Monday, December 5, 2016

Tis The Season for Heartbreak

I've been posting recently, both here and on social media, about how I'm generally pretty happy and that things are manageable as the holidays approach. But Christmas time is well-known as a time of year when many feel left out and out of sorts, and the culture's insistence that this is a time of festival and joy often means that those that have to deal with the inevitable issues and setbacks that life brings us feel even worse when they happen between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And the normal feelings of depression and sadness and pain are magnified even more, and as a result the person going through these things feel like Dustin Hoffman's character in the dentist's chair in Marathon Man (it's an old movie, but I guarantee you that if you Google " Marathon Man dentist chair," it will instantly pop up. And if you haven't seen it before, it's truly the stuff of stomach-turning nightmares).
It actually happened to once. I remember my daughter asking me a few years ago what the worst Christmas I ever had was. I was incarcerated one Christmas years ago, and she knows this, and she was shocked that that was not my answer. That Christmas wasn't a happy one, to be sure, but the worst was nearly thirty years ago, when a woman that I was in a very serious relationship with, one that I was actually going to propose to sometime in the holiday time frame, instead chose to end the relationship five days before Christmas. I couldn't even pretend to be OK; I was absolutely floored, destroyed. For at least two weeks, I struggled to get out of bed, struggled to leave the apartment, and struggled with not picking up the phone to try to call her every ten minutes. For months afterwards, it lingered as this dark cloud, and it shaped, honestly, the rest of my life, because when I met my eventual ex-wife later in the following year, remembering that devastation was a big factor in eventually getting married to a woman I knew I had serious reservations concerning--I simply did not want to ever be in a position where I could easily be walked away from again.
But I do remember Christmas that year. I remember sitting on the couch at my parents' house both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day like a zombie, barely moving, much less speaking. I remember feeling like the biggest loser in the world. I remember this overwhelming sadness, a crushing envelope of despair that I could not imagine ever lifting. I managed to go to work and sleepwalk through that, and for the first time in my life, I started going to bars by myself. I actually stayed away from cocaine in that period; I had no desire whatsoever to feel "up." For at least three months, I was at the Galley five or six nights a week. I honestly have no idea of how I did not get a DWI during those months; I drove the three miles from the Galley to Indian Ridge absolutely shit-faced fifty times if I did it once that year...and I digress. The point was, I felt as alienated from the rest of humanity as I ever have--and don't forget, I went through the full gamut of active addiction, and all the isolation and alienation that comes with it--that Christmas season. I felt like the biggest failure and the biggest freak that ever walked the earth. I felt gigantic, uncontrollable resentments at not only the woman that broke up with me, but the rest of you, as well, pushing all this joy and happiness and cheer and goodwill when I was feeling, in the memorably crude phrase of one of my friends, "lower than whale shit." And I conceived a visceral hatred for all things Christmas that took a few years to dissipate, and didn't completely go away until I had children of my own.
I've been thinking about that as I've been watching some of my fellow travelers. 2016 is going to be known to future generations as the year when the scope of the opiate epidemic finally become clear, and a guy that many of us in our local recovery know and like/love has been on our minds the last couple of days. He lives--possibly lived, by this morning--in Syracuse now, but through social media, we are all aware of what's been going on with him, and honestly, he seemed to be doing as good as he had for years recently. When the news came a couple of days ago that he was in a coma in intensive care in the hospital up there, it was a real surprise. Then there were reports that he actually had died yesterday afternoon, before word came that he still is in a coma but alive--but it seems like a mere wait for the inevitable now. There have been so many deaths from overdoses this year that it's hard to recall all of them, but as I am watching this one unfold, this is one of the hardest. I wasn't real tight with this guy, mostly because he never really was able to stay clean while he lived in this area, but we were very friendly; he texted me often when he was doing all right, and told me a couple of times how much he admired my program and how well I rolled through issues that I faced. And he was a good guy that knew and was close to a whole lot of us here, and the reactions yesterday were widespread and heartfelt. On the surface, it's not a whole lot different than any of the other 75 or so overdoses that have claimed lives this year (I'm aware that he's still alive right now, but honestly, I have yet to see anyone on life support from an OD make it back from the brink). But the fact that it is happening three weeks before Christmas somehow makes it worse. This is when we're supposed to be gathering around the tree in the glow of a fireplace, surrounded by loved ones and exchanging gifts and basking in the glory of a life well-lived. Instead, it's a kick in the testicles to find that real life doesn't take breaks, doesn't pause in its rounds.
And there's another friend of mine that is going through something perhaps even more painful. She hasn't posted details, but it's become clear that a major, major upheaval is happening in her household, and she is clearly devastated. I don't know her real well, but again, 1) recovery is a small community, and so we all are aware of each other's stories to some degree, 2) we have talked frequently online recently regarding a mutual acquaintance, and 3) we all tend to be a little more aware of the "success" stories, the fairy-tale endings, of our peers, and she and her husband were one of those, at least up until this week. Again, I don't know any details. But the pain is palpable, and because of what I went through many years ago, I really can relate and identify, and know exactly how she's feeling.
It absolutely sucks, and there is no magic that makes it go away. And it's even worse when you can't get away from a culture that it is indulging in a massive orgy of images of wonderful things--things that you are not going to experience this year. Things that seemed designed to mock you, that make you feel even worse about what is happening than it would if it were occurring in May.
Things that make you feel worse than you ever have before. And going through it clean is even worse, because there is no pharmaceutical filter, no oblivion to escape to. These are the times when our program gets jolted, and we find out how strong our reliance on our Higher Power is. And praying isn't enough. We need our support networks in these times, more than ever. God speaks to me through other people, and for me to hear His words, I can't isolate. I have to reach out.
That's why I am encouraged to see repeated posts from my friends that are struggling with their troubles. They are reaching out, and judging from the responses, they are getting what help that can be gotten. Nothing is going to take away the pain, not all of it, not even a lot of it. But the simple fact of knowing that you do not have to suffer alone not only helps get through the present, but is the beginning of the healing process, too.
And ultimately, more than presents, more than a celebration of some tenet of a religious sect, more than iconic images coming to life, this is the message of Christmas in the flesh. We are all in this together. We are here to help one another when we need it--and quite honestly, we usually don't help when things are going well. The spirit of Christmas is peace on earth, good will toward men--and that means trying to help others whose souls are troubled find a brief respite from the pain. Many of us are suffering as we watch our friend die. Many of us are horrified at the pain our friend whose life as she knows it has ended is enduring. But the greatest gift we can give to those in pain is our empathy, our help, and our support--in short, our presence, not any presents.
And as my sponsor  is fond of saying, This Too Shall Pass. There is no way that those of us most directly affected by what I have been writing about will ever look back on Christmas 2016 fondly. But they will be able to recall it as a time that they got through, with a little help from their friends.

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