Too Close to Home - Addiction Pays a Visit

Line sketch silhouette of seated human body with head bowed.

 Portrait of desperation - but an addict would see this differently.


In the News

     The drug crisis, the war on drugs, drug addiction - whatever the term - when presented via the news media, it is concerning and maybe even shocking to most people.  When it actually enters ones' home or family, it becomes frighteningly real, and no longer is an abstraction or the problem of "others".  Drug addiction, or alcoholism, in a family member ends up consuming everyone. Try as you might to avoid its impact, the reverberations spread when a family member is involved.
     My wife and I have a singular perspective on the issue due to the fact we are both active participants in our own recovery, and have been for many years. Portions of our journey are recounted in my book titled, Hitting the Road Without a Map. The pigeons of our former use and abuse came back to roost when our son embarked on his own journey down the same disheartening path. It was years in the making. Technically speaking, he is my step son, but I have had a front row seat in his life since he was eight.  The chaotic whirlwind of his life choices touched down again several weeks ago, to spectacular effect, but the fact of the matter is that this has been going on for quite a while.

The Progression

     Empty forty-ounce bottles of beer in the bushes near the treehouse in our backyard, when he was barely a teenager, were the first indicators of a percolating problem. We had taken him to twelve-step meetings with us, and had many serious discussions about the dangers of alcohol and drug use and abuse over the years. None of it made a mark. He had experienced "the magic" - the sense of ease and comfort, and of being "right with the world," that only an alcoholic or addict feels when the chemicals kick in. A normal person might get sick, or experience a strong dislike for the out-of-control spinning sensation which drunkenness brings on. Not so for those who are biologically and mentally different from "normal people." 
        We were helpless as we watched the slow progression in the variety and quantities of substances consumed, and as his behavior slowly unraveled. We repeated the message of a life of sobriety, and offered help. Each time it was rebuked - sometimes more vigorously than others.
     Just as disconcerting was to witness his thought processes become warped by his disease. We knew only too well about the half-truths, the half-baked excuses, the blaming of others, and the strident declarations of having everything in control - which would be in even more control if those around him would just cooperate or get off his back. We ourselves had deployed the same tactics of denial when we were active users. People who have never gone down into the abyss of alcohol and drug abuse, and come out the other side into the world of recovery, are perplexed and mystified by such behavior. But we recognized it for what it was, for we had been there ourselves. This was active addiction playing out in front of us over the years. There would be no end until he "hit bottom" or had a sudden "psychic change."
     Brushes with the law, wrecked cars, broken relationships, poor decisions resulting in lost jobs and squandered opportunities, are astonishingly insufficient to bring about the necessary change of heart and mind that is required to stop such behavior. Responsibility is never taken for these events, which to a normal person would be a clear indication that something in wrong in their life. No, the alcoholic or drug addict will declare that none of these things are their fault, and double-down on the flawed reasoning and actions. 
        Our son joined the Army to avoid a serious scrape with the law, and took himself with him. The Army, and the country of Germany, had to deal with his behavior for the next several years. It did not get any better, in fact, it got worse. He was prescribed opioids due to an injury inflicted while drunk. Pills plus booze meant the party got crazier, which to people like us equates with 'better.' It did not take long, after returning Stateside, for him to embrace other chemicals as well. For an alcoholic and an addict, more is the solution - not the problem. 
     The pain and misery an alcoholic or an addict can endure is beyond belief. Unfortunately, that pain and misery also rains down upon those closest to them. The family is treated to bizarre behavior, lost jobs, financial insecurity, physical and mental damage, and the disheartening specter of a member of the walking dead thrashing about and steadfastly proclaiming there is no problem, while at the same time apologizing and promising various transgressions will never be repeated.

It Gets Worse

      At some point, though, enough is enough. One always hopes the sick-one will reach that point first, but which is rarely the case, so the family backs away if possible. Frequently, there are lulls in the chaos and hope re-emerges in the family. During one such period two years ago, I received a call from our son requesting my help. He needed me to come over to his house right away. It had been six months or more, since the last outburst of abhorrent behavior, or at least it seemed that way from our distant vantage point. I tend to be a trusting soul instead of an immediately suspicious one,  as the direct result of my program of recovery, so I figured he needed some sort of sage advise, or an extra hand in his shop for some project.  
   An extra hand was needed in his shop alright, but not what I had anticipated. Paranoia, coupled with a moment of clarity, caused our son to decide the methamphetamine lab he had constructed in his shop, had to go. He wanted my help in the deconstruction and disposal, because he did not trust himself to complete the task without regretting the action and cooking off 'just one more batch.' Also, his marriage was rapidly heading toward the rocks. The wife also had gotten involved in the fruits of his hard work out in the lab. At first, he viewed this as a good thing - a wholesome hobby to bring the couple together. A husband and wife both cranked up on meth is not a recipe for stability. Another brilliant idea shattered! The lab had to go, and the meth use had to stop. Would I help him?  Still a bit stunned by what I had walked into, I agreed to assist in the lab removal.
      One of the prime directives of those of us actively involved in recovery is to help others to get sober. If this was an opportunity for me to help him (now, them) get sober, then yes, I would help. But as the disassembly process began, he pointed out the various features of the setup that made it better than what a regular run-of-the-mill meth cooker would create, including an Excel Spreadsheet to keep track of ingredient procurement. I had the sinking feeling he was not done playing the game.
      We did manage to get them both to some recovery meetings, however, the marriage had been running on chaos for quite a while. The meetings seemed to offer them some hope and direction, but that was short-lived. Maintaining sobriety quickly lost its priority.  He got mad at something someone said at a meeting, and declared that meetings were stupid and would not work for him. He would do it his own way. We offered our love, while reiterating to them both that his going it alone was a stupid idea, and why. His wife seemed to get the picture, but was powerless to do much about his decision. We carry the message - not the mess, so it was time for us to step back once again.

Then It Gets Worse

        Our son burned through a number of good-paying jobs during the next year or so, and he had quickly returned to his heavy drug use. We rarely saw them or our grandchildren, which was nothing new. Occasionally we heard of fights, of holes punched in walls, and other destruction visited upon objects in the house. It would all get patched up and life would be rosy again - until it wasn't. Then the cycle would repeat.
    Finally the call came that the police had arrived at the house and our son had been hauled away to a padded room at a local hospital. Damage, guns, and a violent suicide threat had been involved.
     Several days later, he was released to our custody, provided he check himself into a mental health and substance abuse treatment program at the VA - which he agreed to do. Less than a day at our house was all he could stand, so he left. He did attend several meetings with me, although he was high most of those times. While he did talk to an intake nurse at the VA Hospital, they would not take him on his terms, and on the day he wanted, so he dropped that plan and decided he would fix himself through shear self will. I pointed out that this plan had not worked so well before, and had brought him to this new low. This time, he declared, it would be different!
      This firm belief in "doing it ourselves" rarely works because it involves curing the sick mind with the sick mind that created the problem. Also, this plan typically denies there really is a problem - and it is a simple case of mind over matter! When one believes they are the smartest person in the room, this theory somehow makes all the sense in the world - and anyone who disagrees, (like his mother, me, and his wife) is just flat-out stupid. The fact we, too, had just about killed ourselves performing similar mental gymnastics, and had since become acutely aware of how delusional such thinking actually was, made no impact on our son. He was smarter than us, and therefore would not fail in this endeavor of heroic self-control and martyrdom. Less than two days later, he was using again, but now it was because he knew his limits and could handle it.  

And Then It Gets Worser

    About a month ago we received another call from his wife. There had been another drug fueled argument. More destruction, more holes in the walls, more pleas for her support and understanding, but this time it was coupled with kitchen utensils being thrown at her. She told him to leave, and if he did not, she would call the cops. He called her bluff - but it was not a bluff. The cops were called and he was hauled off to the county jail with a domestic violence charge, an aggravated menacing charge, plus a protective order to keep him away from his wife and the house. Her call was to inform us of the situation.
    Our boy had been shooting up methamphetamine and fentanyl. Apparently the needle use had been going on since when the meth lab was in operation two years ago. Now he was facing the grim prospect of withdrawal while surrounded by dozens of inmates in general population. We thought that would be a good experience for him - one that might finally bring him to his knees and make him teachable. If he reached out to a God of his no understanding, so much the better.
       An arraignment on the charges was scheduled in several days, and when that day arrived he was too ill to attend. Meanwhile, his wife filed for divorce. Sick as he was, he managed to call his wife several times a day to demand she have his back, and promise not to leave, but that train had already left the station.
    A sense of relief should have been our dominant emotion, but instead we experienced a heavy shroud of dread. Based on the daily reports of his increasingly bizarre phone calls, we knew he was not done - he had not surrendered to his powerlessness. To the contrary, he was still trying to control people, places, and things. Again he claimed he would get serious about getting sober, but first he demanded a rock-solid commitment by his wife not to leave him. This became the mantra for weeks to come.
    Amazingly, this was his first actual legal consequence in over a decade, so he was released on his own recognizance, provided he check himself into a facility for a mental health evaluation and substance abuse assessment. Due to the protective order he was essentially homeless, so he called a high school friend, a fellow drug user, to pick him up upon his release that night. It was our grandson's eleventh birthday, and his father would be absent once again. But even when he was there, he really was not there, so this was nothing new. It was sad nevertheless.
        We had previously been informed of this plan, and my wife had called this guy up and requested that he not get our son high. He was in enough trouble, and would, by the time of release, almost have gotten through drug withdrawal. The friend claimed he himself was sober almost a year, and he sounded good.  In the meantime, we learned this friend was still using. In the rooms of recovery, there is a standard joke:  "How do you know when an alcoholic or a drug addict is lying?"  Answer:   "Because their lips are moving!"

Swirling Around the Bowl

        Late in the evening of the day of his release, he called and said he was in a hotel, and his plan was to go to the VA.  He called again the next morning to reiterate his plan, and also to confess that he had really made a mess of his life. That was the last we heard directly from him for a couple of days. He actually did go to the VA, but he had taken a slight detour on the way in order to visit the dope man and get his head right.  The VA took one look at him and decided he needed a lot more help than they could provide at the clinic, and shipped him off to a special mental health and addiction hospital. He called his wife from the hospital, once again full of remorse, and also he needed cigarettes, plus if she would just promise to stand by him, he could make it through this. She promised him nothing, and we delivered the cigarettes. The phone calls continued, as did the demands and threats. We asked how he had so much access to a phone while in a lockdown facility, and he stated it was because he had stolen their phone. With an attitude and actions like that, we knew there was zero chance of sobriety or recovery.
        Several days later his wife called to inform us that not only had he gotten out of the facility, he came over to the house to plead with her not to go through with the divorce filing. Then he vanished in a rage. The following morning he appeared at our house, with another high school using buddy, only this guy actually was sober, and had been that way for well over a year. 
        We all hammered on our son for the next hour about the necessary change of his attitude that needed to take place if he wanted to live. Once again he proclaimed that any hope he had of living depended upon that selfish backstabbing bitch backing off on the divorce and supporting him in his time of need. When I pointed out that language like that would not win back hearts and minds, he just doubled down. How could she do such a thing? There was no point in beating a dead horse, so we all loaded into the car and headed for a meeting.
        The discussion topics at that meeting actually piqued his interest, and he listened. At previous meetings over the years, he had always weighed in with his drug-addled intellectualizing pontifications, but not this day. I harbored a ray of hope, and encouraged him to keep coming back to the meetings, and to keep an open mind about what he heard. Once again, that would be the last we would see or hear from him for the next several days.
        Word from his wife indicated he had been couch-surfing between his old friends, using, and frequently sneaking over to his house to spend part of the nights in the shed in their backyard. It was a very nice shed, because our son occasionally applies his skills and talents for good. The shed was insulated, heated, and had a TV and a stereo, plus a bed. The drug use, rage, and escalating demands and threats continued. 
        When holed up in the shed he would park his car elsewhere so the cops would not know he was there. His wife did not call the cops either, because she did feel sorry for him for being homeless, but her daughter figured out rather quickly what was going on, and encouraged her to drop a dime on him.
        After a few days our son reappeared at our house - it was his birthday. He was 39 years old. His current situation was the direct result of almost four decades of running his own show. He did not see it that way. He and his mother got into a rather testy exchange about where his life stood, and the direction it was still going. Those two are very much alike. Thoughtful discussion rarely gets very far before the volume increases. If a person is not accepting what you are saying, then say it louder! I took him outside to have him help me clean some old paving bricks I had acquired, in order for him to cool down.
        But he had a plan! The methamphetamine maintenance program! One of his own brilliant concepts! According to his theory, he was so good at using nobody could tell, and at his last job, which paid $30 per hour, he was shooting up five times a day and doing the work of three people! I reminded him that he had now lost that job. He would still have that job, he declared, if his wife had not called the cops! We bade him a Happy Birthday, told him we loved him, and he disappeared into the sunset.

Into The Abyss

        Over the next week, his life got even darker. That is the thing with an active alcoholic or drug addict; as long as they keep using, it just gets worse - never better. But to them, and to us who have been there, using offers the only flimsy reed of relief available, because the rest of the world seems so desperately bleak. But no one can effectively communicate that to the user. It is as if we were speaking in a foreign language - which, truth be known, we were. 
        The reports concerning the activities in the shed were not good. While maintaining the usual tropes, things escalated to new suicide threats, a plan to escape to Florida to start life anew, or maybe Texas, plus frequent disappearances. For one stretch of several days back in the shed, he committed himself to withdrawing all over again. Four days later he emerged, went to the garage, scrounged up some dregs of drugs, used again, and then took off - only now he was armed with a gun.
        A few days later, his wife forwarded us a text. He was back in the shed, had enough dope to end it all, once and forever. When she went out to check on him he was gone. The next several days were fairly quiet. But lack of contact does not equate with peace of mind. To the contrary. We were awaiting the call to come identify the body. That is something no parent should have to live with, and yet we went on about our business as best as possible, with dread dogging our every step. His wife reported that she could not sleep, and had a gun in her pocket. Fear is no way for a wife to live. Even when out of the picture, the using addict or alcoholic impacts the lives of those who care - just not in a good way.
        We are told in the programs of recovery, that when it comes to a loved one, we are to detach with love - to not allow anyone to live rent-free in our heads. But that is much easier said than done, especially when violence or death could be waiting around the corner or coming with the next phone call. It is exhausting, both mentally and physically, to have all that on one's mind.
        I was out of town visiting a friend. My wife had walked down to the Post Office, and upon returning home, found our son's van in our driveway. He was passed out. She woke him and he desperately pleaded for her to convince his wife to stand by him, not to leave. My wife encouraged him to come into the house and just take a nap. She then texted me about the situation, but I was over an hour and a half away. Nevertheless, I told her I was on my way. When I got home the driveway was empty, and he was gone. He had overheard my wife talking on the phone to her sister about the current state of affairs. He got furious, and stormed out of the house. 
        Addicts and alcoholics are sensitive creatures. A word, a look, or a sudden body movement can be readily interpreted as a direct denouncement of the user. When using we are sensitive to real or imagined bruising of our feelings, past or present, yet hold little regard for the feelings of those around us. That is why the condition of addiction is described as being a selfish and self-centered disease. It is all about the user.

        Anyone who has gone through similar situations and scenarios with a loved one knows that the insanity can go on and on. There may be brief pauses, and things might look like they may be getting back on track, but then the chaos resumes - and it gets worse, and worse. Is there no hope?

Hoping, Always Hoping

        The next day his mother and I were at a twelve step meeting, asking for prayers for our son to finally see the light.  When we got home his wife called. He had walked in the front door and asked her to take him to the hospital. No deals, no pleading, no promises or threats. Just the straightforward request - and she did. She admitted that she questioned herself, and chastised herself for being stupid while she was driving him there. In some instances that may well have been true, and could have ended badly. But in this case there were no nasty surprises. Prayers answered! That I truly believe. The the age of miracles is upon us if we just look around.        
        This was the same hospital he had been in a couple of weeks earlier. They remembered his violent outbursts, thrown furniture, thrown food, and damage to the building. The next day they called her to ask some questions to better assess his treatment program. During the conversation, the hospital said his demeanor was completely different - in a good way.
 
       How will this turn out? That is hard to say. As this is being written, our son is still in the hospital. But there have been no calls, which is a good sign. It means that maybe he is actually focusing on his own recovery, instead of making it conditional - like getting a promise from his wife not to leave him. No, this feels different. Yet, we have been down this road before - hoping, always hoping.

The Ingredients of Recovery

        As noted at the start of this article, my wife and I have both gone through the wringer of alcohol and substance abuse, and we emerged into the light of recovery. Now we lead a life neither one of us could have imagined. All of us who have made the decision to do whatever it takes to get sober, have sold the true miracle of recovery short in the beginning. Over the ensuing years we have received blessings beyond our dreams. 
        Life ain't always easy. Few folks have a truly easy time of life and no one promised otherwise. But when in the clutches of our disease, an easier time of it is what we desired. That was part of the allure of getting numb and dumb. None of use who fall into that trap really anticipate what happens next because our perspective quickly becomes warped. It all seemed so nice, and the previous warnings so inconsequential. Then the elixir of our relief boomerangs back upon us and all but cuts us to shreds. 
        Below is some of what my wife and I have learned over the past thirty-plus years since getting sober, and continue to learn one day at a time as we actively participate in our own recovery with the help of others, and a twelve-step program to guide us on a path of freedom. 

        Let go of the denial. A perplexing hallmark of a substance abuse problem is that the users steadfastly refuse to see there is a problem with what they are doing. Until a moment of mental and spiritual clarity is achieved, which frequently is the result of yet another life catastrophe, or a "bottom" as we in recovery tend to call it, the whole motivating force in life remains focused on the substance of choice.  Admitting there is a problem is but the first step, yet it is meaningless if no further action is taken.  
        Accepting powerlessness over the problem is the next phase of that first step. This is the surrender phase - giving up the fight. The idea we can fix the problem by ourselves has to be smashed. Without doing that, there can be no room for accepting help and guidance from others. Belief, that the strength to overcome the overwhelming urge to use drugs and alcohol can come from a Power Greater than ourselves is critical. Our will and our lives have to be turned over to a Higher Power. 
        At the beginning it is often a Higher Power of our no understanding, for many of us have spent years contentiously dodging all aspects of a Power Greater than ourselves.  These things are not simply done once and considered completed - they are repeated over and over again - minute by minute, day by day. This is the key to changing our thought processes. Belief in the possibility in a Higher Power, God to some, provides the strength and willingness to move forward on the work ahead. Willingness to believe, is what makes this critical mental and spiritual transformation possible.
     Quitting is actually the easy part. Not picking up again is the hard part.  Once detox has been accomplished, most of the physical desire to use gets diminished, though it is not removed entirely, so that still leaves the mental compulsion to be dealt with. We tend to want to go back to the thing that once offered ease and comfort, even though it almost killed us. This is why repetition in a program of recovery is so essential to reinforcing the mental desire to not use. Regular attendance of meetings, daily reading, participation in discussions, and talking to other members in recovery, all helps to reinforce this repetitive message - which actually can re-wire our brains over time.
        This is where the most difficult aspects of recovery commence, because we feel these next necessary steps have no direct bearing on the primary problem. A person cannot know what they do not know. In early recovery we have no knowledge of how to stay sober, nor how to stop the peculiar mental twists that may convince us we can use again. 
        
        As we honestly review our lives, it is hard not to see the path of destruction we left. If we see no wreckage in our past, then that is a sure sign that we are not being rigorously honest. The mess is our own creation, and ours alone. The time of blaming it all on others is over, so we have to take responsibility for our actions - both past and present. That meant it was time to change - change everything. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to become the person we always should have been from the very beginning. 
        To achieve this, we must be willing to listen to others, for they will show us what needs to be changed, and how to do it. Thus, we must follow directions, and be willing to do things which make no sense to our superior minds, and adopt a new set of principles not of our own making or thinking. It is a process - not an event!  It takes time, but it is worth it. The process entails the leveling of pride and ego - of becoming humble. These are things a self-centered individual can barely comprehend. We must stop trying to control people, places, and things. As long as we think we know what the course of action should be, we will continually try to manage the outcome - which is not the way of humility, for it sidelines our reliance upon a Higher Power to guide us.
        The point of our incomprehensible demoralization was years in the making - so it will not be undone by next Thursday.

Living in The Now 

        Has our son reached that point - many times now, I do believe. The problem is that the bar can be lowered, and then lowered again - which is a "good news, bad news" situation. The good news is that each individual has the opportunity to decide when enough is enough. It could be the first dented car fender, or the first reprimand at work or from our spouse. Or we can ride the elevator all the way to the bottom, and die.
        What will our son decide? What decision will your loved one make? What decision will you make? Try as we might, we cannot force a decision upon another person, but we can make things darn uncomfortable for them. We can also step away and watch them go into free fall, and pray they pull the rip cord in time. We cannot deploy the parachute for them. They must do it themselves, but we can provide some encouragement.  This is what makes it so tough to have a loved one caught in the grip of alcoholism and/or addiction.
        We do not know where, or how, our son emerges from this. He is so early in the process, which is a very confusing and disorienting time even though he has been down this road before. No doubt he has had a number of profound revelations during the past several days. Some of these he has undoubtedly already rejected. We know what he needs to do, for we had to do it ourselves. What we do not know is whether he sees it this time, or whether he will again turn away from the difficult path of recovery which has been offered to him. Will he choose wisely this time?
        All we can do is live in the now - right now, this minute. Actually, that is all any of us can do. We will strive to live each minute to the best of our ability, and maybe help someone else along the way.  Hopefully our son is doing the same thing - living a moment at a time, and trying to do the next right thing.  Hopefully his wife and children are doing that as well. We are here to help them.  Our hands are already outstretched to them - all they have to do is ask, and grab on.

    *    *    *
        This latest train wreck has played out in a little over a month. All persons who have dealt with a similarly afflicted family member will know that the incidents above merely represent "The Cliff's Notes" of what really goes on. There is pain and emotional numbness which cannot be adequately described. There is anger and hurt. There is shock and amazement that such things can be happening in your life. Yes, people in situations like this will recognize the sting of truth.
       Anyone reading this who is personally struggling with addiction or alcoholism, the message may not be clear. Let us assure you of the one primary fact:   You do not have to live this way anymore!  Take heart in that! But know this as well, you have to ask for help - and mean it, and then be willing to work for it.

        My desire in sharing this most personal of stories, is that someone may find comfort and encouragement in it. Maybe that will take the form of realizing you are not alone in watching a loved one disappear into the quicksand of alcoholism or addiction. Hopefully someone will say they cannot go on living like that, and reach out for help.
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