Addiction and Recovery Paper Dolls

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Added 9/2/1014: I’ve received requests for a printable version of the cartoon so here’s a .pdf file: Addictions and Recovery Paper Dolls. Feel free to use and share!

Little Bits of Progress at 20 Months Sober

A young colleague blurted out to me decades ago, as if astonished, “You’re the loneliest person in the world.”

I have had a longing within from the beginning. It’s as if a freezing wind blows through an unfilled opening near my heart. While I was growing up, I knew it was all going to be all right because I was going to get married and have a husband. He would fill the hole. When he didn’t, I expected it to be filled by our child. When I was unable to conceive, I tried work. I divorced and tried different men. I tried a return to my family of origin. I tried a second husband.

When I adopted a cat, I did feel a cat-shaped puzzle piece blocked much of the wind. When my cat became ill unexpectedly, I felt as if I had to kill my own child to put her out of her misery. And other things happened. The wind howled.


To not feel as if what I was feeling was going to kill me from within, I tried relationships, I tried work, I tried exercise, I tried eating, I tried cats, I tried drinking wine. Wine produced quiet from the wind most consistently for the greatest number of hours. I repeated.

And then, because I cherish being able to choose my path, however lonely it might be, I chose to take a break from drinking wine. I was flabbergasted to learn I could not. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I told myself, I could not stop drinking.

. . . . .

On August 28, 2014, I was 20 months abstinent from alcohol.

I have shared that I have only been able to get sober and stay sober with the help of, and in the company of, others.

As a teacher, I stated often that I was seeking “the truth and the light,” and “the one true thing.” In every bit of life, I sought whole meaning or sought to synthesize that small piece into a meaningful whole. In retrospect, I think I was seeking one perfect shape, exactly the size of the lonely opening within me, to ease my terrible longing.

What seems to be happening is that the hole is filling, not with one true love or one perfect child or one best friend, but with the presence of many people who are kind to me. And who let me be kind to them. And we rotate in and out through the days so that the filling isn’t dependent on one single person, or even on a specific group of people – only Betty, Bob, Jimmy, for example – but on many people.

And the people are human and they make mistakes and over-do and under-do. But because my days are spent with many, one person’s cruelty doesn’t have the power to destroy me, nor does one person’s kindness have the power to complete me.

I’m not sure how lonely I am today. Sweetness and gentleness and contentment are coming to my days. In little bits.

Thank You For Calling Me

It is late afternoon on the third anniversary of my mother’s death.

Remembering how I felt last year, I made what felt like a crazy request for some kind of reverse hotline or recovery phone tree and asked people to sign up to call me for the two-day period I was terrified I might fall as I have, over and over again, without notice, without force, back first, spread-eagled into darkness.

The first person to sign up doesn’t even live in my town. A few more people signed up. Look at this! Astoundingly, astonishingly, every single slot is filled.

Something happened to my fear. Did it lessen? I don’t know. But, as they say, a calm descended. Just knowing people were going to call me, were there for me, gave me a sense of hope and some kind of peaceful certainty.

I have relentlessly, ruthlessly attempted to become aware of my every feeling and thought, to isolate these causal variables as if I were my own scientific experiment, and to identify psychological reasons for them.

I was off an hour. I figured noon on the day before, but I cried while I was running on the elevated track at my gym at 11:00 AM.

I’ve cried so much at the gym – and gym culture is so funny; we notice each other’s vascularity, not our tears – I just went with it, running and sobbing to Smooth and trying to remember what thoughts preceded the crying.

Without notice, without force, I had thought of my fluffy step-cat that had to put down and I missed her and then I thought of my mother and I missed her and then I was a child without a cat or a mother and I was on the edge of the cliff.

So I thought about how it is normal when grieving normally for losses to bring up old losses. Thinking about my cat and my mother together made sense and were probably related to attachment issues.  And I thought of the Doodle and the people with their cell phones and made my mind, as if it had its own body, muscularly climb up hand over hand. I did not want to go over the cliff.

Today, people have called me and texted me and emailed me. When I could, I’ve picked up and have had lovely chats. When I haven’t been where I thought I’d be and have not picked up, I’ve saved lovely voice mails to listen to in perpetuity.

I haven’t cried today. I might. I’m okay with it either way. I’m not going to write any more or think any more. I’m just going to be. But I drew what it’s like to be me today.

What it's like today



If 2007 Could Be Different

If I look at my past as a case history, I see some possible predisposing conditions for addiction developing, but I don’t see them as powerful enough to make it happen.

Trauma is a part of life. An estimated 60% of men and 50% of women will experience trauma at some time in their lives.

Maybe It Will All Be OkayAs part of my life’s share, I experienced being unable to have children as traumatic. I asked for help and was in weekly therapy pretty consistently in the late 80s.

I experienced the end of my first marriage in the late 90s as traumatic. I developed chronic back pain and a sleep disorder. Again, I sought weekly therapy. I became a member of a first, then a second therapy group, a support community, and a spiritual community. In the early 2000s, my professional career as a teacher began to wane, but I still felt reasonably successful.

The unresolved issue of my life was my relationship with my mother and a further decline in her ill health in early 2006 gave me an opportunity to return to my hometown of Blacksburg and address it. I found a counselor before I left Tampa. Extreme physical training had finally provided relief from 10 years of back pain and eased the sleep disorder, and I had an appointment with a personal trainer set before I arrived as well. I felt well-prepared and well-protected when I returned to my hometown in July, 2006.

The very next month, in August, 2006, Morva’s act of community violence shook me, as did Utin’s September arrest for three decades of child molestation. I had tried to seduce Utin myself when I was in my teens when he was the manager of our pool, sensing some kind of availability on his part, and experienced a slight wound to my nascent womanhood and sexuality by his rejection. Learning decades later that I had tried to involve myself with a sick person rattled me. But I was handling it all.

In February, 2007, a kid pushed me off balance in my classroom. Something about the safety and sanctity of a classroom shattered for me. I felt stripped and skinned and ashamed. The kid was suspended for 10 days and put in a different class but I saw him in the halls daily after that.

In April 2007, in the class that witnessed my humiliation, I was in lockdown all day when Cho shot up our world. (I cannot type that without weeping, even after all these years.)

In September 2007, while I was passing out papers, a kid in my class stood where no one else could hear him and said, “I’m going to shoot you.”

Would he have ever thought to say that without Cho? Regardless, I came undone. He was suspended and I think moved to another class, but I saw him in the halls daily. I remember sobbing almost on my knees to my principal to let me go. My last day as a teacher was November 7, 2007.

I think Morva > Utin > kid > Cho > kid could have happened to some people and they would be okay. But those felt like blows, not incidents, to me. I did not have sufficient resilience to handle that many blows in that quick of a succession.

Up to 75% of women with substance use issues have trauma in their stories.

I am among them.

I can’t change what happened in 2007. But if I could change what happened after what happened, this is what I would have asked for.

> The kid who pushed me would have been removed from school and given a job as an apprentice with a boss who wanted to help the kid succeed and his family would have been given sufficient - not miserly – public assistance to help them with their struggle with adequate housing, food, clothing, and medical care.

> When I called the office for assistance for help with the kid who threatened to shoot me, the assistant principal would have sprinted up the stairs and down the hall to my classroom, then he would have spoken into his walkie-talkie and six armed and helmeted members of the National Guard would have come to my classroom and escorted that kid to jail. Because that should not ever happen to any teacher ever.

> After the shootings, Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam and Virginia Tech President Charles Steger would have jointly broadcast to the community everywhere, “We know from the research that we’re all at risk for community violence-related trauma! Come to the drill field tomorrow! We’ll set up booths and everyone can go from one to the other and get help! We’ll f*ing invent our futures! We’re not going to let this get us! We can do it!”

And Ron Rordam with his big white mustache would have sat in a chair like Santa and I could have stumbled up to him and sat in his lap and he would have held me like a child and said, “Oh, Anne, I’m so sorry. That was really hard, wasn’t it?” And just held me. Truly, I think just a few minutes like that would have made all the difference in the world.

. . . . .

“Maybe It Will All Be Okay” sidewalk art created 8/15/2014 after having needed to write this for 7 years and having written it.

Will You Call Me?

What frightened me about Robin Williams’s death was that he died alone.

When I am hurt, like a vulnerable, wounded animal, I fear predation. I hide.

I am afraid that – without awareness or consciousness – I will cross the line from being able to handle, alone, distress from the challenges I face, to not being able to handle it.

“Why didn’t you call me?!” is a question I have been asked over and over again in the past 19 months.

The whole point of being a member of a recovery community is not having to handle distress alone.

But making that phone call…

Help through Doodle

Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s best friend, accidentally curses himself with the Slug-vomiting Charm. Without having meant to, without having any control over what’s happening or how long it’s going to happen, he vomits up slugs. Hagrid hands him a basin and Harry and Hermione keep Ron company until the spell passes.

That’s the best metaphor I can come up with to describe the visceral experience of sorrow that overwhelms me and what feels like a physical inability to reach out for help. I can only vomit pain. For various reasons I won’t go into here, I learned to vomit alone and to clean up after myself so no trace remained.

But my lonely little heart longs for Hagrid and Harry and Hermione’s company. Maybe just be with me for a little while? I’ll clean up after myself, I promise. The slugs take my breath away.

Who wouldn’t want a drink to take that away?

For me, the “spells” happen without warning. Yet Lance Dodes asserts that if I can practice “sophisticated self-awareness,” I might be able to identify the thoughts and feelings that foretell the possibility of a future drink.

August 27, 2014, the day before I turn 20 months sober, will be the the 3-year anniversary of my mother’s death.

Yes, I hear, “I don’t do anniversaries” and “Anniversaries are constructs.” I am smart and rational and I sense, before I have a moment of smartness or rationality, that some time on August 26, in spite of my best intentions to be present for my feelings and thoughts and present for those I care about, I’ll begin to weep and be unable to stop.

I should make myself call this time. I should use my willpower to force myself to reach out.

It won’t happen. I’m a work in progress and that is progress I have not made work.

Last August, I grieved alone at 8 months sober. I feel currents of fear running up my arms just thinking about it.

I wrote my mother a letter last week. Unsendable. Where did that come from?!

Today, a week out, a part of me thinks I’m fine, I’m over-reacting, over-dramatizing. People’s mothers die, Anne. They handle it just fine. You’re anticipating the worst, you’re making it worse than it has to be, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Get over it. Get over yourself.

I just have a feeling this isn’t going to go very well.

(Write it!)

Will you call me?

(I feel skinned when I write that.)

I set up a Doodle with the times I think I’ll be suffering. I believe the spell will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Last year, it was about 48 hours.

Will you sign up to call me? It’s anonymous so your name won’t be visible to others.

You may hear miserable, slimy slugs of pain, unceasing, dropping into your ear. “Better out than in,” I’ve heard. Yikes.

If I don’t pick up, will you leave me an encouraging message?

If I do pick up, will you just listen? Without judgment, without advice? If I’m silent, will you please just say encouraging things? I probably won’t even remember what you said. I will remember the cool compress of your kind words on my hot face.

And I will not be allowed to be alone.