Since starting my job as an addictions counselor in late January, I’ve devoured several books on the opiate epidemic, from “Dreamland” to “Dopesick” to “Empire of Pain,” and everything I’ve read, combined with everything I’ve seen, has expanded and enhanced my self-awareness. I keep having the same thought:
I’m so lucky I never had abundant access to pills.
I’m lucky the oral surgeon I ran to in a crisis, 7 or 8 years back, prescribed only enough Percocet to get me through a weekend until he could yank my radioactive cracked tooth the following Monday.
The pain from that f*cker had been blowing up my head for days, but the effect of the opiates instantly blew my mind. I will never forget the incredible numbness that overtook my body when I swallowed that first little white disc; it was like someone tripped my “OFF” switch, without sapping my energy, and activated some kind of secret superpower while ensconcing me inside an impenetrable shield. I felt indestructible, like I could run through walls and leap tall buildings…or leave the house and talk to people without anxiety, fear, or shame! 😮
Meanwhile, this is a more accurate picture of what was really happening:
Maybe that brief experience with prescription painkillers explains why I stole meds from my husband after his shoulder surgery — wait; was that before or after the tooth thing? Shoot, my mid-to-late 30s are pretty much all a fuzzy drunken blur. 🤷🏼♀️ I do know that right around the time he had his labrum fixed, I had plunged so far into the depths of addiction that I was cool with just helping myself to any bottle that happened to be lying around, whether it sloshed or rattled or, you know, had someone else’s name on it. Even if it that someone had actual pain to kill. 🙄
I’m lucky my hubby is my polar opposite — for so many reasons — and didn’t end up “needing” much medication to recover, beyond the first few post-op days. He had no reason, nor any inclination, to go back to the doctor for a refill. Heck, I guess I’m lucky that I, even in my rockiest-bottom days, wasn’t willing to break the rules to that extent. I confined my “drug-seeking behavior” to standing outside the liquor store early on Sunday morning, nose pressed to the glass, waiting for employees to open up for the day.
You want to talk about feeling lucky: I’m in a position today where I can joke about my experience in active addiction. 🙏🏻 Awareness of the present — which finds me years from my last drink — and acceptance of the past — when my life was a shitshow of my own making — is a liberating combination.
These days, I have the immense good fortune of waking up sober, then going out to face the debilitating gut punch of being alive without any assistance from intoxicants! 😬 I’m gifted with the chance to actually feel my feelings, on top of feeling other people’s feelings every day at work, then going off to analyze the existential abyss that fuels those feelings in my grad school classes, and when it’s all over, I get to run home and collapse into bed under the influence of (all-natural!) melatonin supplements and super-sized fruit smoothies.
That’s called harm reduction, y’all. I mean, for the latter part of my 20-year journalism career, and my first few months in marketing, I passed out drunk on straight tequila — often after pressing “send” on a slew of ill-advised emails, text messages, social media posts…
Sadly, though that mess is a thing of the past, the practice of self-medication persists, even at 45 (almost 46) months drug- and alcohol-free. I mean, any level of awareness of the world around you is somewhat painful, and being stone-cold sober brings a crisp kind of clarity that’s both wonderful blessing and terrible curse.
If living in this capitalist, racist, patriarchal society was peaceful and easy, there wouldn’t be a crushing demand for mental health services or crippling shortage of helping professionals. I wouldn’t need a therapist, nor would I be able to afford one, because I’d most likely be out of a job.
Sure, I’ve gained a shitload of awareness about addiction over the past few years, but I remain deeply doubtful that I can actually do anything to help “fix” the ginormous issues creating it and fueling its growth and spread.
Pain is the topic I keep coming back to, as a noob therapist and second-year counseling psychology student with nearly 4 years of “lived experience” in the recovery world. It’s the topic covered in all the aforementioned books, or really any of the addiction books filling my iTunes and Amazon libraries. I just used my monthly Audible credit to buy “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by the man quoted above, whose teachings were featured in several recovery memoirs I read in early sobriety, and whose name surfaced again in a trauma-informed care training I attended just last week.
What exactly is this pain I’ve been so desperate to soothe, or so afraid to feel, for all these years? What pain triggered the eating disorder I developed as an undergrad, which then morphed into decades of alcoholism, and all the selfishness and dishonesty that goes with that? What’s this pain that now gets stuffed down with daily sugar binges, dissociative episodes, ever-present background noise, and lots and lots of sleep?
What exactly is the wound that festers inside me, in my clients, or in any of the humans wandering the Earth looking for solace in substances, exercise, slot machines, touch screens, shopping sprees, sexual attention, social status, political power, chaos and drama, or just constant avoidance of anything uncomfortable?
By trying to avoid pain, we only deepen the wound.
It was an awareness of that truth that got me to finally confront my drinking problem back in the summer of 2019. I saw two roads diverged, one I’d thought was an escape but turned out to be a trap, and the other a real opportunity to give life a shot and try to find out what I was made of/meant to be. Taking that path was a terrifying leap of faith. It meant accepting, if not embracing, the full, broad, unpredictable, painful spectrum of human experiences that popped up along the way.
I’m still struggling with that part, still grappling with the deeper truths that lie underneath my own addiction, and addiction in general. I’m still fighting that strong urge to avoid and numb every single day.
It is true that I feel unworthy, unlovable, unqualified, and maybe even unhinged at times. It is true that I hide from people, eschew spirituality, and put off responsibilities when I’m failing to manage my emotional turmoil. It’s true that I attempt to fill the unfillable emptiness inside by stuffing or pouring things down my throat. So, then, it’s true that I’m still not healed and I’m still doing a lot of addict-y things to compensate.
It is also true that I occasionally experience moments of pride, joy, hope, connection and fulfillment that aren’t — and therefore don’t ever need to be — artificially enhanced.
For all the painful shit you are stuck having to feel in sobriety, there’s also unbelievable beauty you’re able to absorb that your “shield” of addiction used to bounce away and keep at bay.
Being more aware means being more alive. And you know what that means…
The freedom to make peace with your pain is one of those “gifts of recovery” that can kinda seem like a booby prize at times. I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing here in this blog every few weeks over the past several years: searching my soul and mining the painful shit in an effort to achieve some semblance of peace. Wracking my brain for the right words to explain it all. Scouring Google for pop culture GIFs and straight-up wasting untold hours of time…
I won’t waste any more of yours; I’m sure this self-indulgent awareness-building project can be as hard (painful?) to follow as it is to keep working on. But channeling my passion for writing into a chronicle of my recovery has been a huge part of my ongoing healing process, and I’m so lucky to have you — hell, even if I’m just talking to my mom at this point, it’s still another human being! 🤣 — to share it with. 💗
3 thoughts on “Awareness”
Another great piece Jen. Through you, I gain hope that my husband, who can’t seem to grasp sobriety much longer than 14 days, finds what’s causing the pain that he’s trying to escape from. It’s been almost 7 years now that he first admitted he may have a problem. I just take it one day at a time and pray that one day he gets it! Your clients are lucky to have you.
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Thanks Jen. As always, I admire your courage and I appreciate you sharing, not only your insights about yourself, but also what you’re learning as a student and counselor.
Learning, healing and passing it on. So happy for you , your loved ones, your clients and also myself! I get the benefit of all your hard work! 😁
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You write very well. An internal experience all people struggle with laid out logically and clearly on a page is a gift, thank you. I hope writing this continues to be a part of your journey, and again please know it is a gift to your mom and us readers.
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