(*Because I am sure there will be more.)
With the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffmann talk of addiction talk is everywhere. Oddly, I just wrote about it openly a couple of weeks ago. I don’t hide it, I just never wrote about it publicly to my memory.
What has stood out for me in all this flurry of writing and pointing fingers and sad news is probably different than what may have stood out for you, because I am an alcoholic. (Sssssh, we are all around you . . . ) I’m not surprised by an addict’s death; addiction kills more people than cancer or heart disease — especially if the government had the smarts to roll drunk driving and death by abuse into the equation. I’m not surprised that he went for the heroine even though he was about to pick up his children, whom I am sure he loved, nor that he had an amazing career to live for. I’m not surprised because I have the mind of an addict.
Many years of sobriety under my belt and still, I have a mind that tells me to drink. I hear it at least once a week, and in times of stress, a whole lot more.
When my first husband died I had been sober twelve years. One night after shiva had passed, and folks had gone home to leave me to grieve by myself, their job all done, back to their homes full of loved ones who were still alive, I wanted to drink. Not a little, I wanted to drink until I passed out so I could forget he was dead, forget how very much I hated God/dess, and sleep dreamlessly. I hadn’t been to an AA meeting in years, but had a few people I could call. No one was home. I looked for a meeting but nada in the small town I was in until 9am the next day. Finally I called the local halfway house, knowing that there would be an AA person somewhere in the house.
She picked up the phone, and said that she was the only one at home. I asked her how long she’d been sober. “Five weeks.”
“Okay, I need your help. I want to drink.”
“I can’t help you, I don’t know enough.”
“You are sober, you know what it feels like to want to drink, and I need your help. I need to talk to someone. Tag, you’re IT!” I proceeded to tell her my story, and she told me hers, while both of us sat on kitchen counters miles apart. For those of you who are not in the club, your story is all about how you got sober, and where you are right now. We were on the phone a long time. I told her I wanted to lose consciousness completely, forget everything that had happened.
She told me not to drink. Several times. Finally I told her I wouldn’t, that talking to her had helped immensely, and we exchanged phone numbers. Before we said goodnight, she told me she could not believe that she had helped a sponsor-type stay sober. I said, “That is how it works. I stay on the line until I don’t want to drink and we talk. You do this whenever you want to drink and you will stay sober too.”
That is a dramatic story, but what is more shocking to most people is the small voice that runs underneath the daily moments. All these years and it still whispers it’s Gollum-speak to me (When I read Lord of the Rings I realized Tolkien was intimate with addiction.) I’m overwhelmed by the business cash flow, and it quietly says, “Have a nip of tequila; it’ll help you relax. Mitchell doesn’t need to know. . . ” My fricking family is acting it’s crazy self, and it says, ever so quietly, “You’ll sleep better if you have a beer. Hops calms.” I’m sad about the loss of a spiritual group from my life, and it goes into camaraderie, “Fuck them, have some sherry!”
The small voice (it used to be bold and loud, begging pleading reasoning) doesn’t really ever stop. I just deal with it differently than I did at 31 or 38. If it is being subtle, I thank it for sharing and move on. If it is pushy, I tell Mitchell what’s on my mind. If it is imminent, I call another alcoholic or go to a meeting. Meditation helps me hear it clearly, because meditation is about watching the mind run its stuff, especially in the early years when you are trying so hard to have some peace and quiet in there, and the endless chatter just won’t stop!
Learning to uncover and move through my emotions has helped considerably, which is one reason why AA works so well if you work the 12 steps. I uncovered the hurt underneath my rages, and I learned to have a good cry if I was hurt and to tell the truth instead of arguing about my hurt. I found moving through those emotions by crying or journaling shifted them. Everything changes, and look at what is here now. And Now. And NOW.
I don’t take everything so personally. People do stupid things all the time and only occasionally does their stupidity have anything to do with me. Surrendering to the what’s-so of life has helped tremendously. So has my chosen spiritual practice — notice I said spiritual practice, not belief in God, which is why so many people avoid AA. They think it is all about God. It is actually about a spiritual practice, and the 12-steps is a good one if you want no other.
I also have my list of reasons that I don’t drink. #1 is that I love my husband, and I don’t want to do that to him. #2 is that I am clear-minded, and far more creative and productive when I am sober. #3 is that I don’t want to die like my brother, don’t want to hurt my niece and oldest brother with that mess.
Anyone who says this is not a disease is ill-informed. It is like a virus, there waiting for your immune system to dip so it can take over! Gollum is the addict, and his “precious” is whatever substance separates you from your work and your loved ones.
What is most difficult now is my family members who are addicts. My brother Patrick died of alcohol addiction; he would never get sober, and died of esophageal cancer from constant guzzling of beer. Yes, BEER, really, just beer. His children and siblings watched him die, just as they watched him drink, crawl on the sidewalk coming home from the pub, heard him hurl damaging words at them, and felt him be far away, preferring his beers to any kind of relationship. He lost many loved ones because beer always came first. Yes, BEER. When he was sober, he was a dream. When he was drinking, he was an asshole at best. In the end we tended to him and loved him in spite of his addiction, and he died in denial, telling his doctors that I was full of shit, that he was not an alcoholic that drank that many beers. Unfortunately for him, he could no longer talk, and picked me as his mouthpiece, a sober addict who would tell his docs the truth. I reminded him of that karma and told him to choose a codependent next time. Gallows humor.
In his last days he finally missed the feel of water on his throat more than beer. Finally.
And still, we have active addicts in our family, people who will not come to the what’s so about their habit despite what they have walked through with the best case and worst case scenarios. They sneak out to the car to have a quick one when no booze is served at family functions, avoid the ones that love them, lie about their children and relationships with even their best friends, prefer to hang with other addicts, don’t think about how their kids feel or will feel as they choose to walk toward that certain separate death of a addict. There is nothing anyone can do but be there the day they decide to get sober, IF that day ever comes, support them in that path if it comes, and pray pray pray.
I leave you with my two favorite bits and links to the articles.
“So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine. He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed — he died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.” Aaron Sorkin, Time Entertainment Obituary
This is one of the MOST brilliant comments I have read in all this talk. Let’s be clear, people die from addiction, not from overdoses, which imply that there are safe doses and encourage folks to spin the roulette wheel.
“Without these fellowships I would take drugs. Because, even now, the condition persists. Drugs and alcohol are not my problem, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solution. If this seems odd to you it is because you are not an alcoholic or a drug addict…” Russell Brand, the Guardian
Back to the Fellowship. . . of the Rings. I’ve wondered about Tolkien writing a book about the search for sobriety. A ring that turns the hearts of even the best men, the great Bilbo Baggins, the demented Gollum that Bilbo steals it from (quintessential addict), how it makes them invisible (when invisible do you have to deal with the world and its problems?), and how the entire fellowship must help each one who wears the ring be strong in letting it go. Simple, heart-centered Sam saves Frodo from his addiction to the ring, as it is not great mind but a conscious heart-centered ego that saves us all from our addictions. And when Gollum takes his precious it is both his and the rings undoing, because addiction untended kills all addicts in the end.
It is no wonder that some of the most brilliant creatives are the worst addicts. To be a creative you have to have a huge ego, An ego brave enough to have ideas that no one else has and to push forth those grand plans in the face of naysayers. This is fine when it is accompanied by humility in everyday life, compassion, and some understanding of ego’s limits. Addiction is all about the ego that thinks it is in control, that it is the center of the entire Universe (don’t get metaphysical on me as this is not a metaphysical argument but an egocentric one), that it can have just a little bit and control even itself, that everyone around them is wrong, that they do no harm, etc etc. Your fellowship reminds you of your folly in terms that, addict to addict, you understand.
And still, the end of your day is up to you. “One day at a time” should be “One moment at a time” for it is in each moment that you make the decision to let Gollum or a healthier ego be in charge.
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