In the beginning…
Once upon a time, in a town not too far from here, we begin a story of escapism. Now, we could go back generations and talk about family histories, alcoholics who spent paychecks on bathtub gin, opiate eaters and who knows what else, but for the purposes of this tale, we’ll stick to the (relative) present.
1998. Hialeah, Florida. I’m in a rental car, in the passenger seat, returning said rental to the agency with the boyfriend driving. Sitting at a red light, dozing, when another driver pulling out of a convenience store a half a block ahead lost control, spun out, and hit us head on. I went sideways/forward (even with a seat belt on). My head pushed the rearview mirror through the windshield.
Bits and pieces of the hours that follow, fragments of memory. Our friend calling my name (he had been in a car following us to drive us home after dropping off the rental). People yelling. Being in the ambulance and telling the EMT that I have bad veins when he said he was putting in an IV – he tells me not to worry because he’s a professional. Being wheeled into the emergency room at Hialeah Hospital, everyone speaking Spanish and I’m scared because I can’t understand most of what’s being said. Boyfriend talking to me. Aunt Carole yelling at someone, and me laughing to myself because “Aunt Carole gets s*** done!!!”
Being driven home in my brother’s 90-something Saturn. Every bump hurts so bad. My forehead is gigantic; I looked (the wrestler) The Undertaker.
The doctors sent me home with muscle relaxers prescribed. And pain pills, of course.
Enter the White Rabbit
In the aftermath of the accident, there were doctor visits constantly. Physical therapy. Neurologists to medicate me for my migraines that were the result of TBI. And drugs. So many drugs.
Until this point, I had pretty much only been a pothead. The occasional acetaminophen. On a blue moon when my anxiety would go crazy, mum would pop me a Xanax to help me relax. But now…. Oh my. There were antidepressants being used off label for pain. There were barbiturates, and opiates, and muscle relaxers. There were anxiolytics, and anti-epileptics. Phenobarbital and Vicodin and Klonopin. Phenobarbital got me so high I couldn’t stand up after taking it, and Klonopin gave me memory loss so bad that I broke a bone in my foot and couldn’t figure out how or exactly when, even after I stopped taking it. Effexor made me have the most vivid suicidal hallucinations I’ve ever had, and it was terrifying. Tramadol made my stomach hurt, but maybe I wasn’t supposed to pop 6 at a time.
When none of the prescribed medication worked, I took random things that I got my hands on. Thorazine made me stuffy and left a wicked hangover. Xanax made me feel magical, until it didn’t. Upon doing the math, I was averaging about 15 pills a day.
And on and on we went, for 13 years.
Don’t Try This at Home Kids, I’m a Professional
The running joke in my circle through the early aughts was that I (and my circle) were “professional” drug users – we could handle our stuff, could take copious amounts of a variety of substances, and still go to work the next morning. Which, to a great degree, was true. I worked, sometimes two jobs. I went to college, got decent grades (mostly). Personally, and emotionally, I was trash; but to the outside world I was doing a fine job.
The last time you quit is the hardest.
I say the last time because there were probably 10 or 15 pseudo attempts to quit. I did the typical addict thing of making excuses, exchanging drugs for different drugs (because that’s better!) and quitting for like, 2 minutes and then moaning about how much pain I was in and that I NEEDED them.
I was changing jobs, so I’d be losing my insurance (this is pre Obama-care), and as such, I got the doctor and the pharmacy to grant me a 3 month supply of my dope, upon which time I promptly went on a super-bender of Xanax and Vicodin. Like, 180 pills in 2 weeks kind of super-bender.
For those who don’t know, quitting Xanax cold turkey when you’ve been on a high dose can cause some serious health problems, including seizures, and should not be attempted without medical supervision.
My husband found my pill stash. He saw the dates on the bottle, did the math, and told me he was done.
Now, we had done this dance before, many times. I don’t know why this time was different. Maybe because I believed him this time, that he was done. Or because I looked up NA and AA. And I realized, for the first time, that I was an addict. This wasn’t “better living through chemistry”. This wasn’t “recreational not habitual use”. I was an addict. I quit lying to myself, in that moment. Maybe that’s why this time was different.
And I quit. Cold turkey. And it sucked. Really effing bad. Worst 4 weeks of my life. No sleep. Mind RACING. Eyeballs felt like heavy grit sandpaper. Can’t eat. Shaking. Puking. Panic attacks. Bad posts about legal drug use all over social media (done for both social accountability and so that people would not hit me up as I was no longer a plug).
It was bad.
And then… Homeostasis. And the move towards feeling human again. Just… feeling. Which after 13 years of numbing is also really effing weird.
The Dragon is Defeated, but Never Dies
Present day. I’m 11 years off pills.
Notice I didn’t say “sober”.
Sobriety can mean many things to many people. I had a problem primarily with benzos and opiates. Alcohol was never my main problem (although I had been known to knock down a bottle to wash down my pills). Marijuana had become an infrequent hobby, with years going by between puffs, so that didn’t worry me.
I hesitate to call myself “sober”, because to me, sober is someone who uses no intoxicants, and I am not that pure. I cook with wine, and will, on rare occasion, have a glass to drink. I take CBD for my anxiety. I will, on occasion, use THC products.
Should I still call myself an addict? Depends on which school of recovery you subscribe to; AA purists would certainly call me an addict still. Harm reduction adherents would say I’m doing great. I have come to terms with the fact that I like benzos far too much to ever be allowed to take them again. No matter how bad things have gotten or ever get, I do not have permission to use a benzo, because if I give myself permission, I have permission, and then all bets on my wellbeing are off.
We Hold These Truths to be Self Evident
When we’re discussing substance abuse and sobriety and our individual paths, there are some constants that I see both in clients and in myself when I was using– by the way, I’m not dropping any new information on you here – these are things that have been long discussed in the hallowed halls of AA and NA meetings.
We’re all a bunch of petulant, self-absorbed, self-righteous, immature people when we’re actively using. Every one of us. All the time. No deviation.
We think we’re right, we think we have a right to use what we want, we can justify our use till the cows come home, and G_d forbid you tell us that you don’t believe we’re going to be sober this time, because 99% of the time we’ll run out, get high, and blame it on you for not believing in us.
We will justify our crappy behavior. We will give a million reasons why we cannot and should not quit, now is not the right time.
AND DON’T YOU DARE JUDGE ME!
YOU’RE NOT EVEN A REAL ADDICT!
YOU DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL!!!
When we are intoxicated, our brains no longer and taking in and processing information the same way it would when we are sober. When we are consistently intoxicated, we are muting our ability to take in and process information.
The process of growing and evolving as a person means taking in and incorporating new information and experiences and allowing those things to color our identity – through our experiences and perceptions being internalized, we become greater than the sum of our parts.
This doesn’t happen when you’re high; so you get stunted, like a plant without enough sunlight.
The good news is that when we stop being intoxicated all the time, we are able to feel, and process, and incorporate, and grow.
Growth hurts, especially at first. It’s uncomfortable and awkward and we don’t like it. It gets easier.
If you are struggling with your sobriety, help is out there. AA and NA might not be the path for everyone, but they are a support network and can help greatly. Sober friends can help us through the hump of figuring out who we are when we aren’t high. Therapy helps, of course, but you have to be willing to do the work and be brutally honest with yourself.
When we are actively beholden to our poison, we think that it’s helping our pain. The truth is, it’s exacerbating it.
There is a delicious freedom in not being a slave to a substance… Like the best mythological stories, the ferocious dragon must be laid to rest before the hero of our story (that would be you, dear addict) can rise to conquer the day. Having lived on both sides, I can tell you with certainty that the worst day of sobriety is better than the best day high.
We can help you find your freedom. We can help you be well.
Jennifer Albert, LMHC
Hello! My name is Jennifer Albert and I am a licensed mental health counselor. I work with teenagers and adults, those with addictions, first responders, and those with depression, anxiety, impulsivity, and other mental health disorders in order to help them process historical trauma and lead them on the road to self discovery and peaceful living.