So. How Did I Get Here, Anyway?

Blue Crabs

My two sons (and my ex-wife) are down in Maryland right now, visiting with friends I’ve known since 1994. I’m sitting at home, by myself, listening to Journey while Penn State is on the muted TV, typing what you see in front of you now. How did my life come to this?

Now, the first reason is really easy. The occasion at my/our friends’ house is a Crab Feast – there will be multiple bushels of Blue Crabs, being ripped apart and devoured by a large number of people sitting at tables covered in newspapers (which, yes, is the proper and really the ONLY setting for eating crabs). Many of those people will also be consuming a HUGE amount of beer. I’m a recovering alcoholic who is still very much struggling with his recovery, so putting myself in a situation which would make me spend all day thinking about how AWESOME a beer would be right now is what we call “A Bad Idea ™”. So – right away, it’s out.

Now, if I was in a better place, or if I had been sober for a year or so (like I should be at this point, considering all the rehab and counseling I’ve had), could I be going along on this trip? Mmmmmmmmaybe. There’s at least one more issue.

As I said above – my ex-wife took my sons down there. She and I are getting along fairly well as “friends” I guess, and we are co-parenting at the very least. But, no matter what anybody tells you – when you have a separation/divorce, your mutual friends have to make a choice: you or her. The people she’s hanging out with this weekend chose her. And one of those people was the best man at my wedding. Kinda drives the point home about how badly you really screwed up, if there’s any lingering questions.

(No, I’m not bubbling over with anger or bitterness about this. Honestly, if I was in their place, I would have chosen her too.)

What Codependency Is, and Why it Doesn’t Work

Breathalyzer

Codependency is something that’s often seen in relationships involving an addict. We’ll go to dictionary.com for the official definition:

co·de·pend·ent [koh-di-pen-duhnt]
adjective
1. of or pertaining to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent on the first in an unhealthy way.

In July 2010 I left my wife for a woman with whom I’d been carrying on an affair for over a year. (Yes, I know what this says about me: it was yet another sign of just how sick I was back then, and was another way my addiction and mental illness were acting out.) Neither she nor I knew it was the time, but she was very, very codependent (in fact, neither of us knew the word “codependent” at the time). All I knew was that she was the person who had convinced me that I was indeed an alcoholic, and that I needed help; she drove me to my first AA meeting in this area, and helped me get into my first rehab. She was supportive, she was encouraging, and she told me all the time how proud she was of me for fighting this.

She also had tied her entire happiness into whether or not I stayed sober: she took every one of my relapses (and there were many) personally as a failure on her part. And the longer we stayed together, the more and more she tried to control me, to put measures into place that would make it more difficult for me to get a drink. She took over my bank account, she insisted on seeing receipts when I did something as simple as put gas in the car, and she would call me multiple times per day just so she could hear my voice (and hence figure out if I’d been drinking that day).

At one point, she bought a breathalyzer. Now, the purchase itself was actually a good idea, if for no reason than it put an end to any “You’ve been drinking/No I haven’t/Yes you have” arguments instantly. And if it had been used just for that purpose, it might have stayed as a good idea. But, it turned into part of a daily routine: I blew into it before I left in the morning, when I got home in the afternoon, if I went anywhere in the evening or on the weekend by myself (to the supermarket, to visit family, etc.)

One of the more ironic points here is that she was attending Al-Anon meetings at the time, about once or twice a week. (She also went to Adult Children of Alcoholics support groups – I know, it’s like a cliche come to life.) And Al-Anon has a saying which they call the Three C’s – “I Didn’t Cause It, I Can’t Control It, I Can’t Cure It”. She knew the first part. She seemed to understand the third part. But she really, REALLY didn’t get that middle part at all.

Now, here’s the really important concept about codependency and control: NONE OF THIS WORKS.

One thing that almost all addicts have in common is a near-genius level of resourcefulness when it comes to getting our drug of choice into us. I was “lucky” in that I had a career that made me easily hirable and paid me very well, and that booze is cheap (you can get a fifth of vodka for as little as $7). But, I was in rehab with people who had pill and heroin addictions, which could easily run them $80-100 a day. And these were people who almost never had a job – or if they did, they barely made over minimum wage. But one way or another, these guys would find a way to get that $80-100 every day, every week, no matter what. If they had to steal it, if they had to rob a drug dealer, if they had to take items from their family’s home and pawn them — whatever they had to do to “hustle” that money up, it would be done.

So, asking me for a receipt when I put gas in the car was going to stop me? Uhh – no. You go to the counter, pay for $50 worth of gas in cash, and ask for a receipt. Then, you put $30 in the car, walk back to the counter, say “Hey, I only needed $30 worth. Can I get my change?”

There was also a couple of months where she was working and I wasn’t. So, she’d call a couple times a day, but eventually decided that wasn’t enough. So, she had me make a short video on my iPhone, showing the current time, then showing me blowing into the breathalyzer, and then showing the “0.00”. Did that stop me? Uhh – no. As soon as she would leave the house, I’d make 4 or 5 videos, just changing the time on the clock on the oven before each one. Then, I had them ready to go no matter when she asked during the day – and I could get started on that pint of vodka hidden in the bathroom by 8:00 AM.

You cannot force an alcoholic to stop drinking, or a junkie to stop using. Many have tried, all have failed. And with the wrong addict (read: ME), it is simply taken as a challenge to overcome. If you have an addict in your life that you want to help, and you find this frustrating: good. It’s supposed to be.

If you are asking (as I was asked recently in comments): “What can family and friends do for you?”

There’s actually an extensive list of what family and friends can do “for” me.

They are almost all wrong.

They invariably end up enabling, or attempting to control, or establishing co-dependence, or emasculating the alcoholic.. There are only two suggestions that I would make for friends and family who are serious about wanting to “help”:

1) Attend Al-Anon meetings regularly, and participate. Talk to other people who have gone through what you are going through. Don’t expect a “secret answer” that will solve the problem – just listen, and share.

2) Set healthy boundaries, with clearly defined repercussions of breaking them, with the alcoholic, and hold to them unequivocally. No 2nd or 3rd or 4th chances. No “It’ll never happen again, I promise”. No “I’ll just have one drink, who will that hurt?” Cross the boundary? Suffer the consequences.

Please note: these aren’t steps that are meant to help the addict get clean. They are meant to help you deal with the situation life has handed to you.

Good luck. Stay strong. Keep faith.

Hopes and Fears of a Father

I am the proud father of two young boys: Patrick, who is 11, and Alex, who is 9. (NOTE: some names have been changed to protect privacy.) Back in April 2009, I wrote a Facebook note entitled Fears of a Father, where I described some of the challenges involved in raising these two boys. It felt like I was long past time to update that.

Patrick has inherited my love of comic books (and related media like the Iron Man movies, The Avengers, Teen Titans Go!, etc.) He and I are traveling together (just the two of us) to Baltimore on Saturday to attend Comic Con. He has started his list of graphic novels and figures he wants to look for, in order to fill in various collections (he wants an entire set of Ultimate Spider-Man). He’s spent the last 3 evenings in my room, reading through everything he can get his hands on that I’ve purchased over the last few months. He very quickly picked up on the fact that some of Dad’s comics are not appropriate for an 11 year old, so he always brings me whatever pile of books he’s about to go through, so I can remove the age-inappropriate issues (such as The Walking Dead). He’s also aware that there are individual as well as sets of graphic novels currently on the bookshelves that he’s not quite old enough for yet, such as Watchmen, Batman: The Long Halloween, and Invincible. Some he’s been told he needs to be at least 13, while there’s other things in the room (like the first two seasons of Game of Thrones Blu Rays) that he’ll be waiting till he’s closer to 17.

This is what my bedroom floor currently looks like thanks to him:

Alex is a full-fledged video game savant. He’s built worlds and structures in Minecraft that I couldn’t imagine having the patience to put together myself, and he’s gone farther in every single Angry Birds game than me (and done it much faster). He’s also become capable of building complex Lego creations using nothing but the picture in his mind. Here’s a small random sample:

Patrick has been suffering from seizures since he was two years old. At its worst, he was having one about every 10-14 days. He was on 7 different medications, each of which would help for a short time, but then the effectiveness would inevitably wear off after anywhere from a month to a year. Finally, after a long series of tests at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), the doctors were able to discover that a portion of his right front lobe had simply never formed correctly in the womb, and was now made up of largely dead cells, which were interfering with the electrical signals in his brain. After extensive consultation, and a meeting at CHOP where a roomful of people know more the brain than practically anyone in the world, it was decided to perform a lobectomy: basically, removing the portion of his right frontal lobe that wasn’t properly formed. We were told that it would probably be a piece about the size of a lemon.

After the surgery was over, we found out it actually ended up being about the size of a grapefruit.

The surgery took place at CHOP in June 2012. If you’ve paid close attention to my previous blogs, you’ll realize I was in a state-run 24/7 inpatient drug and alcohol rehab at that time. I had to jump through more hoops than I think any reasonable person would expect, when it concerns his son have major brain surgery. Thankfully, I was able to get out on two different occasions and spend a few days with him. My first arrival was after his skull was opened up, and a “grid” was placed directly on his brain to read whatever activity they could find.

This was the image that greeted me when I walked into the room:

Thankfully, the surgery went off with almost no complications, and Patrick was home a week later. And despite having such a significant portion of his brain removed – talking to him, interacting with him, you couldn’t tell that anything had changed. There have been issues, of course – the right frontal lobe controls many of the “executive” functions of the brain, so Patrick struggles with things like sarcasm, and his emotional swings can be incredibly intense and INSTANT. There is no slow build-up: he goes from 0 to tantrum in a fraction of a second. Also, because of a variety of reasons, his emotional maturity is closer to that of an 8 or 9 year old much of the time. This is something we’re working on with a series of professional. But, Patrick has not had a seizure in over 14 months, and the doctors say the chances of him never having one again are good, and literally get better every day he doesn’t have one.

Now, as for Alex: he’s autistic, and has been in the Delaware Autism Program since he was three. The sentence I wrote about Alex in the Note from April 2009 that haunted me was, “I cannot honestly say that I know for sure if Alex will ever make a single friend in his entire life.”

This is a text we received from Alex’s teacher this afternoon:

“Hi. It’s Sue just wanted to let u know Alex is playing tag with the class at recess!!! From Mrs. Collins”

It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to be told a sentence as simple and common (for almost every kid on the planet) as “Your son is actively playing with other children his age”. But, when you were preparing yourself four years earlier that he could very possibly live “in his own world” for his entire life… the mental image of him chasing and being chased on the playground and the sound of his laughter you hear inside your head when you picture it, is like watching your child win a gold medal at the Olympics. Pride, relief, joy – the actual release of fear that you can feel come out of your chest – it’s nearly overwhelming. I have more than once in the past cursed God for what I felt he did to me and my sons, and how unfair it felt. But I wouldn’t trade the feeling I had this afternoon for anything in the world.

Being an Addict is Easy. Getting Sober is Hard.

I am a 43 year old recovering alcoholic. I’ve done several stints in detox, I’ve done outpatient rehab twice, and I spent 129 days in a state-sponsored inpatient rehab. My drug of choice is vodka – generally, 100-proof straight from the bottle, chased by some form of diet soda. I’ve called an ambulance on myself twice, and I once spent time in two separate psychiatric wards in two hospitals in two different states in the space of 24 hours. I’ve been arrested for DUI three times, and convicted twice. I’ve had blood alcohol tests done on me in ERs that were as high as 0.32 (and yes, I was awake and aware and holding conversations with the staff at the time).

My 129 days in the state-sponsored inpatient rehab took place last year, from April 9 to August 15, 2012 (I had spent the previous 7 days in detox). That was the time I really thought I was going to “get it” – 4 solid months of sobriety, and I had learned a lot about myself, including an extensive list of faulty beliefs that I had been carrying around with myself for some time. The program was fairly intensive: you were woken up at 6am every morning, and outside of meal times, you spent the entire day in some sort of “programming” until 9pm – one-on-one meetings with your counselor, small group sessions, Men’s Group (“How to act like a responsible man in sobriety”), relapse prevention, anger management, and countless AA-style meetings; plus, there’s a series of sessions where the patients confront each other about behaviors, good and bad. There was also a weekly Cognitive Session, where one client stood at the front of the room, and took questions and open criticism from the other 59 male clients (this doesn’t happen to everyone – I specifically requested this for myself when I knew I was getting close to my “graduation”). There is no interaction with the 20 or so female clients. You are allowed two 15 minute phone calls per week on a pay phone, and you can get an hour or so visit from family members, girlfriends, etc. about every 3rd Sunday.

Another custom was what they called a “Dust Off” – the night before you graduated, the entire class of clients lined up in two rows (“the aisle”), with you on one end; and three people you have chosen on the other. The responsibility of these three people is multifold: they give you a “good-bye” speech, where there’s usually at least a little built of a build-up, they congratulate you on how far you’ve come, that you’ve been deemed fit to return to society, etc. But (and this was another thing I specifically requested from my three speakers): they also tell you things you need to hear. The common theme for what I needed to hear was: “You are not nearly as smart as you think you are.” (Which is 100% true, by the way – and has been for years.)

The first gentlemen to speak was someone that came into the rehab with an extremely negative attitude, and was completely dismissive of the idea that any of the clients there actually cared about each other. He thought everyone was just biding their time until they got out, much like jail. Overv the course of three months, I watched him come to actually trust me and a handful of other clients, and open up about his own feelings. I watched him tell one of the most moving stories I heard during my stay: where he described what it was like going to school in a wealthy township, and being picked on constantly for being poor. This was an extremely guarded, street-hardened man – watching him break down in tears over a childhood memory that he had obviously never truly dealt with was heart-breaking. He was also a heroin addict, and had been arrested multiple times for bank robbery. I learned more from him about life in a federal penitentiary than I had ever expected to know. I saw him several times in the weeks after we both graduated, but I haven’t seen or heard a word from him in at least 9 months.

The second gentlemen to speak was someone that was in my small group, and who I knew didn’t like me very much when he first arrived – and he told me so, as he walked down the aisle. He was on his second trip through this rehab, and seemed to be getting his life together: I remember him saying how he was looking forward to taking his kid out for Halloween, and trying to be a better father. I remember him telling me: “You know what you need to do. Just go out there and do it.”

A month ago, I found out he overdosed on heroin.

The third gentlemen was someone that I struggled to get along with during most of my stay, mostly because too much of him reminded me of myself: we were both well-read, we both thought we were smarter than this disease, and we both thought our education made us “better” than most of the other clients (even if we wouldn’t necessarily have admitted that out loud at the time). Also, from the very first time I saw him, I labeled him a “hipster”, and let that stupid label affect how I thought about him through most of our stay. And finally – I knew he thought he was smarter than me, and that was usually the kiss of death in terms of whether I chose to like you or not. But nonetheless – he was brutally honest with everyone, and I knew I could count on him to not hold back on what he said to me. (He used some of his speech to mock me, of course, because I had brought in a series of pictures a couple weeks before, showing the ridiculous mullet I had back in college, and pictures of my time in a LARP back in the late 90’s. But that was fine – I brought those pictures in specifically to let my guard down, and show that I didn’t have to take myself very seriously all the time.) And for some reason, the one line I remember most clearly from him was, while talking about my haircut: “What did sideburns ever do to you?” I have no idea why – but that comment is burned permanently into my memory.

I found out on Saturday that he took his own life Thursday morning.

I still have not conquered my addiction – I drank as recently as last Wednesday. I spent the holiday weekend with a large number of people at a campsite in PA, some of whom I’ve known for 20+ years, but whom I had not seen in person in 2-5 years. And I discovered that I have difficulty now just having “normal” conversations with many of them: I can do it, but I struggle just to come up with an answer to “Hey, how have you been?” that doesn’t make me sound like a crazy person or a complete wreck. I’ve known these people half of my life – but how can I expect them to actually relate to what I’ve gone through in just the past 5 years: an affair, a separation, multiple stints in rehab, drinking binges that lasted for 3 days or more, trying to buy a plane ticket to Vegas just because it sounded like a good idea, wrecking my car, 4 jobs in 12 months, a stay in an Oxford House that ended after I got into a fight with two roommates in one night, a girlfriend who was committed to an institution after I broke up with her, a son who had a frontal lobectomy, another son who cried to his mother “I want my Daddy back!” after I moved out, my 11 year old demanding to know what I’m drinking if he sees a glass of iced tea in my hand, my family uninviting me from Thanksgiving because they were afraid I’d show up drunk?

I’m tired of losing friends to this disease. But I’m also tired of losing parts of myself, one at a time, while being fully aware that 1) I’m the only one who can stop this, and 2) feeling completely unable to do anything about it. I’m holding on mostly because of my two sons right now – but I need to find something inside myself to hold onto soon. I can’t end up as yet another sad Facebook status update from people that have had more than enough despair already. I can’t do that to my family. They’ve put up with enough already. If you were my Mom, you really would be asking yourself: ‘How much more am I expect to handle? How much more can I take?”