Right now I have a loved one struggling between addiction and recovery. It’s happened before — many times.
There’s the story, a story that seems to be constantly shifting and changing, and yet, somehow, feels consistent. It delivers its familiar body blow. They’re not really addicted, dontcha know. Or they weren’t really using. Or using “that” much (whatever that means). They had things completely under control. And now they’re onto recovery.
Just when I start to relax, just when I start to feel as if maybe I have them back, I get deluged with texts and emails: awful, destructive, lengthy messages full of blame. It takes me more than a day to realize that it is likely a relapse, although I don’t know for sure. I feel like I can almost see the truth — except it’s not the truth I want to see, not the outcome I was hoping for.
And then I get a message of farewell and an order to not contact them again. This seems easy enough to do since I had had no idea what to do, what to say, how to respond to any of the earlier messages. But the messages keep coming until, by the next day, there is the first message of apology.
I still don’t know what to do. And the threat of relapse and death hangs over it all like the sleet and fog that hung in the air when I woke up this morning.
Moving forward, moving on
Today, I feel determined to move forward with my life. Which maybe sounds brave and strong and wise but, actually, I don’t know what else to do. If I let those substances — because there’s likely more than one — invade my life, I’ve allowed the damage to grow and spread beyond my loved one and do more than just threaten me with the loss of the life of someone I love. Those substances threaten me with the loss of my life.
I get up at the same time I usually get up. I make tea and drink it, answer emails and plan my day. Habits take over — I actually don’t know what lets me keep going. I remember when this first began, years ago: I would swing my legs out of bed and when my feet hit the floor I felt as if I had lead boots on. I’d stand up and sway a bit, my heavy feet planted, holding me in place. It seemed as if gravity was heavier where I happened to be. Now there is the thinnest thread of fierceness to my actions, as if I am defying… something. But there isn’t so much fierceness that I don’t also notice that moving on with my life makes me feel as if I don’t care, as if I am horribly crass and unfeeling. A friend tells me I’m numb, that all this has made me tired, drained my emotional energy. Another friend asks me when I’m going to allow myself to feel the grief that I must — obviously — be feeling.
I don’t know if my friends are right or not, but what I know for sure is that I feel flat. The world around me feels flat. It’s almost as if a certain amount of color and depth has somehow been taken from the world — taken from me.
Talking about this and finding the support I need seems like a reflection of my loved one’s addiction and struggle with recovery.
I can tell a few friends, a few family members, what is happening for me but I find myself distributing the pain, telling this awful detail to one person, this other awful detail to another. I feel like I have to scour my thoughts, my words, of the full truth — as well as, with some people, any identifying characteristics, anything that exposes the private struggle of it all. Because I continue to respect this person and want to honor their privacy.
I sometimes wonder how many other people are going through this with someone they love. If there is an opioid epidemic — or whatever the substance — then there is an even larger epidemic of those of us who love the ones effected. We are largely silent because it’s not only our story. It belongs to someone we love.
But as I watch them lay waste to their own life, and attempt to destroy their important relationships, including ours, I know I need to share the story and seek support. Which goes against my old pattern — keeping their suffering and mine close — where it largely remains a secret and can do the most harm.
The real problem
And that’s another problem — and maybe it’s the real problem: that the most basic thing that is happening, whether the person is using or not, in recovery or not, is that they are suffering. They are in the gravest of pain, the most awful misery. They orbit my ordinary life being so miserable that they must make every attempt to share their misery.
Their thoughts and emotions, what happened and why and who did what and when, the sequence changing, the reasons, bending, all of it going around and around like laundry in some dryer that processes misery, blame, shame, guilt, anguish, rationalizations. Around and around.
I listen or I read for some accountability and, so far, do not find it
So I will move forward. Write this. Take the laundry out and fold it. And feel flat. Until things get better or things get much, much worse.
Recently my boyfriend and I moved in together. And I discovered some things about myself that were unexpected.
No, not that I can’t get along with someone or that my habits are too odd. Instead, I discovered that when I concentrate, I concentrate deeply. If my boyfriend asks me a question when I am in deep concentration, I feel myself swimming up into a different level of consciousness to meet him—only to dive deep again with him if the subject warrants it.
I discovered that, by following my emotions, my insights, and, especially, my own physical experience, I can quickly realize that some things just aren’t about me.
I discovered that, again, by getting out of my head and, instead, dropping into my body and following my physical experience in the moment, I can know what I do and do not want, I can accept, sometimes easily, sometimes not so easily, not getting what I want or put up with some condition that I don’t want but that might be unavoidable. And I discovered that I can stand up for myself in small ways in an easy, relaxed, respectful, manner so that I don’t have to do it in big, difficult tension-provoking ways.
Of course, it helps that my boyfriend, at least some of the time, can meet me halfway. (Thank you, boyfriend!) But the real thing, the really valuable thing that I discovered, is that all of these things are the result of meditation, the result of working with a spiritual teacher to learn to be aware of my physical experience and then, in turn, working with my own clients assisting them in the difficult process of learning to not credit their mental narrative quite so much but, instead, to include an awareness of their bodies.
But, most of all, I believe my abilities are the result of years and years of simply practicing presence.
The other night I was walking behind my boyfriend and his adult son. It is winter here so we were dodging snow and ice and cars in a poorly lit parking lot, walking a bit of a serpentine path to go into a makeshift shelter a street food vendor had set up, my boyfriend leading the way. There was the sound of a generator, the smell of Mexican food, the deep cold of a February night. The three of us weren’t usually together, certainly not on a Saturday night.
I felt a flash of jealousy—it’s blackish-greenish poison suddenly flooding my body. For a moment I was disoriented. I still easily recall the scene because that flash of jealousy seemed, at first, to be so incongruous. Why would I be feeling jealous? My confusion seemed to sear the moment into my visual cortex. In my mind’s eye I see the two men, both taller than I am, their broad shoulders in heavy winter coats black against the light of the tent, the distance between us growing as I, wearing dress boots rather than snow boots, walked a little slower than they walked.
And then it hit me: I felt like one of the guys. My boyfriend is usually solicitous of me. In a situation like this, walking on snow or ice, I would be walking beside him—not a few paces behind—and he would offer his arm. In the next instant I realized that he isn’t used to dealing with both me and his son. Instead, he usually is with one or the other of us. He behaves in an entirely different way with his son than he does with me. Even though his son is an adult, he has a different kind of responsibility toward him, especially as he eases his girlfriend in and among his family members. This is about him, I thought, Maybe he doesn’t know how to be with both of us! Other, recent, similar, situations came to my mind. I saw that he has challenges with his son that take up a lot of his resources when they are together and the awkwardness and tension I sometimes feel may be due to their two-some being invaded by me, or, in turn, the two-some my boyfriend and I have created being invaded by his son.
And with that realization, that the situation was, quite likely, about my boyfriend’s learning process as he navigates relationships, the jealousy was gone just as quickly as it had arrived. My boyfriend turned, realizing I was a little behind, and took a few steps toward me as I joined him.
For the rest of the weekend I felt blessed by this experience. I knew I could continue to observe the dynamic among the three of us and speak up if I needed to, either privately or in the moment. Or not. I felt no urgency about it either way. The idea that I might simply experience jealousy, no matter how powerful, and not have it dominate my thoughts, feelings or, worse, my behavior, was liberating. I could allow my experience to arise, I could follow my experience, I could benefit from it—but not be at its mercy.
I remember when I didn’t know what I wanted, when I could hear myself say what I knew someone wanted me to say—not what I really felt. I remember falling into the trap of almost orchestrated, certainly habitual, exchanges with family members that either led nowhere or led down some well-rehearsed path to frustration and disappointment.
How many times during my marriage did one of us threaten divorce and the other one agree—sounding like hurtful, bickering, children before one of us actually took a step in that direction? Countless times.
How many times did I act like that little jab was funny when, in actuality, it was a mean, hurtful little jab?
How many times did I allow the person I was talking to about a problem derail the conversation, avoid addressing my point and turn the conversation toward something they wanted to talk about, riding my wave of assertiveness with their concern and neither of us ever addressing my original issue?
For this last one, let me give you an example. I have Shankar Vedantam and his podcast, “Hidden Brain,” to thank for teaching me what he calls, “Switchtracking.” Here’s my paraphrasing:
In the past, a woman has asked her husband not to give her red roses. She doesn’t like receiving them. For her birthday, he brings home a dozen red roses and she says, “Why did you bring me red roses when I have asked you not to?” He says, “You could have thanked me first!”
And the conversation, the conflict, becomes about her lack of courtesy! He has just ignored both her original request and her objection to his behavior. And they’re off and running, fighting about all the times he believes she has lacked courtesy rather than why he might have given her a gift she has asked him not to give her.
Many of our close relationships have conflicts that spawn other conflicts because of switchtracking. The original conflict might never be addressed. Instead, I am learning to stop, take a breath, and ask that the other person bring up their concern another time but that, right now, I’d like to talk about my concern. It doesn’t always work but making the ask keeps the relationship I have with myself—the relationship I have with the truth and my own understanding and experience of the moment—clearn.
And keeping things clean and mostly true is easier now that I know that my body gives me all the clues I need to know what I do and not like or want, what is or is not good for me, what does and does not matter to me. I have had to unwind years of social conditioning to get at some of these things but underneath a lot of shoulds and should nots is my own, authentic experience. And it is available to me because I have spent so much time not judging myself but, instead, setting aside everything else and sitting with myself, practicing presence, enjoying the deep states within me.