Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Some Thoughts On Why Some Stay Clean, and Many Don't

I spent an hour hanging out with my former sponsor last night. We've stayed good friends, even close friends, for years, but for various reasons, we haven't really just sat down and hung out in a long time. But he came over to help me install my new television (which I can already tell is going to be among the best $120 purchases I've ever made) and stayed for a while, And as usual, our talk strayed to the most obvious thing we have in common, and the nature of the disease of addiction that continues to flow through our area. He crossed a quarter-century last year, and I have eighteen, and he reminisced for a short while about the days when both of us were much younger in recovery, then lamented how few people seem to really put together significant clean time, compared to the numbers that attempt to get and stay clean. And then he asked, very seriously, why I thought some people seem to make it without having to relapse multiple times and waste years of their lives in the peculiar limbo of being not quite in recovery but not hitting rock bottom in addiction, either.
My first response was something I noticed in my own early recovery, when I was still with MOTY and realized that she had little long-term hope of staying clean. For many that put together time, recovery is a process of rehabilitation, of getting back to or starting to seriously attempt to live by values and an ethical system that we have been exposed to and at least partially absorbed, but had gotten away from as the drug use took off. For others, the recovery process is one of habilitation; it is a thorough, radical change of lifestyle, values, and practices from what they have been exposed to and living by for the length of their lives. And it is much, much harder for those in the second group to put together and maintain clean time. We both were in the former group--his father was a hard-ass, rigid military man, but did have an iron code of morals and ethics, while my father, who had questionable ethics when it came to making money, also was quite openly generous and devoted to his family, among other virtues.
But many that have attempted to recover come from backgrounds that are dystopian Darwinian survival pits. The values that are intrinsic to a 12-Step program are largely or completely alien to them, and it is much, much harder to learn and apply new concepts as an adult than it is when we are children--this is why education takes place when we are immature and young, after all. It's not impossible, and some people have managed it. But it is exponentially more difficult to do so.
But there are other factors in play, as well. It may seem like relapse is much more common now than it was fifteen or twenty years ago--but that's also because the sheer number of people that attempt recovery is much larger, too. And the salient point is that most people that put together long stretches of clean time, and/or stay clean for the duration of their lives, get clean for the last time in their thirties. In my own case, one of the moments of clarity for me was sitting around playing cards one night at Boca House, with three other guys in my general age group, and all of us ruefully admitting that our lives were half-over and we had nothing to show for it but a pile of rubble. It was rather jarring to realize that I was almost 36 years old and had done nothing of lasting importance other then reproduce three times. It wasn't a magic potion that drove me ever onward and forward from that point--but it did kill the illusion that there was any real benefit to living the way I had been living the previous few years, and that returning to using was merely going to be more spinning of the wheels with the possibility of never escaping very real.
And relapse seems more prevalent now mostly because the average age of the person attempting recovery has dropped dramatically. The rooms are now full of people in their twenties and even a few teens, people who have not wasted half their life yet, people who frankly have not exhausted themselves for decades, people who simply are not convinced that they cannot use safely again. In some ways, it's encouraging; people are catching more severe consequences earlier in life, and thus are getting exposed to the thing that can possibly save their lives earlier in that life. But only in some ways--the culture of the rooms has changed to where it is viewed, much more than it was in the past, as a way station, as a pit stop, as temporary. I'm not sure that there is a way this can be avoided, but it is real.
There's a factor peculiar to this area, too, that I've written about before: the malign presence of the Messagemaster for many years, and more specifically the 4-5 year stretch in the early years of this century where his influence and reach was vast and mostly unchecked. We have a missing generation of clean time; there is almost nobody with 8 to 12 years around here right now, and you will never convince me that his ubiquity at that time is not the primary reason why. The message being carried around here at that time was empty; the values and principles being passed down and "worked" were toxic; the atmosphere in the fellowship was poisonous; and the collective group conscience of the area was subordinated to the ego of one individual. I lived through it, and it is hard to overestimate how difficult it was to continue to be an active part of the fellowship at that time if you were not part of The Tribe. And though that period eventually came to an end, it took its toll. There are very few clean dates in this area from 2004 to 2008.
And one last factor in the prevalence of clean time is another thing with deep roots that has found greater exposure now. I noticed within a couple of years of being in the rooms that our literature may be correct when it speaks of it making no difference between drugs. For the purpose of a recovery program, this is true, But our various drugs of choice have differing effects on people physically, and different personality types are drawn to different narcotics--the true "garbagehead" was and still is a relatively rare animal. And I figured out before I had two years clean that a good majority of the people that had clean time at that time were former crackheads--or put another way, those whose drug of choice was heroin (and alcohol, for that matter, even though most who were addicted to alcohol ended up in AA) never seemed to be completely out of the woods, never seemed to reach a point where one could say that the desire to use had been completely and permanently banished. And yes, I realize that we are all subject to using no matter how many years we have been clean, and I'm not really disputing that. What I am saying is that for whatever reasons, those whose drug of choice was cocaine (and, as time has passed, crystal meth) tend to reach a bottom much lower and harsher than users of other drugs, and that when they are done, they are done. With heroin, that doesn't seem to be the case, and now that there are so many more opiates out there that affect the user physically in similar ways, this tendency is even more obvious. I've been assured by both opiate addicts in the rooms and the medical community that the physical effect of opiate addiction is much more pronounced and works differently than with coke and other drugs, that neural pathways and brain chemistry gets altered in ways crack never affects. Or, to put it bluntly, opiate addicts report that they don't feel "normal" for a long, long time, and perhaps ever again, that the body will continue to crave opiates long after users of other drugs have put cravings behind them. And with so many people in the rooms now with opiate histories--well, relapse is going to seem more prevalent than it used to.
And different kinds of people tend to be drawn to different drugs. I have only used two opiates in my life, both times prescription painkillers for brief periods, and honestly, they did nothing for me. The second knocked me out for four hours, and I remember writing at the time that I didn't really understand the appeal of opiates; if I'm going to get high, I want to awake and aware during it. While simplistic, it's also real--most of us that used coke and meth tend to be Type A personalities, less mellow and less apt to be part of the crowd. Opiate users tend to be more quiet and introspective, and more looking for a way to blend into the background. It's a generalization, and there are exceptions on both sides. There are also some that use both, although it has been my experience that those that do use both tended to be stimulant abusers first who turned to opiates to bring them down from their highs sooner and more smoothly, and then found themselves on an elevator whose doors would not open. But the generalization has a lot of truth to it.
I'm not a scientist, and I'm sure there might be other factors I'm missing. I also don't mean to imply that, somehow, crackheads have it easier or that they are somehow "better" than users of other drugs. But it is a reality that once someone whose drug of choice was crack or meth gets to three or four years clean, they almost always stay clean for the duration. With opiate addicts, that simply is not the case. And the relapse rates around here, at least, seem to be so high because there are many more drug addicts around than there used to be, and the vast majority of them use opiates of one form or another.

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