A Unique Experience
A man can never know what it is like to bear a child. If we can agree on that, then perhaps you’ll be able to follow along with me when I say that no non-addict will ever be able to understand exactly where an addict or alcoholic is coming from.
The experience of addiction is incomprehensible, on a gut level, to anyone who hasn’t been there. I can tell you that withdrawal from heroin, Oxycontin, methadone or other opiates is like the worst case of flu you’ve ever had, multiplied several times, and you still won’t really get it. You have not had the experience of anticipating flu, the way an addict has experience anticipating withdrawal. The anticipation of pain in the dentist’s chair is similar, I guess, but usually much worse than the actual pain, in my experience. The aversion of a phobic to the situations that trigger his panic attacks is similar, too. The experience of withdrawal is so frightening that an addict is unable to imagine risking it. It takes a powerful stimulus, often fear of death itself, to move most addicts away from the drug. In too many cases, even that doesn’t do the job.
The same is true of an alcoholic’s compulsion to drink. Even though the immediate process of drying out takes only three to four days, no one who has not experienced the emptiness and fear of the unknown that goes along with the withdrawal from alcohol (not to mention seizures and d.t.’s) is able to look a drunk in the eye and say, “Hey, I know where you’re coming from, and it’s going to be o.k.” (Note: I use the terms alcoholic and addict interchangeably. Alcohol is just another drug.)
Even after detox, addiction leaves its victims with deep deficiencies, physical, social and spiritual. It can take as long as two years for a person’s body and nervous system to approach normal again. Along with that comes the pressure of getting back on track: examining one’s life to see where the problems are rooted, digging them out, making amends for all the damage we did, putting up with the lack of trust (richly deserved, but nonetheless hard to take) that goes along with demonstrating to people whom you’ve wronged that you’re a different person. Finally, to be successful in sobriety, people in recovery have to learn to monitor their behavior–to recognize the danger signs of early relapse–because relapse doesn’t happen when we pick up a drink or a drug. It happens long before we finally get around to making it official.
The trust of an addict has to be earned, and recovery is a major credential. It’s most unlikely that anyone can provide the support needed to get through this process of change who has not been there–someone who can say, “See, I did it. You can do it too. I’ll help.” You don’t get that kind of credibility from books.
This isn’t to say that an addict’s loved ones and professional helpers aren’t an important part of her supports. They just aren’t able, all by themselves, to provide the range of help needed. These are the people who hard-wired each other’s buttons, and each can play a symphony on the other’s nerve endings without even realizing it.
Furthermore, the people close to the addict are likely in need of support themselves. Living with addiction or alcoholism for long periods makes the family just as loony, in their own way, as the addict is in his. Add to that all the anger, resentment, “gotchas” and other impediments to the relationship, and it’s clear that if Joe Junkie needs someone to talk to, Mrs. Junkie and the rest of the family may not be the best choices.
Two things are needed: distance from the problem and the ability not only to understand, but to convince the addict that you understand. Combat veterans don’t hang around with conscientious objectors for PTSD support, and it’s the same with us drunks.
If you put Michael Jordan in a game and told him he could handle the ball but not shoot it, how long do you think it would be before Michael instinctively did what Michael does best? Eventually the pressure would be on, Jordan would see a way to relieve it, and he’d go for it without even thinking.
Addicts are the same way. It’s vital to remember that recovery from addiction, of whatever kind, is about keeping stress levels low until the necessary coping skills have been learned. Otherwise, when the fertilizer hits the propeller the addict is going to go for the old, proven means of relief without regard for what tomorrow brings. He hurts now! Saying that he’ll feel better soon is like the dentist saying, “It’ll only hurt for a few minutes.” Screw that: we want Novocaine! Just Say No isn’t part of it. Addicts and alcoholics turn back to drinking and drugging because it seems the best of the possible solutions at the moment. We’re at risk until we learn to trust the new solutions. Logic isn’t involved, and Earth People just don’t understand that.
Some people recover without all those meetings. It’s not all that common, but it does happen. Experience has taught those of us in the treatment field that recovering people who have a firm foundation in the 12-step programs are more successful, much more often, than those who do not. In matters of life and death, the smart bettors go with the best odds. That’s why we strongly recommend that newcomers go to all those meetings.
It’s why us old-timers need to go, too. It’s easy to forget where you came from.