I enjoyed being at a meeting last weekend where I saw three people in my recovery circle pick up chips for 9, 23, and 28 years of sobriety. There is so much hope in the experience of others in recovery. Several years ago, I didn't think it was possible for me. They say you have to stick around until the miracle happens, and when I see people with that much time in recovery or look back on my own 4+ years, I know that miracles do happen.
Unfortunately, they don't always happen, and we don't all get second chances. Addiction is a terrible disease that robs people of their lives, sometimes by destroying everything worth living for and sometimes literally ending them. I don't need to go over the statistics. They're available, and they're depressing. Sadly, I've also seen too many real flesh and blood friends suffer and die from this disease - two of them just in the last two months. And with each one come the questions. Why? Why didn't they "get it"? Why them and not me? How am I different?
The answer, of course, is I'm not. We're all just people who share the same disease. As with other diseases, some people are sicker than others, some seek treatment and some don't, some respond to treatment and some don't, some find the right combination of treatments that work, and some are too sick to even try. I'm no different. I was just lucky to live long enough to see the coming together of circumstances that put me on a path to recovery, and that's where the miracle happens. Only if you manage to get that far.
Many thoughts ran through my head recently when I became aware that an old friend was dying from the disease that we share. As the days went on, I felt more and more sad and more and more angry. It wasn't fair. Not just in the sense that she wouldn't live long enough or be lucky enough to experience her miracle, but because she left behind so many who may never understand why she didn't get it and that it wasn't her choice. As she lay dying in the hospital, I looked back at old messages - conversations we shared about alcoholism and recovery. These are her words:
It makes me so mad at myself for doing the wrong thing when I'm fully aware of what the right thing is. It's just not as easy as one might think, huh? And, now, on top of my self loathing, I have an unbearable shame.
These aren't the words of someone who chose to party instead of being a responsible adult. This wasn't someone having a good time. This was someone who was sick and suffering. Someone who felt hopeless, like she had nothing left to give. And I get that, because I lived it. One of the reasons I started this blog was to try to foster understanding, but it's easier to be supportive of recovery than it is to understand the disease. I imagine some people believe it's just a matter of making the choice to stop. I assure you that it's not.
I wish I could explain it in a way that made sense to someone who hasn't experienced addiction, but I don't know that it's possible because it defies explanation. When I was at my rock bottom, I could have no more "just stopped" than if I had cancer and tried to stop having it. I was sick - hopelessly, helplessly sick. The difference is, I was ashamed of being sick, and probably by many, I would be blamed for being sick.
She has everything going for her. Why is she making that choice? Why won't she stop for her husband and kids? These are legitimate questions - that I asked myself over and over again. I can only speak from my experience when I say I didn't choose, and I couldn't stop. I love my family dearly, and being a mom is the greatest joy in my life. Anyone who knows me will tell you I love those little bastards with all my heart and have since the day they were born. But being sick distorted my thoughts so much that I believed they would be better off without me. I believed they would be happier if I just let my addiction kill me. Let that one sink in. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around that now, but I've read those thoughts in my own words - scrawled in a journal I kept in the days immediately before and while I was in treatment. Those aren't rational thoughts. They're not the thoughts of someone who likes to drink to have a good time. I hated it, but I kept doing it. I had lost the power to choose and no longer cared if I lived or died. I thought my precious children, whom I love more than life, would be better off without a mother. I was sick.
But here's the worst part - I could have easily died in that moment. Withdrawal from alcohol is no joke. Google it. I did. Probably a thousand times. I could have died from my alcoholism in that moment or a ton of moments before, or since if I hadn't been lucky enough to get well. And if I died, maybe my family would have been too ashamed to let people know why. Maybe the majority of you would have blamed me for choosing to drink and die. Maybe my kids would have believed for the rest of their lives that they weren't enough to make me stop. And all of that breaks my heart.
I know life's not fair. Believe me, I tell my kids that very thing all the time. I can usually accept that and move on. But it makes me angry and sad to see what this disease takes from people. I hate to see my friends die without dignity, without compassion or understanding, and without the comfort of being surrounded by loved ones. I hate that the people left behind may blame their loved one for being sick, that they may blame themselves for not doing things differently, and that they may spend the rest of their lives wondering why they didn't matter enough to make their loved one stop. I hate the disease for destroying the lives of those who have it and those who love them, and I hate that it's so shrouded in shame and secrecy that it's hard to generate a better understanding of it by society as a whole. I think we do a good job of understanding each other within recovery communities, but the destruction caused by the disease goes so far beyond those walls. So should the discussion.
Every time a friend passes, I know without a doubt that my story could have ended the same way. I am no different. I just got well before I died. I am so grateful to have been given a second chance to live. I just hope that sharing my experience may help some of you understand those who never get that second chance.