One of the hardest things to deal with in recovery is watching someone you love relapse. Even harder is when that relapse leads to something worse.
In 12-step programs, you will often hear the following: “We are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions, and death.”
Jails. Institutions. Death. Basically, if you use, these are your three most common outcomes. Me? I got lucky. The only institution I was in was the hospital as a medical patient, then released on my own to deal with things in outpatient. I was never in rehab; I was never in a mental institution. I was never jailed. And — okay, technically, I died — but I didn’t stay dead. And that, ladies and germs, is a VERRRRRRY rare thing indeed. That’s why I’m an anomaly; I shouldn’t be here.
But for most people in the grips of an addiction — whether heroin or vicodin or loperamide — that is not the case. They end up dead. Or they go to jail. Or they find themselves involuntarily institutionalized. And that isn’t even accounting for those whose habits lead to them becoming brain damaged or physically disabled.
Bottom line here is, nothing good is the outcome of the addiction. Oh sure, it’s fun for a while, but that fun turns into not-fun very quickly. And not-fun becomes worse and worse until one of the above three things happens.
And all along the way, there are lies. Lies you tell other people. Lies you tell yourself. Lies that the drug/alcohol tells you. Each lie forms a new thread in a web of falsehood that becomes the life you lead. You lie to a loved one. You cheat on someone you care about. You invent a pseudo-truth, like a dirty accountant keeping two sets of books, in order to maintain the outward appearance of honesty.
For a while, you’re lucky. You beat the odds. It’s a self-reinforcing process. You get away with it all long enough, and you become bolder. You do more. You try more. You lie more. You stay lucky. Maybe there are a few errors. Some cracks in your armor begin to form. You slip up and screw up, but swear you’ll be fine.
But the one universal truth about luck is that eventually it runs out.
That happened to a very dear friend of mine (let’s call him Bob) nine days ago. I knew about Bob’s relapse, and like many, I tried my best to help. I wanted to keep him safe. To help. To be that understanding soft place to fall. He began to rely on me for help. He would call me, and I would get up in the middle of the night to pick him up when he was intoxicated and in a bad part of town. (I did that a lot.) I sometimes walked him home. He would get in trouble, and I would come running to rescue him. It happened over and over again. And each time, I hoped it would be the last. I tried everything in my power to keep him safe and none of it worked. Of course, you could certainly argue that perhaps things would have been worse if I hadn’t been there at all. But I fear that everything I did — or tried to do — merely delayed the inevitable. Luckily, he didn’t die.
Last Friday, Bob was arrested. Allegedly, Bob had been drinking and using drugs and got caught by the cops with aforementioned remaining drugs in his pocket. It was in the wee mornings after a night when I had to work, so I wasn’t there for him (and frankly, I was tired and wanted to sleep anyway). He texted me “Hey” at 5:15am Friday morning, but I was sleeping and didn’t respond. I happened to wake up at 5:45, saw his message, and responded. I didn’t hear anything after that.
I had no idea what happened, but with Bob, sometimes he’d go home and pass out, sleeping for hours before ever responding. So I didn’t worry about it at first. Bob’s nightly “partying” on his days off had become so frequent that I had become accustomed to not worrying. He would sometimes become irritated with me if I challenged him. It wasn’t always like that, but it had become much more that way in recent months.
After a day of not hearing from him, I presumed Bob had run out of minutes on his phone. Recently, he had told me that in an effort to save money, he might let his phone lapse for a week or two before recharging the minutes. So again, I tried not to worry, but I’ll be honest with you — I was becoming increasingly anxious.
After three days, Bob’s brothers contacted me asking if I’d heard from him. I laughingly reassured them that he probably let his minutes lapse and would get new ones once he was paid on Friday. But inside, that excuse was beginning to falter. This was strange even for him.
So Wednesday, I became concerned enough to Google-fu Bob’s name. Immediately, his arrest record popped up. My blood ran cold. Denial — the first and favorite of all reactions — popped up. No. It can’t be. Yet there it was in virtual black and white.
Bob’s luck ran out.
The web of lies and deceit that he had laid finally failed him. The casual, nonchalance now replaced with sobering agitation.
Bob wore an orange prison jumpsuit. His face fatigued and a 7-day growth of beard framed his jaw and neck. He couldn’t sit still, every inch of his body jittered and trembled. His speech solemn and almost monotone. He pled not guilty to what he’d done; I knew the truth. Bob’s family was gone and had now written him off as persona non grata. No one was visiting him. No one bailed him out. Once the web of lies collapsed, so did all of his support. No one was there for him. Except me.
It broke my heart.
As helpless as I feel, I was actually always helpless. That’s one of the toughest things to deal with when you have a loved one with an addiction. I was told time and time again that trying to help an addict — if they do not want help, that is — is impossible. It isn’t until they accept that they have a problem and are willing to accept help that you can offer any usable guidance or assistance of any kind.
About a year ago, I had a dream about Bob. I was in heaven (or rather a heaven of sorts) and there were these guiding spirits who were showing me around. They told me I wasn’t dead, just visiting. They had some things to show me. We walked down this bricked streetscape, and as we looked in the windows, I could see certain things — honestly, I don’t remember much of it. But at one point, they showed me Bob. As I watched him, they said, “You will go on to do many great things in your life. But Bob? Bob, you cannot help. You can’t stop what’s going to happen.”
In my dream I started to cry. “I have to try,” I said.
“You can try, but you will fail.” they replied.
“But I have to try,” I cried, “I can’t leave him in hell by himself.”
The guiding spirits showed me what was coming for Bob. Perhaps not literal, but interpretive. I saw him act foolishly, goofing around, only to fall in the path of an oncoming truck. I saw him in the hospital with his legs being reattached and the doctors commenting how miraculous his recovery was. I saw him go back to his habits of drinking and using, and finally saw him at a bar ten years down the line looking old and haggard beyond his years, a ghost of his former self.
I woke up crying. I knew it was a fail-certain venture, but from that day on, I worked at keeping Bob safe. I offered assistance. I even offered on many, many occasions, to help him get help and treatment. I would say, “When you’re ready, all you have to do is ask and I can get a whole team of people assembled to get you better and keep you safe.” He would laugh and assure me he had this thing. He didn’t need help.
And on the rare occasions when all the powers of my persusasion would get him to see and admit in his heart of hearts that perhaps he wasn’t so in-control of this thing — and this happened at least three times since his relapse — when I had him in the palm of my hand, ready to unleash all I had ready and waiting to help him, the minute he was out of my sight, something would always happen, and he’d back out.
My influence lasted only as long as I was there. And I couldn’t be there 24/7.
Now Bob is in jail and — as illogical as it seems — I blame myself. I know I shouldn’t. I know it isn’t really my fault. I feel responsible on every count. What if I’d done this? What if I’d done that? Did I try hard enough? What if I had answered his text at 5am? What if I could have been there? Maybe I could have stopped this thing.
Even Bob said it wasn’t my fault at all — that it was inevitable that everything would catch up to him — and that this was on him, not me.
I walked inside hell to seek and find him. I grabbed his arm, clung tight, and tried to drag him out. But he just wouldn’t go.
Whose fault is that? The person trying to help for not trying hard enough, or the addict subbornly refusing to change?
Now, as Bob prepares to leave prison (“Jail”) and enter state-ordered rehab (“Institutions”), I wonder if this will be enough. The “new” Bob certainly seems a lot more self-aware than before. But will it last? Or will the next step inevitably be the final one (“death”)?
Caring about someone with the disease of addiction is heartbreaking. It’s frightening. It’s a crazy, mixed-up bag of emotional upheaval and worry.
Interestingly, worry by loved ones seems to be something a lot of addicts can’t wrap their intoxicated brains around. Other people’s worry seems like an annoyance more than a help. I know that’s how it was for me, too. “What are you worrying about me for?” I’d cry in a tirade, “Worry about yourself,” never acknowledging their worry as a sign of affection.
Bob asked me just a couple of weeks ago why I worried about him so much. I replied, “Because I care about you, stupid! I worry when I see you suffer. I want you to be happy. And worrying is what caring people do!” He looked at his feet bashfully and contemplated the meaning of caring. Bob explained that he associated caring with how, for instance, he is happy for me when I do well at school or get an A on a test. He seemed genuinely surprised at how happy he could be for me, and contemplated why, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with him, that such things would matter.
“That’s it, Bob,” I said, adding, “When you care about someone, you worry when things go badly for them, and you’re happy when things go well for them. And yeah, that’s the mystery — even though it doesn’t effect you directly, you still feel it. That’s empathy. That’s love,” adding with a laugh, “okay, well, sorta.” He laughed too.
For me, it’s scary that Bob is going into rehab. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that he now has the opportunity to get clean and sober — and maybe get happy too. I hope against hope that the web of lies that’s come crashing down doesn’t get rebuilt. I want those visions of him old and haggard are replaced with him happy and healthy. On the other hand, I worry for myself that Bob’s recovery will mean my dismissal.
And many people who are friends or loved ones of addicts find themselves in the same predicament. “What role do I play if I’m no longer the rescuer?” There is a definite and real co-dependence that develops between the sober person and the addict. This dance is chaotic, but well-rehearsed. So what happens when the dance is over?
Of course, the easy answer to this is, start worrying about your own life and just be a friend. And yes, that’s the ultimate goal. But getting there is an uneasy minefield of emotion.
But I am willing to walk away if it means Bob can get better and stay better. And if he can, maybe those visions will never come true. In that case, everybody wins. Well, except me of course. But his family gets better. His relationship with his brothers gets better. All the people in his life who are important to him win by getting Bob back in their lives.
Trading me for a life well-lived might have to be good enough.
“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” ― Dalai Lama XIV