It’s harder to understand and accept this because blind people are always blind, deaf people are always deaf, but addicts don’t always make the ‘addiction’ choice. So if addiction is a disease of the brain, why isn’t it consistent like blindness or deafness?
In the research I have studied, the answer is simple: we don’t know.
We have ideas. There are theories out there being investigated, but right now we just don’t know. Why is it that when we get a cold or the flu at times it’s an annoyance that makes us feel tired and weighed down for a couple days while other times it knocks us out and puts us on the couch for two days? Different strains of bacteria and viruses, though from the same family, affect our body differently. Our immune system has the overall idea how to fight them off, but each is different and takes a different course in the healing process. Much the same with the triggers for addiction.
Life stressors come in different forms and in different intensities. What is hard or stressful to one person isn’t to another. This is why there is seemingly no consistency with addiction. Light is always light, sound is always sound, but stress and happiness are different to everyone at different times in their life.
Alcohol and drugs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addiction. They are typically the face because they are the most easily seen in society.
It’s easy to see the homeless with the brown paper bags. It’s not so easy to see the pile of credit card bills unpaid because of a shopping addiction. It’s easy to see the crack house in the rundown neighborhood. It’s not so easy to see the withdrawal from society as one spends increasing hours playing video games.
Addiction comes in many forms: pornography, gambling, eating, shopping, video games, exercise, sex, spiritual obsession, even work. It’s not an event but, instead, how your brain uses and interprets responses from an event that determines addiction.
It was after learning how addiction worked that I learned I would never beat it. It would be a part of my wife’s life, and mine, for the rest of our lives.
But it’s not about beating it. Instead, it’s about managing it.
It’s about accommodating. It’s about loving and seeing NOT the addict, but the person struggling with addiction.
When the blind man falls, we help them stand, we dust him off, we help him gather his dropped and scattered belongings, we reorient him, and he continues on his way. It's easy to do when it doesn’t affect us personally. However, when a loved one has fallen to addiction, it is much harder due to the intimate relationships and the tenderness of feelings.
We should likewise help them stand back up, dust them off, help them gather their life back together, help them reorient themselves, and wish them well as they continue their life’s journey.
In trying to apply my new found understanding of addiction I learned of addiction’s dark little secret: It doesn’t just affect the person struggling. Addiction has a way of seeping into the lives of everyone around it.
It was at this time that I finally looked inside to see all the damage addiction had done to me, even though it was my wife struggling through it.
All the broken trust, all the anger, all the hurt, all the confusion; it was all there. I had locked it all away, I had put it in the deepest recesses I could find. I had buried it.
At least I thought I had.
The moment I tried to deal with my emotions they came roaring back to life. The monster stood before me again, powerful and overbearing, trying to convince me to give in, that I couldn’t beat it. It wanted me to believe that it was stronger, smarter, and faster than I could ever be.
And worst of all, I was completely alone. I had no one to help me fight my own emotions. It brought me back to being alone, just like I was that day in that Oregon parking lot.
I wish I could tell you that I won, but that would be lie. But I can tell you that I’m winning. Little by little, every day, I am winning. I lose battles from time to time, but I’m winning the war with help from those around me; with help from others who’s loved ones struggle with addiction; with help from friends who have never dealt with addiction but love me anyways. My wife is winning her battles too, and in the exact same manor, with help from those going through what she is, with love and understanding from those closest to her, with unquestioned support from those we call friends.
It will be a forever battle, to the day we die I suppose, and I’m OK with that.
If your loved one is suffering through addiction, please get help. Not just for them -- they may not be ready -- but for you.
Your life is being impacted. You must know that you are not alone. You are worth the time, energy and effort. Please, get help.
There are support groups designed just for you. If you aren’t sure where to start, start here: Al-Anon (http://al-anon.org/). It’s for those affected by addiction, and they can help you find your place. They will help you learn to be healthy, and how to love and support your loved ones going through addiction in a safe and healthy manor.
If you are suffering through addiction, please get help. You are worth it. There are endless resources out there, but again, if you don’t know where to start, start here: Alcoholics Anonymous® (http://www.aa.org/). They can help with your next step.
No matter who or where you are, you are not alone. Even if it may seem like the world has turned its back on you, I’m here for you. Please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 1st year (OMS I)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences