A man can never know what it’s like to bear a child. A woman can come much closer to experiencing things male than any man ever can come to that. If we can agree on that, then perhaps you’ll be able to follow along with me when I say that no non-addict will ever be able to understand exactly where an addict or alcoholic is coming from.
The experience of addiction is incomprehensible—on a gut level—to anyone who hasn’t been there. I can say that withdrawal from heroin, Oxycontin, methadone or other opiates is like the worst case of flu you’ve ever had, multiplied a couple of times, and you still won’t really get it because you have not had the experience of anticipating flu the way an addict has experience anticipating withdrawal. The anticipation of pain in the dentist’s chair is similar, I guess—but usually much worse than the actual pain, in my experience. The aversion of a phobic to the situations that trigger the panic attacks is similar, too. The experience itself is so terrible that the addict is unable to imagine taking the chance of experiencing it. It takes a powerful stimulus—often, fear of death itself—to move most addicts away from the drug, and in too many cases even that doesn’t do the job.
The same is true of an alcoholic’s compulsion to drink. Even though the process of drying out takes only three to four days, no one who has not experienced the emptiness and fear of the unknown attendant on withdrawal from alcohol, (not to mention seizures and d.t.’s,) is able to look a drunk in the eye and say, “Hey, I know where you’re coming from, and it’s going to be o.k.”
Addiction leaves its victims with deep deficiencies—socially, spiritually and physically. It can take as long as two years for a person’s body and nervous system to begin to approach something like normal again, if it ever does. Along with that come the pressures of getting back on track: examining one’s life to see where the problems are rooted, digging them out, making amends for all the havoc wreaked, putting up with the lack of trust (richly deserved, but nonetheless hard to take) that goes along with demonstrating to people whom you’ve wronged that you’re a different person now. No one can provide the support needed to get through this process of change except someone who has been there–someone who can say, “See, I did it. You can do it too. I’ll help.” You don’t get the ability to do that from books. The trust of an addict has to be earned, and recovery is a major credential.
This isn’t to say that an addict’s loved ones and professional helpers aren’t an important part of her supports. They just aren’t able, all by themselves, to provide all the kinds of support needed. For one thing, they may well be in need of support themselves. Living with addiction or alcoholism for long periods makes the family just as loony, in their own ways, as the addict is in his. Add to that all the anger, resentment, gotchas and other impediments to the relationship, and it’s clear that if Joe Junkie needs someone to talk to, Mrs. Junkie may not be up for the job, nor the Junkie brothers and sisters, etc. These are people who hard-wired each other’s buttons, and each can play a symphony on the other’s nerve endings—without even realizing it. Two things are needed: distance from the problem, and the ability to not only understand, but convince the addict that you understand. Combat veterans don’t hang around with conscientious objectors for support, and it’s the same with us drunks. (Note: I use the terms alcoholic and addict interchangeably. Alcohol is a drug.)
If you put Michael Jordan in a game and told him he could handle the ball but not shoot it, how long do you think it would be before Michael instinctively did what Michael does best? Eventually the pressure would be on, Jordon would see a way to relieve it, and he’d go for it without thinking twice.
Addicts are the same way. It’s vital to remember that recovery from addiction—whatever kind—is about keeping stress levels low until the necessary coping skills have been learned. Otherwise, when the excrement hits the propeller, the addict is going to go for the old, proven means of relief without regard for what tomorrow brings. He hurts now! Saying that he’ll feel better soon is like the dentist saying, “It’ll only hurt for a minute.” Screw that: we want Novocaine, at least. “Just say no” isn’t part of it. Addicts and alcoholics turn back to drinking and drugging because it seems the best of the possible solutions at the moment. We’re at risk until we learn to trust the new solutions. Logic isn’t involved. Earth People just don’t understand that.
Some people recover without all those meetings. It’s not all that common, but it does happen. Experience has taught those of us in the treatment field that those who have a firm foundation in the 12-step programs are more successful, much more often, than those who do not. In matters of life and death, the smart bettors go with the best odds. That’s why newcomers have to go to all those meetings.
It’s why us old-timers need to go, too. It’s easy to forget where you came from.