I was beyond helping myself. Thank goodness some friends stepped in.
AN ADDICT’S CONFESSION
I was beyond helping myself. Thank goodness some friends stepped in.
ELEVEN YEARS AGO, when I was freshly clean and sober, a friend invited me to the “Courage to Come Back Awards” in Toronto. The organizers of the annual event, which celebrates people who have come back from mental illness, had added a new category that year, addictions. But when the winner was announced, the man seated beside me muttered: “Jesus Christ, now they’re giving out prizes for being a goddamn drug addict!”
I decided that it was perhaps the wrong time to tell him that addiction is an illness and not a character flaw; that the American Medical Association classified addiction and its
more popular sister, alcoholism, as an illness back in 1956; and that the Canadian Medical Association followed suit in 1974. But disturbing numbers of people still believe, deep down, that addiction is a badge of shame. After all, when friends cannot stop putting chemicals into their bodies, we wonder: Why are they so weak? Where is their willpower? I mean, they’re about to lose their job, their mate, their house—oh my God, now they’re in jail, in the psych ward, in the morgue.
I was headed in that direction myself. In 1990, after two years of persistent cocaine use, I had lost my business, my house, certainly my self-respect. I would do incredibly dangerous things, like taking cocaine before going on a long run, convincing myself this was the path to better health. I would swear after each all-night binge that I would never use drugs again. And I would fail. I couldn’t understand it—I have huge willpower, so why could I not stop? I was desperate to. But I was also desperate to use, and my shame at not being able to control my actions drove me into even greater use, which made me more desperate, which . .. well, that’s the cycle of addiction unchecked.
I’ve never met a happy cocaine addict. Every addict is, by definition, running away from a thousand different kinds of pain, and using drugs or booze to make the pain disappear, which only makes it worse. At age 40,1 hardly knew what a feeling was, but I was terrified one would sweep me away forever. I only stopped using cocaine because some friends intervened, frog-marching me to the Talbott Treatment Center in Atlanta. If those friends hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here.
Because of all the shame surrounding the disease, addiction is one of the last great afflictions to be dragged out of the closet. But like so many things in life, just talking about it can take away its hold over you. So what is an addict? (I use “addict” and “alcoholic” interchangeably, since they’re just different forms of the same disease.) Someone who ingests chemicals to repeated harmful effect. I know people who take cocaine every Saturday night, but when they’ve had enough, they just stop. On the other hand, I know a woman who doesn’t drink alcohol for 364 days a year, but who gets blindingly drunk every New Year’s Eve and ends up in the hospital with her stomach being pumped. She is an addict. What
I’VE never met a happy cocaine addict. An addict is, by definition, running away from a thousand different kinds of pain.
counts is not how much you use, but how much you hurt yourself and others.
Why do these definitions matter? Because virtually all addicts will insist they’re not addicts. In fact, besides the actual imbibing, a primary symptom of addiction is not erratic behaviour, or red eyes, or shaky hands—it’s denial of the illness. Three of the commonest refrains: “I’m not hurting anybody”; “I can stop any time”; and “It makes me feel powerful, sexy, smart, and insert adjective here.”
The reality is, addiction hurts everybody, addicts can’t stop any time, and you actually
feel weak, sexless and stupid. But denial is an incredibly hard thing to break through. Certainly for the addict. And often for his or her family, who frequently have been so affected by the addict living in their home that they’re likely to be the last people able to help. That’s why meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs begin with the much-parodied phrase: “My name’s Bob and I’m an addict.” Because if we don’t keep saying that right off the top, it’s easy to keep denying it.
There’s no known cure for addiction, and what makes its hold so strong on us is that it’s a physical, mental and spiritual disease rolled into one. I found that snorting two grams of cocaine, then drinking two bottles of wine to come down from the cocaine, was actually ruinous to my health. But I was beyond caring. I found that cocaine made me paranoid. Everyone was chasing after me, which is why I would tape my windows shut with garbage bags and duct tape to shut out both people and the light. In the beginning, cocaine brought me many new friends and made me terribly sociable, but in the end, it lost me nearly all my old friends and made me terribly lonely. In fact, nearly all addicts are alone—they push everyone away to be with their drug. This is what I mean about addiction being a spiritual disease. It cuts you off from everyone and disconnects you from any sense of belonging.
Addiction can only be halted by reconnecting addicts to their feelings and their community. Without that reconnection, the addiction will continue unabated. Until death. Because addiction is also a fatal disease.
So how can you help someone—maybe yourself—who’s addicted? Two words: Act Now. And be prepared for the addict to throw up a thousand excuses why getting immediate help isn’t possible: they’re busy; summer’s here; if they went into treatment, they’d lose their job.
The reality is, whatever you put ahead of getting sober, you will lose, especially the
things you love most. If the addict says, “I can’t get help because of my work,” assure him he will soon be out of work. If the addict says, ‘T can’t leave my children,” remind him his children will leave him—or the state will take them.
There are a few ways addicts can get better. One is AA or NA: these granddaddies of the 12-step movement have helped literally millions of people get clean and sober. Just dial 411 and ask for the office in your city or town. Call and find out when there’s a meeting. Take your friend there. Drag him there. It doesn’t matter if he’s
still drinking or using, just get him there.
The next way is the modification programs offered by some hospitals. Such programs are intended mainly for abusers, people capable of cutting down on their own. I have no problem with these regimens—I just don’t know any addicts who could stop on their own.
The third route back is treatment. This is for addicts who may have tried AA or a modification program. It’s a tough love kind of thing where you have to forcibly take the addict away to a treatment centre for a month or more, sometimes against his will. This
takes skill, guts and professional help. Still, when someone is so far gone, as I was, that he can no longer act for himself, someone else has to step in.
Only by taking action—not intending to take action, not sort of intervening, or intervening once and when your loved one relapses, giving up and not taking action again—will the suffering stop and the healing begin.
There is, I’m afraid, no other way. 171
Bob Ramsay is a Toronto communications specialist.
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