I was watching this documentary today about a small New England town, profiled on 60 Minutes as ‘heroin town’. The documentary centers around a hotel where many recovering addicts reside. The hotel, according to 60 Minutes, was at the epicenter of drug use, drug distribution and prostitution in this town of 16,000. As I am watching, and hearing the stories of those being interviewed, I cannot help but think of my sister as her situation is identical to theirs.
I won’t go into specifics today about my sisters story, but instead, I want to share with you some observations that hopefully may help others understand aspects of addicts; recovering or current.
I am NOT a medical professional nor addiction professional. I can only share my opinion and what I’ve learned over the course of the previous two years.
If you have never been personally affected by someone with an addiction or if you do not have intimate knowledge of the disease, it is difficult to comprehend some of the behaviors and thought processes of these individuals. If you lacked this connection and understanding and were to observe someone who is a recovering or current addict, you may believe they were bizarre, deluded or even possibly mentally challenged. There is a very specific reason for this; well two specifically.
The first is something which is termed as ‘dry drunk’. This is a fascinating thing. Basically, when you have an individual who drinks to excess or uses another substance constantly over a period of time, their brains chemical make-up changes. In the case of alcohol, just image a pickled egg- that egg becomes so saturated by the brine that it becomes a completely different thing with its own taste, texture and color; Nothing what it began as. Similarly with other substances, the chemical needs and functions of the brain change drastically. As you can imagine, this not only may effect a persons behaviors, desires and motivations but it also effects the cognitive abilities of reason, logic and decision making.
I recall many occasions where I would have a discussion with my sister over something as mundane as taking my 8 year nephew to see Toy Story where she argued left and right how inappropriate that was because it was rated R. There were many occasions where she confused facts, events, people. They all became so jumbled in her brain that it was literally like her saying, ‘…yesterday was the Fourth of July, the day Germany bombed Pearl Harbor, just after Mitt Romney landed on the moon…’ I am NOT exaggerating at all. And these were her thoughts processes after three weeks of being sober. When she was drinking it was even worse.
The second observation is that addicts are emotionally stunted. I am not saying this to be cruel or judgmental, but it is a scientific fact. I do not know the clinical
term, however, the theory is that when a person is high or intoxicated their brains development ceases to grow. I many instances, recovering addicts were long term addicts, many starting in their late teens, early twenties. These are critical years for development and growth as that’s when we truly begin to learn about the world and how to function on a productive daily basis. However, for the addict, it is like a pause button. That development and growth stops immediately. They say, if someone became an addict say at the age of twenty and it took them fifteen years to get sober, that upon their thirty-fifth birthday, they will have the mentality and growth of a twenty year old.
It took my sister almost a year of sobriety before I saw her cognitive function and normal demeanor return. I recall being so proud of her. She was making difficult decisions and facing insurmountable challenges which had been put off for so long. She had a relapse within weeks of her year anniversary and it was literally a month later I saw all of the dry drunk and immaturity return. It broke my heart. It broke the hearts of my entire family.
As I watch this documentary, I see my sister. She lives like these individuals. She has hope, she wants to beat this disease. Yet, she is starting from scratch having lost almost everything. In the two years I was deeply involved in helping my sister, there was not a single one of her sponsors or fellow recoveries that I did not have the utmost respect for. They are all remarkable people. Sure they have a story of woe and made bad decisions, but it was the addiction which drove them, it was the disease that pulled them.
Addiction is an ugly monster. It can chew up and spit out the brightest light. It can reach across miles and effect anyone. But with anything, a person must be patient, compassionate, well informed and above all else non-judgmental. My life has forever been changed. When I meet an addict, I never think, ‘loser’, ‘drunk’, ‘junkie’. Instead I think, ‘what happened? Why aren’t you getting help? Where is your support? What can I do to help?” For my sister that will always be my attitude regardless of her relapses. And I just hope, I never flip on a documentary and see her in the situation these same hopeful souls I am watching now are experiencing.