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Every blog post I have ever written addresses tools to help addicts avoid relapse, rebuild their lives, and deepen intimacy with themselves and others. I have worked in the field of addiction recovery for 28 years. There have been many inspirational success stories. There were some I thought would maintain long-term sobriety for years but left the program and went dark. There were others who I swore didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to maintain sobriety, who became a source of inspiration for healing in the world they live. It’s impossible to know who will stick to a recovery program and who will not.
Today’s post is about those who didn’t make it. If you work in the field of addiction recovery you become conditioned to know that some addicts seeking recovery will respond and others won’t. It is tough when someone does respond and makes solid progress, then tragically goes back to old destructive behaviors. They disappear from group attendance and you don’t hear from them again. It’s disappointing! Once you were close in communication and knew more about their life than anyone else on the planet. Then suddenly they’re gone, never to be heard from again. The situations that are most difficult are those who lost their lives in the fight against their demons. It is difficult to let go of these tragedies. Over time there have been many in my professional life I never forget those whom I have worked with who lost their lives to their drug of choice. I want to dedicate this blog to those who lost their battle with addiction and their lives. Part of me left this world with them when they lost the fight. I would like to share a few stories about those who tragically lost their battle against addiction. Of course, I have changed the names to protect their anonymity.
Max was a truck driver. He was tough, burly, and an all-or-nothing type of thinker. He meant what he said and with determination would follow through with his recovery commitments. His weakness was gin and tonic. His wife Martha loved him and codependently tried to please him. When Max wasn’t drinking he was great. When he drank he was mean, unpredictable, and volatile. He was also bipolar and when he drank gin and tonic he would stop taking his medication. Max routinely worked a 12-step program and credited a new-found faith in God for deepening his commitment to program work. All went well for Max during the many months I worked with him to overcome his addiction. However, throughout the course of time tension grew between Max and his wife. He began to struggle with the long over-the-road hours that his job demanded. He shut down communication with his wife and pulled away from others who had been helpful.
He complained that the trucking company he worked for cheated him of his earnings. He was resentful and angry that they reprimanded him for inaccurately documenting driving hours while on the road. His backslide was shockingly rampant. He became sporadic with his program. My contact with him became more crisis-focused around fights with his wife and less focused on vulnerability toward addictive cravings. He stopped taking his meds and became more combative in our conversations. Then, one night his wife called me and said that Max had gone off the deep end. She said he holed himself up in a hotel with a couple of bottles of gin and tonic and a gun. She wanted me to call him so I did. Though Max was glad I called, he was very reactive and agitated. Someone had called the police because of erratic behavior witnessed by others at the hotel. When the police arrived they knocked on his door and he panicked. He began screaming obscenities with irrational thoughts about his wife and the world around him. The police entered the room with a management key. Instantly Max picked up his gun pulled the trigger and shot himself in the head. I will never forget walking down the concrete corridor of the morgue at the hospital with his wife to identify his body. When they pulled the curtain back from the window in the room where his body lay, screams from his wife echoed throughout the concrete corridor of that hospital. Max was a dear man. Without the meds, he lost his reasoning. Without the support community, he lost his way, his self, and his life. I often wonder how many like Max remain in the bubble of self-destruction unable to tame their demons of addiction.
Steve was a medical professional, a family man, and a sex addict. He struggled with perfectionism trying to please his wife Wendy. When he failed to do so, which was often, he responded by shutting down with denial, half-truths, and lies by omission. Shame dogged him like a pack of wolves chasing him relentlessly through the woods. He just couldn’t handle the failure. He tried to beat himself up to a better place, and that never works. His public persona was quiet and even keel. However, inwardly he was deeply troubled with visceral turmoil. His inner struggle began to explode at home. I worked with him and his wife for a season of time. There were many hours that I walked alongside while Steve languished in turbulence and unrest about his defensiveness and deceit. During that time he made good progress but would chronically relapse. He sought support through a 12-step recovery and made a few connections. He worked hard and demonstrated hope for healing. However, over time his gains faded into failure and he wallowed in shame and guilt. He began to isolate himself with bitter disappointment. Slowly, he began to cut out most of his therapy and 12-step support. The relationship with his wife that he prized and hoped would heal ended in divorce. He spiraled into uncontrollable depression and defeat. Shame ate away at his core self till nothing was left to build on. He lost sight of hope and help. He made one last effort in treatment with failed results. Steve wallowed in immense emotional pain. In desperation to escape the pain and emotional struggle, he took his life while in close proximity to others who were trying to help him fan the flame of hope and resilience. Overwhelmed with shame, misery, and mental illness that accompanied his compulsive sexual behavior, hope was snuffed out once and for all. Steve was a sensitive soul. He was not a hardened playboy with a long resume of sexual infidelity. He simply was unable to stop masturbating to porn and find a way to forgive himself. The hounds of shame had cornered him, and suicide was his only way out.
Why is it that some people face the adversity of addiction and seem to transform their lives while others are unable to get back on their feet and even perish from the same challenge? Here are a few considerations gleaned from the stories of Max and Steve.
1. Shame dominated both men. A rigid embrace of sobriety is not sustainable. Both men were clear about their bottom-line behaviors that indicated acting out. Neither knew how to bring themselves back to the center when lapse or relapse behavior occurred. They struggled with being stuck in the mud of shame and self-criticism. Staying stuck in shame without knowing how to crawl out of the muck and mire of failure distorts perspective and increases the mistaken belief that you can never recover right. Both men were perfectionists which is like throwing gasoline onto a fire of dry tinder. Many addicts in recovery never learn to stalk their shame in order to separate their behavior from their sense of self. So, if they do shitty behavior it means they are a piece of shit. Ultimately, if an addict stays stuck in a mistaken belief, h/she will produce results to support the distorted belief. Max always contended that he was not normal and would not be able to measure up to others. Steve was mired in perfectionism from day one. The harder they tried to get out of their own way, the deeper the hole they dug striving to do recovery perfectly. It was a major force that influenced their demise.
2. Both ignored developing self-parenting skills. Recovery is about successfully learning to do self-care. The term “self-parenting” fits because subconsciously addicts try to fulfill parental needs, that were not met in childhood, through significant relationships in the present. Yet, what happens is that when you try to fulfill individual wholeness from a partner, the opposite occurs. It’s the old adage that 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/4 when you thought it would make a whole. To fulfill your quest for happiness and safety, it is required that you take responsibility for making yourself whole by addressing your own childhood neediness. The only way to become whole is to practice being your own parent. When Max came home physically and mentally exhausted because of his cross-country truck run, he expected Martha to fill his empty cup with attention and care. Martha ran around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to make Max comfortable and glad to be home. But, Max was a perfectionist and when he was needy no one on this side of heaven would possibly be able to fulfill his needs in the way he wanted. Steve was determined to do things just right to get the smile of approval from his wife. But in his mind, he always screwed up. To cover his shortcomings, he thought he needed to minimize hurt or lie about what seemed unsatisfactory. Both men’s attempts to rely on their partners for approval and self-care had a short shelf life. They were destined to fail and they did.
3. Both men wanted their partners to be emotionally close and then pulled away in isolation. Both Max and Steve were intimacy-disabled which is the essence of addiction. Each had plans to approach their partner with open hearts. We talk about different strategies to make it happen. Yet, mired in perfectionism, each was stymied. when the results did not turn out exactly as they had hoped. Max was disappointed after surprising Martha with dinner at a favorite restaurant. Martha was exhausted from cleaning and preparing the house for his return home from the road She was too tired to be sexual after dinner. Max pouted and thought he screwed up and withdrew. The next day they fought about something small and silly cementing isolation between the two. Steve was under pressure the entire week with numerous surgeries in succession every day. His wife engaged a ladies’ night out on Thursday. By then Steve was totally exhausted, functioning on fumes. He decided to go to bed early. While checking his email, he gave in to the urge to look at porn and ended up masturbating. The next day when his wife asked how he did with his sobriety he lied and denied any challenges. Locked with shame he left for work isolated and lonely. He began to think he could not stop the porn, the masturbation, and the lies. Both shrunk from open-hearted confession with their 12-step groups. In the end, both were alone, isolated from themselves, their partners, their support, and their world. It drove both men to the edge and over.
It is uncommon for most addicts who relapse to become so profoundly stuck that their only choice is to take themselves out. That said, it occurs more frequently than most realize. For sure, every addict who is stuck in the muck and mire of shame, who fails to practice healthy self-care and is isolated from support is destined to relapse. Without addressing these key areas of recovery you will not create long-term sobriety. It is important to learn from the pitfalls and failures of those who have hurt themselves and did not make it.