The hardest thing about recovery has been learning how to talk about it. I am so proud of the person I rediscovered throughout the process of addiction, recovery, and everything that has come afterwards. I don’t know who I would be if my choices had been different, and I don’t want to know; this has always been the way it had to be. This was always my journey.
For the first thirteen years of my life I had a very clear, unobstructed view of the world I lived in and the people in it. I didn’t need explanation of choice and consequence; I lived in a mishmash of cause and effect over which I had no control. This also endowed me with a quiet discerning between good and bad; right and wrong, and the million shades of gray in between. Though I disagreed with what went on around me, I was loyal to my family; keeping their secrets made it okay to lie to others, and though I knew what wasn’t okay for me to do, I could not hate my parents when their actions said differently than their words. Despite the inconsistencies and the overwhelming weight of fear and responsibility for the souls of my parents [and protection of my siblings], I never questioned myself. For thirteen years I took for granted an unwavering faith in myself to know the right thing to do in every situation, and the ability to make things right when everything was so wrong.
And then everything changed. My mom became someone else; her focus turned outward, and her concern became proving to others that she had become ‘right’. In an effort to make up for thirteen years of what she must have felt was poor parenting, she became overbearing, critical, and cold. She stopped seeing me though her own eyes, as her daughter, and started seeing me through everyone else’s eyes…as her daughter. Projecting the guilt and self-loathing onto me, she saw me as tainted and damaged. She seemed to give up on me. The only attention she afforded me after that was to recite everything she was learning, or practicing, or working towards; whether or not I needed or wanted any of it. I truly believe that, in her desire for me to not have to re-live her mistakes, she was trying to be a mother. It’s just that at some point I had become a mirror, and every time she looked at me she saw herself: not good enough, unworthy, and below the others who weren’t making up for lost time. I lost my first chance to her as she jumped to conclusions about my chastity, my honesty, my desires; no matter how many times I showed up on time for curfew, I would never earn a later one, because of what I might do with the extra time. When she heard me tell a boy I loved him, she started regularly asking me if I was having sex with him; I had never even let a boy touch my boobs, but when I said no she just continued to ask. The realization that my own mother’s beliefs about me were to prepare herself for disappointment flipped a switch inside me. When I turned 16, I got a job and spent as much time away from home as possible. When I wasn’t working, I lied and said I was. I lied about everything- even the most inconsequential details- because it simply didn’t matter. No one ever checked me stories, and when I did get caught, my home life was as miserable as when I was trying to earn some semblance of trust, so it made no difference. It seemed quite clear to me that, as long as I maintained a smooth surface: good grades, church on Sundays, modest dresses to Prom, no one really cared what I did.
I moved away right after high school, to the furthest college still in Utah. I had received a scholarship, found a place to live, toured the campus, enrolled for classes and found a job all on my own prior to moving. Again: as long as I was ‘doing something’ no one really cared what it was. In four years my mother visited once, for a part of a day, to help me move one of the TEN times I moved during my time there. On my end, I went home for holidays and called maybe every other week; enough to tell them I was still getting good grades, still had a job, and remained childless. The four years I was there I cycled through a different addiction each year before I found the one that got me. First it was alcohol, then religion, then alcohol again and the beginning of a short-lived fascination with prescription medications. Always looking for a way to fit in, forever wandering in and out of relationships, friendships, apartments, jobs; anywhere I could find a space hollow enough for me to fill. And then something happened.
A girl who grew up in my neighborhood killed herself. I had been giving her rides from her treatment facility in the south to our hometown whenever I travelled up north. She had been institutionalized for being gay. I, still uncomprehending of the black-and-white boundaries between the shades of gray, had done my best to express my acceptance to her, listening and occasionally chiming in with advice or anecdotes. But there always remained an awful, unacknowledged truth with us in the car: like me, Brandie didn’t fit, and though I so wished I could tell her how to find the belonging she so desperately wanted, I didn’t know how to find it, either. I found Brandie; she called my sister to say goodbye, and we went over there to see if everything was okay. I was able to prevent my sister from seeing most of it; but she had used a shotgun, and pieces of her potential were spread everywhere. I am great in times of crisis; it wasn’t until afterwards, when everyone was doting on my sister, that I broke down and remembered crouching next to her to see if her back was rising. I saw the top of the shotgun poking out from where she had fallen on top of it, and then saw the box of shells next to her. The pool of blood around her head was so big, and the outline of her sports bra through her t-shirt shot a pain through my chest. When I returned down south after that, I was different. Small things made me angry, and I was very reserved, controlled; there was no spontaneity unless I was drinking or on pills, and then I did it until I was out of control. I remember telling my friend it felt like I was asking for an addiction; saying it out loud did nothing to ebb the intensity of my contrasting dynamics. It had become necessary for me to restrict any feeling in my daily life, so when I did let it go it came out so big it was blinding.
Then I met heroin. Instead of controlling when I let emotion happen, heroin allowed me to neutralize it completely. Gone were feelings, along with values, desires, and any remnant I had of myself at the time. I became a blank piece of paper; so good at going through the motions due to years of practicing double lives and juggling identities and way back to the beginning when I protected what I loved the most by lying about the reality and sacrificing my innocence to save them. I finally found my place with heroin: it allowed me to become as invisible on inside as I has been to the rest of the world for my entire life. And that really worked for me for a while, until it just didn’t anymore.
It only took the one rehab; what I really gained when I walked through the doors for the first time was loss. The loss of everyone else’s burdens I had been carrying since I could walk, and then the baggage I piled on top of it myself. The loss of the image I had been trying to uphold, and the set of standards I had inherited when my imperfect parents had decided to become ‘perfect’ overnight, to the detriment of themselves and their ability to have honest relationships with their children. The loss of the shame I had felt for being a constant reminder to my mother of her past, and the loss of the fucking mirror she’d been having me hold up for all these years. Without all the extra weight, it wasn’t much further to look and I uncovered the beautiful, selfless, compassionate, loving, vulnerable dreamer who had been locked away, eternally twelve years old, unable to age and naturally develop as herself.
Telling the story of my addiction is not generally something everyone wants to hear; nor do I trust just anyone with such a precious piece of me. However, the story of my recovery is one I celebrate; and I mean ‘recovery’ not simply as recovery from drug use, but the recovery of my sweet inner child, my genuine inner self. I don’t think it is understood clearly that addicts, being humble enough to admit that they truly lost themselves for a time, are one aspect of society with an opportunity to turn back time and recover the person they were most proud to be. Not only recover that person, but reunite with that person and magnify their understanding of the qualities and values they love and cherish about themselves in this restored state Self.
In different circumstances, would other people adopt that state of humility to recover themselves? Would it be possible to identify what they had lost without such a dramatic contrast? With heroin out of the equation, the original feelings of aloneness, inadequacy, invisibility, unimportance, and poor self-worth remained, but without my invisibility mechanisms they were suddenly glaringly unhidden from others, too. Heroin wasn’t the problem, it was the solution. Taking away my solution forced me to work on my problem. There were other shields to break though, too, ones I used before I was so self-destructive: lies, manipulation, ‘fixing’ others’ problems to avoid my own, humor, and drama. Those all had to be not only worked on but painfully pointed out to me by therapists and peers during a 90-day inpatient treatment. If that is not uncomfortable for a 22 year-old female in a coed facility, I don’t know what is. Oh yeah—comfortability, that’s another shield of mine.
Society tends to look down on addicts; so much so that the majority remain Anonymous, giving themselves a place to belong and feel unjudged, safe, and understood. But for me, the most valuable asset I recovered was my voice, and after keeping quiet for so long I sometimes feel like I might burst with everything I want to say. To date, there is only one person who truly knows me as I am today-other than myself- and that is my husband. When he picked me out of an entire town of Stepford coeds, all eager to wed, and said he loved me because I was ‘about something’, I knew I wanted to marry him. Not once have I ever looked back: I married a man who loved me for the person I was in Recovery. He didn’t know me before, and has made it that much easier to maintain the recovered Self I love being so much.
It has been almost four years, and my family has fulfilled Freud’s dysfunctional family tree dynamics perfectly: when one role threatens to disrupt the dynamic, the change is met with resistance. Not that my family didn’t support my treatment, and they do love my husband. They just don’t try to know me as I am, and they continue to respond to me as the person I was four years ago. They become irritated when I am enthusiastic about something; they don’t stick up for me when another is treating me poorly, nor does anyone berate another for their disrespect towards me. They don’t know what I am passionate about, nor do they try to understand my newly attained understandings on spirituality. If I have ideas different than what I was taught it is seen as a criticism, and they align in support of one another as I am known to mean, hot-tempered, and unfair. It is hard to spend time with my family, because I have outgrown the spot I once occupied within it, small and vague though it was, and I seem to disrupt their well-functioning life when I come around—especially when I get chatty.
I am still learning and growing, always remaining aware of the shields I once used to remain invisible to the world. I am extra careful now not to engage them; I want to avoid their inadvertent obscurity of my view of the world, and especially of the world’s view of me. Though I may not look like much, I walk around with my head held high, knowing I have accomplished something foreign to so many around me, and that gives me a story to tell.
I’m done waiting around to be asked. I’m ready to be heard.