What I Wish I Could Tell People Who Ask Why I Don’t Drink

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“What, you don’t drink? Why not?”

Whenever I tell someone I don’t drink, I always get the same responses.

“Are you an alcoholic?”

“You’re not judging us for drinking, are you?”

Then, there’s the ones I don’t hear. I’m a loser. I’m not fun to be around.

I’ve heard that question more times than I care to remember. Yet, every single time I hear it, I respond with the same few lines.

“Oh, I just don’t like the taste.”

“I have to drive.”

“I’m on a diet.”

“I have a prescription that won’t let me drink.”

What I wish I could tell them was the truth. I don’t judge them, and I’m not an alcoholic. I haven’t gone to a luxury drug rehab. It’s nothing like that, but alcohol has been the constant element in almost every major catastrophe in my life. It is the thread that strings together most of the tragedies I’ve experienced. What I wish I could tell them is I grew up watching my mother die a little more each day to alcoholism. I wish I could tell them all the times I had to walk five miles to school because my mother was too drunk to drive. I wish I could them how my family fell apart because of alcohol.

I wish I could tell them about how terrifying it is to wake up to the police breaking the windows of your house to get inside. They were looking for my brother, who had broken into a house down the road after he had driven home drunk and become lost. As much as I wish I could, there’s no way to explain to someone what it feels like to watch your brother be arrested in front of you.

What I wish I did when someone confronts me about not drinking is explain to them alcohol isn’t always fun. It can be, but it also can mean something different to everyone. For some of us, it is trauma and it is heartbreak. I wish I could explain without the stigma and without people fearing I’m judging them.

For now, though, I’ll just be the designated driver.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Teenage Drug Use: When There's a Blurred Line Between 'Fun' and Fatal

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“I’ve got two tabs of acid in my car.” He lobs this fact across the coffee table at me with a bashful smile that spreads in slow waves to the edges of his face.

I roll my head back and groan. We’re not friends and I’m not amused.

“Ethan*, why are you telling me this?”

“What’s the point of coming here if I don’t tell you the truth?”

I give a half-shrug. “But why that truth, Ethan? Why do you want me know about the acid?”

His thick, unruly curls lend a boyish look to his 6-foot-3-inch frame. He turns his head in search of distraction and notices the paint swatches on my desk.

“You redecorating, Doc? I like the blue. My mom’s an interior designer and she says blue relaxes people. It’s like Zen or some shit.”

Ethan gets under my skin in a way I can’t quite pin down. He’s both offensively arrogant: “This ain’t my first rodeo, Doc. I know how this therapy thing works,”and heartbreakingly vulnerable: “Can I get a piece of paper? I want to write down what you just said.”

When he was 11 years old and jumping around in the backseat, his mother punched him in the face so hard she broke his nose. Late for a business trip, she dropped him at school with a napkin for the blood. “Stop crying, Ethan. Your friends will think you’re a baby.” Ethan didn’t see his mother for a week and the incident was never discussed. When he tells stories like this, I have to fight the urge to hug him like I would my own child.

“Why’d you tell me about the acid, Ethan?”

“I don’t know. Because I’m going to the beach this weekend and I’m gonna trip my balls off?” His smile fades as he looks up. “Seriously, though. You ever tripped?”

I could tell him about the time I took mushrooms in college and went snowboarding. How it took us two hours to buy lift tickets because we couldn’t stop laughing. How the snow looked like pixie dust and how I dominated the black diamond slopes like Shaun Palmer. How later I learned I had merely lumbered down the bunny hill.

I want to tell him: I get it. Drugs are really fun. Right up until they’re not. I want to tell him about James.

“Ethan, I’ve known other people who thought they were having fun with drugs until the drugs caught up with them. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

“You think I have a problem, don’t you, Doc? You think I’m an addict.”

Ethan is taking a gap year because his Ivy League admission was rescinded following his expulsion from high school for drinking on campus. So problem? Yeah. Addict is tougher to define.

“It’s interesting you use the word addict, Ethan? What do you think?”

“I think I don’t like being sober. Do you?”

I meet his third deflection with what I hope comes across as a warm, nonjudgmental smile. After a few moments, he can’t take the silence.

“Look, Doc, I know when I need to be sober. I got a 3.8 last semester. Now I have two jobs and I never miss a day. I work hard!”

He leans forward, palms up, like a defendant on the stand. In his mind, I am both judge and jury. He doesn’t know how often I second-guess myself with him.

“Let’s review, Ethan. How come you’re not in school right now?”

He drops his gaze. “Because I’m unlucky, Doc. I’m always the one who gets caught.”

“Unlucky?” I ask, surprised by the sharpness of my tone. “Ethan, if you speed one time and get caught, that’s unlucky. If you speed every day for a year and get pulled over, that’s the Law of Averages catching up with you.”

At 19, Ethan is neurologically an adolescent. His pre-frontal cortex, the part of his brain controlling reason and planning, is still developing and trumped by the hormone dopamine, which triggers feelings of happiness when taking risks. Since he is legally an adult, I can’t disclose his risky behaviors, unless he reports a plan to intentionally harm himself. So I ask him.

“Are you trying to kill yourself, Ethan?”

“What? Doc, No! I’m just trying to have fun. Don’t you ever just want to party?”

I think of the Halloween party turned real life horror show the night James killed himself. Everyone had taken mushrooms. Costumed and perma-grinning from the drugs, we were dancing to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” when we heard the shot.

“I know you miss your friends, Ethan, but this party sounds ripe with opportunity to get ‘unlucky’ again.”

“Come on, Doc. Don’t tell me not to go. I really need this.”

Professionally, I can’t grant or deny permission. I can only point out the conflict between his goals and behaviors. His goals include graduating from college, landing a job that pays him shitloads of money and marrying Gisele Bündchen. (Remember, he’s 19). I ask him a series of questions and together we develop an algorithm that looks something like this: (lots of) drug taking equals getting kicked out of school, which equals no college, a crappy job, no money and living in a rusty van, down by the river.

“I get it, Doc. I do. Living in a rusty van does not equal dating supermodels.”

We laugh. He leaves. I have no idea if our conversation landed. As I type up the session notes, my fingers pause on the word progress. Has Ethan made any tangible progress? Am I helping him? My mind catapulted to my own child, who is still in diapers. The mother in me wished I’d grabbed Ethan by the shoulders and wrapped my arms around him in the same way I’d embrace my toddler to stop him from stumbling down the stairs.

I consider my college friends. Like Ethan, we partied, but then we graduated, cultivated careers and traded in the partying for potty-training, except James. He couldn’t stop and we hadn’t seen his pain. No drug could blunt our anguish that Halloween night. Our once-festive costumes drooping and our party make-up gruesome from hours of crying, we watched uniformed men carry him down the steps in a body bag.

Is Ethan like us or like James?

I pick up the paint swatches and worry I let Ethan leave too quickly. Should I have yielded to my maternal instincts and told him directly not to go to the party?

“I forgot my umbrella.” A voice at the door shakes me from my thoughts. “You OK, Doc? I know that face. You’re torn, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Go with the blue. Definitely the blue. See ya next week.”

*Name has been changed.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
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How to Talk to Someone Who Loves a Person With an Addiction

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Here we are, husband and wife, holding hands on the beach. Our two dogs run ahead of us, their black coats blending with the gray-blue ocean. The setting sun casts a golden glow along the wet sand where we walk. Here we are safe, happy.

What you may not notice is the fear in my eyes. What you can’t hear is the little shake in my husband’s voice, as he tries to hide the truth beneath witty jokes. We are grateful to be together. We are grateful for this beach and our carefree pups, but we are also gripped by an awareness we could be pulled away from one another at any moment. That everything we know could be lost.

My husband is recovering from a drug addiction. We’ve been married for six months, together four years. I knew he had an addiction from the start, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t realize there’s no such thing as an “ex-addict,” as he once called himself. I didn’t know what his therapist meant when she said addiction is a “family disease.” By the time I finally understood the ugly truth, I’d fallen in love. Not with the disease, but with this funny, intelligent, sweet person being dragged across hot pavement by his demons.

I have been through hell with my husband. I have shaken hands with his demons, while tears streamed down my face. I have also walked along the beach with him. I’ve seen him pick up white chip after white chip, and I’m inspired by his determination to keep fighting for sobriety. Looking back on the past four years, there are things I would change, but I would still want to be with him. I have grown. I’ve gained a level of compassion and humility I didn’t realize was possible. I’ve experienced divine grace. Despite everything, somehow we are still in love.

At the same time, the innocence I’ve lost along the way has brought with it a quiet pain. The kind of pain that hunkers down in the bones, wraps around the soul and constricts until the soul turns black. It’s a pain that’s hard to recognize when you look at me. I hide it well because I’m afraid to be vulnerable, afraid to convey to others what it’s really like to live with an addict (recovering or otherwise). I’m afraid they won’t understand. That they’ll reject me. That they’ll convince me I must leave him. That they will play God in my life.

So I write this not for the person addicted or the people who love that person. They already know that life and don’t need me to tell them about it, but this is for everyone else. The friends and family who want to be supportive but may not know how. The people who, perhaps in the midst of their own personal struggles, only see a husband and wife holding hands on the beach.

Here’s how to respond to someone who loves a person with an addiction:

1. Listen.

This is the most helpful thing you can do when she opens up to you. The stories she tells you might be frightening. You might feel the urge to interrupt, to give her some kind of direction. You might start spouting clichés like, “I’ll pray for you,” or “Once an addict, always an addict.” Please don’t. Just let her talk. More than anything she’s afraid of your judgement. So just listen.

2. If she happens to ask you for advice, try not to let your emotions drive your response.

Emotional blubbering is common in these circumstances. Unless she is in a violent situation, it’s helpful to simply tell her to focus on herself, to take care of herself. Tell her you love her and you’re there for her.

3. At the same time, set your boundaries.

When she first opens up, an entire ocean may flow out of her, sharks and all. Perhaps the gory details are too much. You may not want to hear how she found him pale-faced on the bathroom floor surrounded by tiny, opened packets and a used needle. You may not have room for her to stay the night at your apartment. That’s OK. Be clear on how far you’re able to go.

4. When she says she loves him, believe her.

Don’t minimize that love into lust, craziness or a fear of letting go. Maybe she is afraid to let him go, but she also loves him. This is OK too.

5. Avoid judging the person who has an addiction.

This will be hard. You may want to condemn him. You may want to shake his brains out for hurting her, but this kind of judgment will only hurt her more. Remember she loves him. Remember he is hurting too.

6. Learn everything you can about addiction.

Not only will this help you better understand her life, but it may be useful to your own life too. You may know someone else who struggles with an addiction. The more we learn, the more we can erase the stigma that tells us people with addiction are just bad people with sh*ty willpower.

7. It’s OK to be afraid for her.

It’s OK to be afraid of addiction. After all, he could end up doing horrible things because of his disease. He could die. She could lose everything and because addiction has a sneaky way of touching everyone it comes into contact with, not just the person addicted, you could lose a little something too. It’s OK to be frightened, but know there is also hope.

My husband relapsed three months ago, after almost a year of sobriety. It was during that year when I felt safe enough to marry him. I knew relapse would always be a possibility, but I was devastated when it happened so soon after our wedding, terrified at what I’d gotten myself into. He, too, was scared and upset.

At least for today, we have chosen hope. He got sober again, and I took some steps to refocus my energy on my own healing. Because if, as we walk on the beach toward the sunset, I turn and look at the scarcity of light behind us or if I look out into the wild sea, I am guaranteed to lose my grasp on hope. I will become paralyzed with fear.

So when she finally lets you see her cry, when she has her eyes set on the darkness all around, remind her the sand is soft beneath her feet and the sun’s reflection is golden where she walks.

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What You Should Know Before You Say 'Addiction Is a Choice'

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They say: Addiction is a choice and you should just stop.

I do not understand the belief held by some that one chooses to become addicted. If addiction is defined as a compulsion to do something or behave a certain way repetitiously regardless of the negative consequences, I find little logic in anyone doing this by choice. Especially if it interferes with the well being of one’s life or hurts the ones we love.

My education and experience tells me addiction doesn’t start out as an act beyond our control. It begins in a slow, progressive notion and we often don’t even recognize its enormous growth until well beyond the awareness of many of those around us. Which, for a time at least, we will adamantly deny.

At first, we try something meant to give us a pleasurable experience and we enjoy the way it makes us feel. We like the giddiness of that first glass of wine after a stress filled day, or that rush of excitement in a winning hand at blackjack. And then we do it again and achieve the same results. And eventually, like it enough to create meaning around it. 

We organize birthday barbecues and football parties where consuming large amounts of alcohol is an acceptable way to “celebrate” the occasion. We plan “family” trips to Vegas yet don’t see the outside of those dark walls for days because we are one step away from hitting the jackpot.  Euphoria and fulfillment and the broken promise of happily ever after are just beyond our reach.

We ignore the onlookers who frown at our behaviors and we discount their judgment as simply not knowing how to “have fun” or live on the edge. What we don’t realize is our behaviors have stopped being “fun” long ago, and we are wickedly close to falling off the edge, but we are forever chasing that euphoric feeling that swept us off our feet in the honeymoon phase of our distorted relationship with addiction.

What we also fail to recognize in our blindness of addiction is that not only are we continuing to do it because of the the way it makes us feel, we are equally doing it for the way it makes us not feel.  Research is only growing about addictions being a common yet detrimental escape from the unwelcomed experiences of our past. An incomplete mourning for the loss of something or someone meaningful to us that subsequently changes the direction of our life path.

An unexpected death of a close family member or friend, a difficult divorce, an unwanted move or loss of a job can all take considerable chunks of well being out of a previously unscathed being. These adverse experiences can happen in our childhood or as an adult and can weaken our whole existence and life motivation. Especially when those around us are equally effected and unable to help mend our pain because of their own.

It is of no surprise anxiety and depression frequently intertwine in the tumultuous relationship with addiction. And so begins the infinite cycle of turning to our addictions to numb the pain, which further inflames the anxiety of our choices and fuels our depressed state of being. Only causing us to turn toward our addiction all the more.

Soon we learn to escape our fears and insecurities with our addiction because we feel forcefully giddy and excited about what we are doing at that moment that brings us pleasure. And we create misconceptions — that somehow we will achieve ultimate satisfaction and perpetual happiness. Or at least we won’t think about the pain. At least not today.

Eventually this relationship with addiction evolves from giving pleasure and avoiding pain to becoming a necessary evil to merely exist. The compulsion sets in and our minds become fixated on our unquenchable urge for that next drink. Oftentimes, our bodies develop a physical dependence we can no longer ignore. So we drink to stop our hands from shaking. We do it to feel “normal” again, at least enough to function in our daily routine. We gamble away that last dollar to suffice the unattainable desire to double our wins. To win back that lost tax return that was meant to pay our mortgage. To get back that feeling of euphoric satisfaction and enjoyment we felt when we first met our addiction.

In the end and without help beyond ourselves, addiction overpowers us with a curse that becomes so strong, nothing and no one in our own innately selfish-driven world can stop us from it. Not our spouses, our children, our parents, our failing health or our careers. Not one thing can stand between our addiction and our mind. We have succumbed to a curse that is larger than us and it becomes stronger than our ability to make any choice to stop. We stand to lose it all and that still might not be enough to stop the insanity. The curse destroys all that was good in our lives and renders us hopeless for a better tomorrow.

Therefore, what they should say…

Addiction is a disease that needs help to recover.

According to multiple health reports published within the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Harvard Health Publications, researchers now recognize addiction as a chronic and reoccurring disease that changes both neurological brain structure and overall cognitive function. This transformation happens as the brain experiences a series of chemical changes, beginning with recognition of pleasure and the lessening of its effect with continued use of that which once gave us enjoyment, and ending with a drive toward compulsive behaviors attempting  to sustain it.

What we once found to be pleasurable in its infancy is altered within our brains to result in a compulsion for utter destruction in the part of our brain we rely on for emotion and pleasure. Our brain is no longer functioning the same way as before we became addicted. So we act on our compulsions because pleasure becomes impossible without intensifying our addictive tendencies.

This alteration in our brain and resulting compulsion is real, and when intermingled with the weakening grip on our addiction and all that once had meaning in our lives, it destroys. And it knows no social, racial or economic barriers.  It can creep into the least expecting community, impact whole cultures and span multiple generations.  Whether it be personally impactful, or through the far reaching ripple effect that results because of it. Ultimately, no one escapes unharmed. Addiction is that strong.

But there can be hope. Hope that there can be change.

To say addiction is a choice and not a disease that needs help is only further perpetuating the stigma that has carried on for decades, and for many, has contributed to loss of time spent having a life worth living. Or worse, of living any life at all.

Recognizing addiction as a potentially life threatening disease that requires continuous effort to recover successfully can allow us to make a much needed paradigm shift in our morally judgmental way of thinking. And to dispel the assumption that all those who suffer continue to do so by their own choosing, can begin to awaken the possibility that recovery exists. But it can not be done without a sincere commitment to end the stigma that at times prevents many from venturing toward the narrow path of healing.

I believe this commitment may include reaching beyond the current treatment models with floundering success rates and incorporating additional unorthodox and holistic methods that are slowly gaining more acceptance in the professional recovery communities. We can begin to focus on tailored recovery modalities because no longer can we assume that the traditional ways will always work for everyone.

My personal and still very raw experience with addiction and recovery has yet to be shared, but there is no doubt in my forever recovering mind the addiction that was in my path was not there by any ounce of my own choosing. My path to destruction came upon me as the horrific and overpowering curse that it was and mentally stole a mother from her children for 18 months of their lives I can never get back. It rendered me helpless for weeks on end and ultimately ended the career I had spent 15 years building for the person I mistakingly thought I wanted to be. It swallowed my joy and buried deep into my unconscious mind all that I once loved. It changed the unscathed child I yearned to be and morphed me into a monstrous entity my conscious mind will never want to know. 

Regardless of what society continues to say about addiction, my personal truth will always be I didn’t willingly choose addiction. Rather the disease of addiction chose me. And it was only through the brokenness of my entire being and the insanity of my disastrous mind that I found the miraculous help and saving grace that gave me strength to overcome my addiction that almost became stronger than my will to survive.

This post originally appeared on Kel’s Penzu

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In Memory of My Mom, Who Was Never Able to Find Her Light

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Today my mom would have been 71.

She died when she was 52.

Much too young, but I’m sure to her much too late. When you live in chronic debilitating mental pain day after day, eventually you surrender. And when you do, one of two things can happen: you die, or you find life again.

I used to always ask myself why do some people make it through darkness and others don’t.

Throughout the years I have wanted to die. The pain from mental illness and addictions is deep. When you are in that dark place you just want the pain to end.

I watched my mom for as long as I can remember struggle with addiction and mental illness. The doctors fed her pills and more pills, gave her shock treatments and hospitalized her too many times to count with no success. Her many suicide attempts were not a cry for help. They were a desire for her pain to end.

I understand that today through my own addiction and mental health issues. When I was younger I did not.

Some people can find their light for life again. Sometimes people have remission. Some just don’t.

I, for whatever reason, have been one of those people who claw and crawl my way out of the big black hole of anxiety and depression time and time again, and have been able to stay clean and sober as well.

My mom died from her battle to mental illness and addictions like people with cancer can die by their illness.

I am still here. I will be the voice she lost. I will keep trying to slay my own dragons and fight “our” disease.

I will remember her pain. I will remember her tears. I will remember her holding on all those years with no relief.

She now has peace.

In memory of my mom, Diane: 1945 — 1997

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
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The Fear of ‘Feeling’ After Losing My Brother

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I lost my brother 31 days ago.

It’s not as if I misplaced him. Or that he’s hiding away somewhere ready to emerge from the shadows. No, he is gone. Still I find it nearly impossible to say the words he diedDead is so harsh, so raw, so final. So instead I say I “lost” him or that he “passed away,” somehow hoping that will soften the blow, even if only to myself.

My brother could make me laugh like no one else with his sharp wit and dry humor. He could frustrate me like no one else with his stubborn bullheadedness. He was bright, articulate and funny. I loved him to the moon. He was chased by demons. On May 28th, they finally caught up.

It’s worse that I found him.

When I say I “found” him, I mean I found his body. Devoid of his spirit, cold and stiff and lifeless on the floor. It is a memory I will never forget — yet one I refuse to remember. Like some intangible recollection that fades away as you try to reach out and grasp it. My mind alights on that image and immediately flits away, diverting the unthinkable elsewhere. Anywhere. It’s not even conscious anymore, it’s automatic, like a light switch flicking off so as not to let you see too far into the dark.

I haven’t cried in 29 days.

The first few hours I broke down, sobbing, hugging myself in a puddle on the floor. I felt so much guilt. I played over and over in my mind what I could have done differently. What if I would have checked on him earlier? What if I had called 911? What if I would have helped him up that afternoon when he stumbled and fell over, instead of cynically asking him not break anything and retreating to another room.

What if…?

You see my brother was an addict. Sometimes drugs, but mostly alcohol. A lot of alcohol, consumed in binges.Perhaps if I would have tried harder, felt more compassion …sympathy… empathy? Maybe I wouldn’t have found him that last morning lifeless on the floor surrounded by his “killer” in the form of countless empty bottles and cans strewn about the room.

Like most families, ours had tried for years to get him help. And I think at times he tried too. I know he didn’t enjoy living the life he was living. He truly wanted something more. Like Jekyll and Hyde — so bright and full of life, and then so dark, grappling with monsters that lived inside his head.

On the second night after, my mom arrived, shattered and broken. I knew I had to be strong for her, for me. For my family, for my friends, for people that I barely knew and those I hadn’t even met. I couldn’t lose it, couldn’t break down…no, it’s more that I wouldn’t. Because that’s what I do, what I’ve always done, smile through the pain.

 

And from that point on, I crammed everything away and slammed the door.

 

Until that day I hadn’t even realized it was possible, so seemingly effortless to completely compartmentalize your emotions and shut them away from everyone including yourself.

If you met me on the street you would never know I just lost one of the people I loved most in my life. I laugh, I smile, I go on with life as normal. I keep my mind occupied. I run, I read, I clean the house and walk the dog.

I never let myself be alone with my thoughts for too long for fear of wandering down the wrong corridor and getting lost.

At night I wake sometimes from nightmares. Effigies creeping in, slipping though the cracks and cruelly taunting me while I sleep.

A few days ago I read a passage in “The Pier Falls” by Mark Haddon. He so succinctly puts into a few profound sentences what I can’t seem to put into actual emotion.

 “…but there was a part of his memory which he simply did not visit, and of whose existence other people could only guess, like a locked cellar in a large house from which inexplicable noises might occasionally be heard during the quieter parts of the night, the precise nature of which were irrelevant because the door was bolted fast and only a fool would go down that narrow, mildewed staircase.”

My biggest fear is the dam will break and everything will come flooding in all at once. The feelings, the fear, the rage, the guilt, the raw emotion, all crashing down upon me, suffocating me under its weight.

My second biggest fear is that it won’t. Not ever. That I won’t ever cry, won’t ever hurt, experience pain or anger. That I won’t ever really feel anything again, and be removed from the things that make life rich — real joy, genuine happiness or love.

People tell me that I’m strong.

But what is real strength? Is it facing your demons, or vanquishing them?

I don’t have the answer to that question. Someday, perhaps, I will.

And that’s the thought that saves me.

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