My sister died three years ago from medical complications related to alcoholism. Watching her slowly kill herself was one of the most awful experiences I have ever endured.
Our family tried everything we could to help her: treatment, counseling, ultimatums. She was completely overtaken by her disease. The worst part was that the woman I knew and loved had vanished. My sister was a completely different person when she died.
There is definitely a component of shame associated with alcoholism, which is ironic considering how prevalent alcohol is in our culture. And regardless of any shame I felt about her situation, the shame she felt was infinitely worse. For her it was a vicious cycle of self-loathing and drinking.
When I think about her now, there is still a tinge of anger. But that has more to do with me missing her terribly and hating that she is missing out on my daughter’s life, on my nephew’s life.
If she could be with us today, I would tell her that I’m not ashamed of her, and I would reinforce that as much as possible. It’s hard to know if telling her that more would have helped.
As part of my healing process, I have spent more time with people in recovery. I honestly believe that a better understanding of these human beings who are suffering helps me fully comprehend that it’s not a choice, it’s a disease.
Some of the people I have been spending time with offered to share more about their experiences. Together, our goal is to boost the conversation about addiction, and spread awareness of loving the addict and hating the disease.
Wesley’s story really touched me. This gentleman was living on the streets of New York for a year because of his heroin addiction. He told me that he didn’t really feel the spark to get clean until a chance encounter with recovery survivors. Those people were his inspiration to seek treatment.
“It encouraged me to go forward,” Wesley said. “It gave me an opportunity to see that the work that needed to be done was necessary. They gave me a lot of love. I hadn’t experienced that in such a long time. And at that time in my life, I was in need of some love and some real care.”
Now clean and sober, Wesley graduated from treatment armed with a new set of tools to give himself a better life. He said through behavior therapy he was able to gain a whole new perspective on the world.
“I thought I could never be honest in my life and let someone know what is truly going on with me. [Rehab] prepared me, and they gave me my self-esteem back. They loved me more than I hated myself, and helped me to see that there is value, meaning, and purpose in my life. And today, I have what it takes. I have a new life, and I have the tools to proceed with that new life,” he told me.
Wesley’s story, though heartbreaking, was similar to so many others I’ve heard. His rock bottom was just different.
Some of the people I’ve talked to exude a buoyancy that’s almost hard to believe, but being around them you can actually feel it. I definitely felt it with Kevin. It’s so obvious that this guy has embraced sobriety and is loving life.
“Going through treatment made me look at my life and notice I don’t have to do drugs at all. I just want to be sober for the rest of my life. The first two or three days that I [was in rehab], I was down about what I had done. I had stolen from so many people, from my family, just to get my drug. As [one of my peers said], every day of being sober is a mystery for the next day. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking for a surprise every single day,” Kevin remarked.
Kevin is actually one of many who said spirituality played a strong role in guiding him through addiction treatment. He did point out that where he went, the programs are not spiritual in nature unless that is what the patient seeks. It’s comforting to know that there is not a hard and fast line being pushed in rehab.
At some point these stories become almost too hard to hear, but I want to keep hearing them. I know it’s good for addiction survivors to talk about their struggles, and it’s good for those hurt by addiction to hear about the struggles.
Jeremy’s story hit close to home for me. He told me that his divorce compounded his growing alcohol addiction. He said he started having blackouts, and that he began contemplating suicide.
The idea of taking his life scared him enough to get help. And talking to him, you would never know that he had been a crumpled shell of a person barely wanting to hang on to life.
“If you’re lost and you can’t function on a daily basis without your drug of choice and you’re miserable, that’s no way to live. I wake up every day now with a smile and just love life for what it is. Being sober and having that clear mind is such an amazing feeling. So you just have to honestly give it a chance and fight through it. In the end, it’s so worth it,” Jeremy stated.
Out of all the people I talked to, Megan’s story was the most painful to hear and left me in tears. She told me she grew up with alcoholic parents who were checked out, and she was always taking care of her brother. Megan also told me that she was sexually and physically abused. All of this, she said, paved the way for later choices she made.
“After my later years of high school, I had a son pass away. That was really hard for me. I just grew so fast. And that’s when I pretty much stopped going to school for the most part. I stopped playing basketball, and I would get to the point where I wouldn’t get out of bed unless I shot up.
“And one day I woke up and I looked next to me and there was a spoon, and there were used needles. I had lost my house, I was living with somebody else, and the way I paid my rent was with drugs,” Megan recalled.
So alcoholic parents, physical and sexual abuse, and the loss of a child? How do you bear that kind of weight without dying a little inside? Her choice to escape reality isn’t surprising.
Megan, who now celebrates one year of sobriety, said it took repeated efforts from an intake counselor before she finally took the step to get help. I asked her how she feels now, and she had a pretty bright attitude.
“There are things that [treatment] has helped me do such as becoming self-confident, love myself, and realize what I did wrong. But they did it in a way to let me know that that’s not me anymore. That wasn’t me when I was doing it, it was the drugs. They also helped me realize that there is a way to fix it,” Megan said.
Each person I have talked to has opened my eyes a little wider. I am humbled and grateful for their honesty. My sincerest hope for them is that they can continue to find peace. I will be forever in their debt for helping me in my journey toward healing.