Rebellious teenager hospitalized on several occasions for over-consumption of alcohol. Attempter of suicide. Mental hospital graduate. Depressive. Divorced mother of two. Recovered bulimic. Member of a 12-step program. You can’t deny that I have an interesting resume.
I have to imagine that these headlines make me not exactly what a mother would want her son to bring home and proclaim as the love of his life. In fact, if you were to hand that list to any man, he would surely think twice about bringing me anywhere at all. Still, it wasn’t until I started to write about recovery from these issues that I realized the enormity of the challenges I’ve had in my life. That’s also when I began to realize that I’d long felt judged, condemned and rejected by those who seemed to think I was less than them.
At first, recovery was a strange and perhaps hostile entity. When I was first being introduced to it, I stood some distance away—contemplating, examining, wondering how to tackle this new presence in my life. I knew I wanted it but I was scared: I was about to rid myself of one of my major issues and replace it with something I had no understanding of. Back then, before I learned about addiction’s devastating effect on my physical, mental and emotional conditions, I held the same belief that a lot of other people seemed to hold—that I was just a selfish, immoral person who cared about nobody except herself. Even though addiction, depression and eating disorders were an ever-present dark cloud in my troubled life, I didn’t actually understand any of these them until I got sober.
I believed I had big secrets to keep and that if anyone found out that I was a complete mess, I would be blacklisted, labelled a nutcase and rejected from society. And I was always filled with shame and embarrassment about the fact that the same issues continued to come up for me. I knew in my heart I was an alcoholic, but all I knew about it was that it caused your family a lot of hurt. I knew I was depressed but all I knew about that was that it brought a terrible cloud over the other people in the home. And I definitely thought that taking medication for your mental health issues meant you were officially nuts. In other words, I had thought that it was more acceptable to be sitting on a barstool—drunk, denying that I had a problem—than to be in a recovery room calling myself an alcoholic. I kept quiet for many years about how I was really feeling. The way I see it now, I did this because of the negative and stigmatized view society has toward people with mental health and addiction problems.
So why is it that people like me are forced to remain silent about our illnesses? I believe both the complexity of addiction and the way the issue is addressed in the media adds to the fear and lack of understanding about it. Many view addiction as a privileged problem for only super wealthy celebrities, with their well documented top-end rehab stints, or for their polar opposites—those who live in poverty and are social outcasts. Society seems quite happy to pigeonhole the disease of addiction into these extremes, probably because it feels like a way to keep the problem away from the perceived ordinary people—those who work, raise families, go to church and get on with their lives. This view enables society to be in denial about what is going on both inside their homes and in their wider communities. For many, addiction is still very much a taboo subject and perfection the greatest aim even though addiction seems to touch most every family in some way and perfection isn’t possible. And they say addicts are screwed up!
When we’re bombarded with news stories about the latest celebrity who has checked into rehab or the disadvantaged youth who was forced to steal to maintain his drug habit, we learn nothing about addiction and mental health issues. Of course, a story about a stay-at-home mother who has found herself in the midst of depression and alcoholism doesn’t sell too many papers. Well, I am that stay-at-home mother and I found myself on that downward spiral. The truth is that recovery rooms are full of ordinary people like me and, unfortunately, so are the bars, pubs and clubs of the world. There are millions of addicts on this planet struggling on a daily basis. This is not a rare condition: over 10 percent of our society suffers from it. Mental health problems are common as well. In fact, one in four of us will experience some sort of mental health issue at least once in our lifetime. And this extends to every nationality, color, creed and social class.
Unlike the humans they prey on, these illnesses have no prejudice. And yet, with addiction on the rise, we continue to condemn and judge. A friend of mine who is the director of a sober living home recently told me that the local churches of the area banded together to have the facility closed since they view the sober living home as a risk to their community. None of the churches provide any of their own services or programs for the troubled addicts in their community. Apparently the love, tolerance and suggestion to love thy neighbor that they preach about has been forgotten.
Those of us who are lucky enough to have found recovery as our new lifestyle blend seamlessly into society without so much as a hint of our past lives about the disease we live with on a daily basis. Unless, of course, one of us is someone like me—a person who has chosen to talk about it all openly. I still find that people are shocked by my willingness to talk about my experiences; I feel that they view me as if I am some freak of nature. I’ve experienced the silence and stunned expressions when my openness about the topic has come up in conversation. I can’t completely articulate why I do this. All I know is that my initial shame and fear of being “found out” seems to have been eradicated and replaced with a desire to tell the world about my illness and how I manage to live with it on a daily basis. I don’t think I’m all that different from the diabetic who needs insulin or the asthmatic who needs inhalers. And perhaps if more people felt that way, more addicts could find the help they need.
Because I’ve written fairly graphically and openly about my life before sobriety and it’s been far from a fairy story, I have to imagine that anyone reading a succession of my articles would probably have quite a negative view of me and my life. And yet I believe in happy endings. The truth is that my life has turned a corner and I almost resemble, at least most days, a successful adult in the making. In other words, my disease does not define who I am. I am still learning how to live but it gets easier all the time. For me, acceptance and balance are the keys to success, and those in turn allow me to become all that I can be. For now, I’ll just keep doing what works and leave the feelings of shame and guilt to others—perhaps those who continue to stigmatize and deny a problem that’s right in front of their eyes.
Photo courtesy of RyanMcGuire/Gratisography