Treatment for addiction is only the beginning of recovery. What happens when you go back home? If you even have one anymore. Here are four stories of recovering addicts in midlife and how they meet their daily challenges while staying sober after treatment.
Chris Arrowsmith Bagdon smoked off-the-street cannabis for two years to relieve ongoing pain from a brain concussion and to offset war combat flashbacks. One night he hit a batch that he suspects was laced with the drug PCP. “I started freaking out,” says Chris. It took four cops and a taser to intercept his violently out-of-control behavior. When he returned home after hospital and jail time, his wife had hidden their children and threatened to leave him.
A Veterans Court referred Chris to a year-long treatment program offered through the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. There he found a path to Twelve Step addiction recovery. “I remember the first time I heard the Twelve Promises of A.A., I realized that’s what I want,” Chris says. The VA program also taught him understand and deal from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. “They talked about how to work through triggers, especially when you’re in a combat moment,” he says. He now knows that putting an ice pack on his eyes is one way to take him out of a PTSD moment. During treatment, he also found support for dealing with early childhood traumas, adoption abandonment, and other troubling issues.
Six months after completing treatment, Chris continues to call on his A.A. sponsor regularly. An occasional craving still arises. “It hits really hard,” he says. “I always call my sponsor, no matter what time it is. I take a breath. I know this too will pass. I ask myself why I am having this craving. Then I can make a choice.”
When addicts like me use, says Chris, “There is usually some pain we’re trying to cover up — physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional. Those pains are there to let us know what needs to be worked on. What’s really amazing is that, if we work on those things, pleasure is so much more pleasurable. Taste comes back. Dreams become more vivid. I feel the sensations of clothing against your skin. I went through a wardrobe change because I thought some of the fabrics were just too scratchy. I went to a local thrift store and found clothes that felt really good against my skin.”
Living beyond painful memories
Family life has changed for Chris too. “I came to the hard conclusion that I was really a crappy father.” After his military service in Bosnia and seeing 16 children and their teachers who had been slaughtered during ethnic cleansing there, he found that he “kept pushing my kids away at arm’s distance because I couldn’t bear remembering those children. I didn’t even know that was a program inside me that was running, but once that was brought to light, a lot of things shifted. I could operate out of choice, instead of out of reptilian survival brain.”
Chris spends a lot more time with his kids now. “It used to be that when I was woodworking, I’d be like, don’t disturb me,” he says. “Now I’m incorporating projects that we can do together safely. We also hug a lot.” Also, he says that instead of yelling at his kids when they misbehave, “We get into conversation. I’m guiding them instead of mandating things.”
Chris’s wife has a medical cannabis card to deal with her own PTSD. “We used to smoke together,” Chris says. “So, we had to have some very candid conversations about how we were going to work through these things. It’s been great. She makes choices about her life, and I get to make choices about mine.”
White knuckling versus getting support
Katy Vernon is a busy pop/folk singer and songwriter. She rarely drank during her gigs, she says, “But when I got home, you know, you’re so wound up and it’s late at night and the rest of my family would be in bed. I would have two or three drinks just to bring that level down and feel like I could go to sleep.” Sometimes she had brownouts. One night a severe blackout convinced her she had to stop using alcohol.
After a few months of white knuckling and will power, Katy learned about Dissonance, a group of artists who put on sober fun events. She connected with them via Facebook and was eventually linked to A.A., which became her treatment program. “I didn’t have to do it all myself,” Katy says.
In A.A., she says, “There are just no more lies and excuses, and that’s what I had to learn about. You know, when you show up for a performance with a hangover, you pretend you have a little bit of a cold. When you make a choice to not meet up with friends, you say you have other plans. But actually it’s because you’ve already had a glass of wine and you don’t want to get in the car. I realized I don’t want to do things like that anymore. I want to be completely honest and with everyone in my life.”
Katy’s treatment program is ongoing. She’d like to see a therapist, but her musician income makes that impractical, she says. So, she creates her own forms of therapy as well as practical strategies to help her stay sober. She started a disco band because, she says, “Making music makes me happy.” She also hangs out with members of Dissonance and serves on its board of directors. “I try to surround myself and carve out time to be with other sober people and do things we enjoy,” she says. “When I do go out with someone who is drinking, I might get a yummy mocktail to feel like I have a treat.”
Humor and meds ease the way
Katy’s latest album features songs springing largely from her recovery. To help her feel more at ease while performing in liquor establishments, she jokes with the crowd: “If you’re good at drinking, great, good for you. I’m really bad at it.” She turns down or gives away free drink tickets she’s offered, or she uses them to get Cokes.
Katy also relies on medications to help manage anxiety and depression. “Ups and downs have kind of evened out. I always thought that was part of my artistic temperament. When I couldn’t handle the highs and lows of emotion, I would reach for something I knew would dull it.” Now I’m functioning in a healthy way. in our past and in each other.
Community makes the difference
After a long history of meth use, Jason Bellamy took part in a 19-month prison-based treatment program and gave his life to Christ. But when he left prison, he had no support in the community. He did stop his criminal activity. And he stayed sober as he built a business in commercial truck construction.
“After 8 years sober, I got into a toxic relationship,” says Jason. “I didn’t know how to navigate my emotions. What I’d do is engage in thought and my chest would feel tight, and I’d go use drugs. I had a cousin who was using, so I knew where to get it.” His using didn’t interfere with his work though. In fact, his work supported his habit. But another arrest put him back in prison and he lost his business. “It was devastation,” he says.
After Jason got out, he was arrested again after three years sober. “I talked myself into using again,” he admits. This time, Jason found his way to a year-long program at Teen Challenge. A series of prison stays and 10 short-term treatment programs hadn’t kept him sober, but nine months after finishing his Teen Challenge stint, he is setting a new course.
New identity takes shape
“At Teen Challenge, I had contracts to complete on specific issues. I had to identify the root of my problems and uproot them,” says Jason. “I found acceptance, a mentor, and help along the way. I found my true identity as a child of God and how God looks at me. I experienced real forgiveness and inner peace.”
He attends three to four Christian-based recovery meetings each week and regularly shares his story with church and community groups. Having a supportive community has made all the difference, he says.
Helping others start over
Jason’s mission now is to help other addicts through a program he and others have started, called Servant Christ Ministries. “They get behind on child support, their driver’s license gets yanked, they keep acquiring a bunch of driving ticket fines, and they land back in jail,” Jason says. “Once they spend time in jail, they can’t get employment and housing, can’t get their license back. Car insurance is through the roof. Credit cards are in default.” Jason said he himself needed the help of a diversion program to pay off the $4800 he owed in traffic fines with small monthly payments.
Using his own revived construction business as a hub, Jason plans to hire addicts coming out of prison and will ask his customers to do the same. The ex-inmates will be able to attend recovery meetings and receive personal mentoring on and off the job site to help them learn life management skills and stabilize their life. Support will also extend to provide a sober house and assist with transportation and other needs – financed through his business profits and support from community partners.
Says Jason, “All the pain and grief I caused, I want to show it wasn’t in vain.”
How long it can take
After seven rounds of treatment and never more than 127 days sober in a row, Mercedes Mejia feels fresh hope. This time she also got treatment for childhood trauma, something she says she’s needed all along. She also says her denial is over. “I know that I’m an alcoholic. I have pancreatic problems and a mass growing there. I go to a meeting every day to get help. I can’t do it alone,” she says.
Mercedes is also taking to heart her psychiatrist’s insistence that she can never stop taking her bipolar meds. “I’m sad about that, but I also feel relief,” she says, “because I know I don’t have to ever again feel like I felt when I went off my meds. I’d go into mania and be like a tornado.”
Mercedes is making plans to see a counselor to further unravel her trauma experiences and to get to know the “real” Mercedes. In treatment, she realized she had been a “chameleon,” trying to look perfect to those around her. She hopes her mother with join her in family counseling. If not, “I will have to keep my distance from her,” Mercedes says.
Going back to work as a restaurant server will be a challenge for Mercedes. The booze is readily available, and co-workers often imbibe, she says. Her plans are to order a Diet Coke. As a backup, she is relying on an anti-craving drug to subdue her desire to drink alcohol.
Mercedes’ new social life is built around her friends from her recovery meeting. “They do so many fun things,” she says, “camping on weekends, barbeques, women’s retreats, going to games.” Since dating was often her downfall – “I always wanted a glass of wine” – she now intends to be honest about her addiction with men from the start.
Pat Samples is a writer and a facilitator for creative aging, body awareness, and creative writing. www.patsamples.com.