Today I read this very fine article by Russell Brand about drug addiction.
The article, and the tragic death of the fine actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, have prompted this post.
Many long term readers will know that my ex husband is an alcoholic and drug addict.
I say is, despite the fact that he has been clean and sober for about seventeen years now, because, as Russell points out, addiction is an ongoing problem.
Addiction is a problem with life, that is medicated by drink or drugs, or food or gambling, and it can be a daily struggle for many to remain sober, no matter how many years of sobriety they have under their belt (Philip Seymour Hoffman had been clean for 23 years prior to his death).
It is in the tradition of the recovery programme that my ex found sobriety in that people talk about their addiction in the present tense rather than as something they have cured, so I am not trying to belittle what he has achieved. It is a marvellous thing to have such long term sobriety. His courage, his tenacity and his ability to keep making sobriety work for him is to be applauded on every level.
When we first started dating my ex told me that he was an alcoholic. He said: ‘You either need to accept it and live with it, or leave now, because you’re not going to change me. It’s what I am.’
I smiled and nodded, but I really didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
I had had no prior experience of being around an alcoholic. I knew what it meant, but not in real terms, not in terms of what it meant on a day to day basis, and I had no idea of how much it would shape my future.
I couldn’t see that it would be that much of a problem. My ex was high functioning you see. He had a good job, money in the bank, a nice flat, a great life style, lots of friends, and a fantastic social life. Yes, he drank. He drank a lot, but it didn’t seem to affect him like it did everyone else. He was witty, and funny and clever and entertaining to be with. He never missed a day of work. And the drugs, well the drugs were recreational, he could take them or leave them. It’s what people did. It’s what people do.
He wasn’t a wino on a park bench. It was going to be fine.
We went out every night of the week. We partied hard. We didn’t just go to the pub you understand? We went everywhere. We would finish work, hop on the bus to London and go and see a film, or a gig, or go to the theatre. We would eat in fantastic restaurants every night. We’d fly to Paris, or Amsterdam, or Vienna for the weekend. He was in a band. I’d go to his gigs. We hung out with people who were famous. We visited his friends who owned night clubs and bars and restaurants. It was mad.
I was a working class girl from a dull town in the East Midlands. I’d never been whisked away to Vienna for the weekend, or asked my opinion about wine, or taken to a Michelin starred restaurant before. I was way, way out of my depth, and life was moving incredibly fast.
I loved it, that world, while it lasted.
It was fun. We had some marvellous, exhilarating, wild times.
The one constant was drink. Wherever we went, whatever we did, there was always a drink to be had. Or two, or three. One night, out for dinner with friends, we drank all the brandy in the restaurant we were in and they had to send out for more. Then we drank that.
There was a lot of drink.
At first I liked it. I enjoyed the buzz it gave me. I enjoyed the liberation from the day to day stresses of life. I enjoyed the fact that it allowed me to take more risks, to care less about what people thought of me. It was like magic.
I have always struggled with my emotional health, and after a serious breakdown when I was seventeen, I have see sawed back and forth with the ups and downs of a depressive personality. At the time I met my ex I had just dramatically exited a tremendously punitive relationship, and was ready to escape from what had been a couple of years of unhappiness. Partying hard and drinking a lot seemed an ideal solution.
At first it worked tremendously well.
Then it didn’t.
After a while my work started to suffer. My health started to suffer and I found that I wasn’t getting the same kick out of drinking and partying. Instead of being exhilarating, it was making me anxious. Sometimes I didn’t want to go out. Sometimes everything got a bit much. I was pretty wired. Life was intense and there was no real let up. I stopped drinking so much. I didn’t want to feel ill and out of control any more.
When I stopped drinking so much it gave me time to notice that his drinking was changing. He was drinking more. He was using drugs to allow him to prolong his drinking. He was losing control more. Where he always used to be totally lucid no matter what, he had started to slur. He had started to fall over. He had started to become a problem drunk.
He was never mean, or angry or violent. If he had been I think things would have ended a lot sooner. He just suffered more.
And so did I.
In the meantime, our relationship had moved on. He had, after six months together, proposed to me.
At the time he was drunk, and full of Class A’s.
I didn’t take it seriously, but I did hope he might find the time to ask me when he was sober.
After a year together, he did, and I accepted.
It was, in hindsight, madness. But my addiction you see, was him. In recovery, a friend shared with me the adage; ‘The rocks in his head fit the holes in yours.’ Trite maybe, but true for me.
We got married, and things went rapidly downhill from there.
Two key events happened in the month after our wedding.
The first was on a night when we had decided to stay at home, but of course, a bottle of wine had to be opened and drunk. The second bottle of wine was opened and drunk, and by the time the third bottle of wine was on the table I had had enough.
He was so drunk that he could barely stand. I had hardly touched any. By this time in our relationship I rarely drank anything. I had decided enough was enough. I wanted him to be able to make this choice too. It had been easy for me. I couldn’t see why it wouldn’t be easy for him.
I asked him if he could get any more drunk. He said ‘no’. I asked him if there would be any benefit to drinking another bottle of wine or whether it would be a waste? He agreed it would be a waste. I suggested that we put the wine away. He agreed. I went to the loo. When I got back he was attempting to open the third bottle. I took the corkscrew off him. I hid it.
He tore through the house trying to find it.
I realised then, that if there was a house fire and he had to choose between me and a bottle of wine, the bottle of wine would win.
I knew that he loved me. He really loved me. He wasn’t lying about it. It’s just that his addiction ruled him where I couldn’t even begin to reach him. His addiction was an itch that needed to be scratched. It seemed, at this point that he would never tire of scratching it.
That was a pretty heart breaking day.
Mostly heart breaking because even then I didn’t leave. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to leave him. I needed him like he needed a drink.
A week later he had gone for a drink after work with a friend. He was coming home later on to take me out to dinner.
He didn’t come.
Eventually, after five hours, phone calls to the hospital and pacing the floor, frantic with worry, he appeared at the door, supported by our friend. She was in tears, sobbing apologies and explaining how she had been trying to get him to come home for hours, but was too afraid to leave him on his own.
He doesn’t remember any of this.
I remember packing my bag. I remember sleeping in the spare room, and thinking that I didn’t know how I was going to tell my parents that my marriage was over after a month.
It never happened.
He woke up, and picked up the phone to a recovery programme. He never picked up a drink again.
I imagined that this would be the real beginning of our marriage, and that things could only improve from this point. I was totally deluded.
Putting down the drink is something you think will solve all your problems. Actually, in my experience, it exacerbates them, certainly until you find a comfortable level of sobriety, both for the addict and the person who is addicted to the addict.
After an initially brilliant start, my ex decided to go it alone with his sobriety.
It was, possibly, the worst few months of our marriage.
It came to a head on the way back from a day out at the seaside when we were stuck in a traffic jam.
He said: ‘I want a drink.’ I tried to dissuade him. He got angry. I got angry. I said: ‘Have a drink then.’ He accused me of not supporting him. I said: ‘Don’t have a drink then.’ He got angry.
Eventually he said: ‘I hate my life sober. It makes me want to kill myself, but if I have a drink I will die. What do I do?’
It was horrendous to hear. Horrendous.
I felt like I could shiver into a million pieces right there on the spot. Selfishly I found myself wondering why I was not good enough for him, why I couldn’t be enough for him, why I couldn’t fix him? That was my addiction speaking.
But that is the reality of addiction. That is what it feels like if you cannot find a way to be happy in your sobriety, to work your sobriety so that you are in a place of peace with your life. You are always looking for something else to blame, or something else to take away the pain, or something else to fix you, because you do not have the resources within you to make that happen for yourself.
There is a hole within you that nothing you can think of seems to fill.
This is why I have no truck with people who tell me that addiction is just a matter of will power. That addicts just need to pull themselves together and not have a drink, or a fix, or a cake or whatever. If the answer was that simple, once you had stopped taking whatever it was you were addicted to, you would feel better. But you don’t. If you are an addict, you have to find something healing to replace that addiction with, or life gets worse and worse and worse until there is no life at all.
After that day, my ex got into a recovery programme.
When he started getting well. I started getting worse. As someone addicted to him, I needed him to remain the person I had married. If he changed, he might not love me any more. He might not fix me any more. He might leave. I might die.
I found my own recovery in the partner fellowship to the one my ex husband used.
It taught me to be my own person. It taught me that I am not responsible for other people’s choices, and they are not responsible for mine (with the exception of my children – until they are old enough to care for themselves). It taught me that I am not broken. It taught me that I can be well. It taught me that sometimes I get lost, but I know I am one of the lucky ones, because I can find my way back to some kind of peace of mind, and happiness.
I am grateful for what I have learned. I am grateful that other people showed me compassion when I felt broken and lost. I am grateful that there are people out there who are working hard to care for addicts when they can be so difficult to care for in every sense of the word. I am one of those difficult people.
I am grateful that it showed me how to be compassionate to those whose lives are driven by the scourge of addiction. I am grateful that I can share my experiences with my children, and that my experiences might save their lives.
I’m sorry you lost your fight Philip.
Keep fighting Russell.