Last night, I drifted off to sleep thinking of the song Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The ideas of helplessness, hopelessness, and hope kept swirling around in my head after I received a kind comment from a woman who’s living through the hell of watching her husband struggle with opioid addiction. I thought about how helpless my wife must have felt when I was drinking. There was nothing she could do to help me; she was just as trapped as I was in the cycle, maybe even more than I. Though it may not have seemed viable a the time, she had the choice to remain with me and to hope that I’d someday get it together. She could have left me. Lord knows many people do leave their loved ones when addiction holds them in its grasp.
I thought about how hopeless I felt when I was in the end of my drinking days. Indeed, it was a deep feeling of despair and hopelessness that permeated my existence. Day after day, despite knowing that nothing good would come of it, I found myself drinking. And day after day, I hated what was happening. I couldn’t see a way out. The idea of not drinking felt like abandoning a friend. Albeit a friend who continuously beat the crap out of me, who toyed with my emotions and who took every opportunity to convince me that I needed him.
Mixed in with the feelings of hopelessness, was a healthy dose of helplessness. I didn’t know how to help myself. I didn’t know how to ask for help. For a long time, I didn’t even know I needed help, and if anyone suggested that I did, I got defensive. Moreover, in the brief moments of clarity when I could recognize that maybe I needed to figure something out, all I could see was that I might need to cut back or stop drinking. I now recognize these as classic signs of addiction.
And then, suddenly, there was hope. Hope sometimes come from very unlikely places. The very first glimmer of hope came as I sat on my couch after a long day, drunk as a skunk. A friend from college posted a video about a place called the Harbor in Shippensburg, PA on Facebook. And something about that video spoke to me.
As I watched the video of people having fun in a bar like atmosphere without alcohol, I felt tears forming in my eyes. They looked like they were actually having fun, something that I hadn’t had in a long time.
I made the decision that I was going to bed, setting an alarm, and going to the Wake Up Group in Severna Park at 6:00 AM. I knew that getting up wouldn’t be a problem because I hadn’t slept through the night in years. Most mornings, I had laid half awake and half asleep from about 3:00 AM until I got up at seven. When I told my wife, I suspect she didn’t quite believe that I was going to follow through. But I did. And everything changed.
As I left that first meeting, I had a sense of hope. I didn’t know how the hell I would make it though the day, but I knew that if I did, things would start to get better. I spent most of the day on the phone talking to a handful of trusted fraternity brothers and my best friend from high school. And somehow, when it came time to pour the drink as I cooked dinner, I managed not to do it. The next day, I admitted my problem and collected my 24 hour chip.
I’ve been reading Jeff Vande Zande’s novel, Detroit Muscle over the past few days. The book tells the story of the first few days of the life of a man who has just gotten out of rehab for an Oxycontin addiction. When I first started reading it, my initial thoughts were that I might not be able to relate to the main character.
I didn’t go to rehab. I didn’t use opioids. I didn’t steal. I didn’t knock a girl up. I was a regular garden variety drunk in his forties. Amazingly, after nearly a year of being sober, my mind is still programed to compare out rather than to relate in — even when reading a story. But the thing is that the writing is compelling, and the story is gritty. It’s the kind of book that I like to read. In some ways, it reminds me of Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo. And so, I kept reading.
I read nearly half of the book in the first night, and it didn’t take long for me to see things in the book with which I could identify. The main character’s feelings of wanting to isolate. His feelings of frustration. Feelings of wanting to make things right but not being able to, and not knowing how. Feelings of not being able to relate to the people around you. Feelings that people ask too many questions.
I felt all those feelings in the early days of my sobriety. There were times when my skin felt like it was literally crawling. Times when my stomach twisted and turned. Times when my thoughts raced at maniacal speeds. Times when I felt like I could barely hold on until that next meeting — there are over 200 meetings week in my area but sometimes they felt like they were miles away and an eternity from the present time. Many times I really wondered if I was ever going to feel normal. I hoped that I would. People kept telling me “it gets better.” I hoped that they were right.
As I was reading the book, I realized that I haven’t felt those feelings in a very long time. So long ago, that I’d almost completely forgotten them. I also realized that it did get better and that I got better in many ways.
I’ve worked through a lot of baggage in a relatively short time. I’ve done so mostly on my own. I don’t necessarily advise this approach — I could probably have made more progress with help — but I’ve started to find the answers to some of the questions I’ve had for a long, long time. And a scary question crept into my mind — If I understand what happened, if I truly know what the root of my self medication was, do I need to continue to abstain?
It is a ridiculous question. The answer is undeniably, “YES!” with a side of “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR GODDAMNED MIND?!?!”
See, that’s the addiction talking. That’s something subconscious trying to assert itself. Trying to take root again. And I’m not going to let that happen. I remember too well the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. I’ve got too much hope for the future, and that future won’t exist if I take a drink.
So this morning, I got up and went to Wake Up Group, even though I’ve given myself permission to get out of the daily habit of going. And when I came home, I put on come CSN and started googling the song Helplessly Hoping. And to my shock, I found out that it was written by Stephen Stills in 1969 as he stood by his love at the time Judy Collins, who was struggling to achieve sobriety. Stills is a master wordsmith and musician. He captures what I imagine every person who loves an addict feels perfectly in the song. Go give it a listen.
Her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word
Gasping at glimpses
Of gentle true spirit