“It started in my late 20s. In hindsight, I can see blips on the radar during my teenage years.”
47-year-old John C. was talking about when he first developed a substance use disorder.
What Triggered the Substance Use Issues
Was there one event that triggered it or multiple causes?
“I believe I was born an addict, and it was a progressive disease that took time to show up; but there was an event that helped get things going,” John said. “My mother, who had cancer, passed away in my late 20s, and I was her primary caregiver before she passed. After my mother passed away, there was a sense of not having a lot of responsibility. Then the grief and trauma of those previous years set in, and I started getting panic attacks.”
Around this same time, John began taking Xanax. Often prescribed for anxiety, the drug is one of the more addictive benzodiazepine medications because it is so short-acting.
What It Was Like to Be Addicted to Drugs
“After it began with Xanax,” John spent “a solid 10 years” engulfed by drugs and the spiraling isolation of addiction. From Xanax, John moved to opiates: “my drug of choice.”
Meanwhile, “I also had a kidney stone—Oxycontin was big then—and liked alcohol.” John “would take Xanax, alcohol, and Oxies together” and, with increasingly high tolerance for opioids, “eventually ended up on fentanyl.” He had such a “large tolerance” that eventually he was “getting transdermal patches on the street.”
The addiction was now a costly drain on John’s time and money: “It’s so exhausting being an addict and alcoholic. It’s like a full-time job.” Yet John couldn’t see the toll it was taking.
“It’s super tough. If anyone on the outside knew what was going on, they would’ve seen I had a problem, but it was tough for me to see. I was broken and becoming more isolated.”
In other words, John “needed an outside influence” to help him see he had a problem and needed help.
The Turning Point: Close Family
Sometimes, exactly what we need does come along. In John’s case, he had a sister whose daughter (John’s niece) would spend time with him in Colorado when his sister came to visit. On this one occasion, though, John’s sister—who “had no idea what goes into drug addiction and what a drug addict would look like”—let him know that she would not let her daughter stay with him.
“I don’t feel like my daughter is safe staying with you,” she told John.
That interaction helped John recognize he had a problem that needed to be addressed.
John’s father, a longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, was also helpful in connecting John with people who could help him get into treatment and recovery.
Treatment, Relapse, and Lessons from Recovery
Addiction is a chronic disease, meaning that relapse can happen on the road to long-term sobriety and recovery. After John went to treatment for the first time at the age of 37, he dealt with a couple of relapses and was in and out of treatment. Today, more than one year and eight months into recovery, he is helping others with similar struggles in his role as Alumni Coordinator at FHE Health.
How would John describe his life in recovery? Here is how he answered that question:
Prior to recovery, I didn’t feel like I had much hope or purpose. Now there’s a sense of belonging in the recovery community and a sense of purpose to help others.
I also have a different perception of the world compared to how I viewed the world before. I’m not in that cycle of shame, guilt, and survival, and that gives you peace of mind.
Before recovery, there was this delusion of my life needing to be grander or have more purpose to it. I’d have fantasies of great things and never do anything, so to be able to do ordinary life and do it well and have people count on me? I don’t know if I viewed sobriety as boring but as ordinary life, and now I am doing the things that a lot of normal, ordinary people do. I’m being responsible and a good friend and family member and being useful.”
I’m able to live an ordinary life but a good life. I can be a good uncle, brother, son, and nephew—all those things eliminate the guilt and shame and cycle of selfishness and misery.
There is also a sense of relief and calm in the absence of that “full-time job” (active addiction): “That gets eliminated with sobriety if you’re living with spiritual principles. You eliminate one whole job by seeking recovery.
Did John have any other words of encouragement for those who are struggling?
“That you’re not unique and alone in the misery and that there is a solution.”
There’s no shame in getting help for a mental health disorder or a drug or alcohol problem. That’s the message of our “No More Shame” campaign, which seeks to reduce the stigma surrounding these health issues. In continuation of that theme, this story is part of a regular series featuring the true stories of people who asked for help and found hope and healing.
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