Choices

by Bill

My friend Rodney died a year ago today.   He wasn’t defeated by his addictions, because he had plenty of experience in dealing with them both inside and outside of treatment.  He was killed by his choices.

Rodney and I were roommates in treatment.  I was there — after 23+ years “sober” in the beverage and pharmaceutical programs — to deal at last with my sex addiction issues.  Rodney was an equal opportunity addict like myself.  He had varying lengths of time abstinent in AA and NA (several years, this time), but had never dealt with the feelings surrounding his sexual issues, including early abuse.   He knew his triggers, too: he’d pick up the wrong guy, have a little liquid courage to facilitate the relationship, and eventually they’d end up doing drugs together.  That had led to HIV and acute pancreatitis, among other things.  He could not afford to drink again.

I don’t know what demons of his remained to be exorcised, but a few weeks after leaving residential treatment but while still in Intensive Outpatient, he made the choice to work on his chemical addictions while “taking a break” from his sex addiction program.  A couple of weeks after that, he began avoiding my phone calls, and within a few more weeks I heard at a meeting that he was dead.  He’d been found in his apartment, surrounded by empty beverage containers.

My friend knew that a relapse would kill him.  He had trouble managing his physical issues when he wasn’t drinking.  He also knew, from many previous relapses, that his Achilles’ heel was relationships.  He sponsored people in AA.  He was active in his fellowships.  But for whatever reason, he failed to heed the multiple warnings of his experience, his therapist, his medical team and his friends in the program.  He made the wrong choices, despite knowing better.

I’ll never know why, but I can make a pretty good guess.  As a gay male, he had faced harassment all his life, including both sexual and emotional abuse from childhood.  He had sought solace and to silence his demons through drugs and sexual acting out, but whatever those demons were, he ultimately made the choice to do the very things that he knew would probably kill him — and I know he knew, because he said so to me on several occasions.

We are powerless over our addictions, but we are not powerless over our choices.  Relapses occur before we act out, and there is always a point where we can head in another direction, choosing our recovery over our fear of discovering more about who we are.  Rodney taught me that, and a lot more.  I miss him every day.

Rest in peace, my friend.  You were a powerful support for lots of folks, including me.  I sure wish you hadn’t chosen to be an example as well.

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Old Me

Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away….

~ William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965)

My dear friend Pierre, a powerful influence on hundreds of people in recovery, is fond of remarking that “the Old Me will drink again.” Old Me — the “man who wasn’t there” — plagues us throughout our early recovery, and is even known to poke his (or her) head out of hiding from time to time when we think we are pretty far along in our journey.

Human beings go through clear stages of emotional development, from prenatal to adult. When we are traumatized — by abuse, unresolved grief, prolonged stress, severe illness, injury, or drug use — our emotional development is interrupted and stalls at whatever point we were when the trauma occurred. Essentially, we stop growing up. That’s when Old Me is born.

As we progress in our addictions, Old Me develops along with them. Old Me is the character who lies when it would be easier to tell the truth, ignores ethics, hurts loved ones and others — the part of us that did what we had to do in order to further our addictions. Old Me is all the bad habits and sick ways of looking at life that we developed as we denied, justified, and tried to ignore the erosion of character that accompanies addiction of all kinds. Old Me is the aspect that throws all those memories and feelings that we couldn’t stand to face into the closet, out of sight.

As much as we might wish it otherwise, Old Me doesn’t just retire and head into the sunset when we get clean and sober. Instead, it hides in the closet too. Since the closet holds all the garbage that we chose not to deal with in our active addiction, it gets putrid in there after a while. If we don’t deal with the closet after we become abstinent, it isn’t long before nasty stuff starts seeping out beneath the door. If we ignore it, we are likely to return to our addiction or transfer our addictive impulses to new pursuits.

We have two choices: we can get some help cleaning the closet, or we can decide we don’t need help, open the door, and let Old Me come out and play with our heads while we try to handle emotions, problems and urges that we were unable to handle to begin with. The easy solution, drinking, drugging or other behavior that relieves the pressure — that turns on our “forgetter” and helps us shore up the closet door — is only a short step away.

We need to be extremely careful that we work on all the old stuff, and that can be terrifying. Those of us who don’t, however, will inevitably discover — perhaps far into our “sobriety” — that we were in fact nowhere near the level of recovery we fooled ourselves into believing we had. It is simply not possible to board up the door and stuff feelings underneath to stop the seepage. One way or another the garbage and Old Me will eventually escape, unless we insure that the closet is cleaned out.

What we are really doing, as we clean the closet and learn to live life on life’s terms, is allowing the emotional development to occur that was stifled by our addictions and other traumas. We are growing up, all over again. Some do a better job than others.

Pay attention.