controlling the narrative.

img_1023The descent my life took after first trying Meth was as fast as it was devastating.  In two years I had lost my job, car, home, and kids.  At rock bottom, after receiving an ultimatum from my daughter, it was as if I was shaken out of a dream.  I looked around at what had become of my life as if someone else has destroyed the landscape.  I wasn’t sure how I got to that point or why I chose to turn to drugs.  I proceeded to spend hours in drug treatment combing through the remote coffers of my brain in an effort to fill in the blanks.  The answers that unfolded would become the most powerful sobriety tool I could have received.  When I began to understand my own story, healing was released and my life altered multidemensionally.

Understanding my story wasn’t simply plotting milestones across a timeline, but pinpointing pivotal moments that had written the narrative in my mind in regards to what I believed about myself. The power of this exercise lied in the realization that I had allowed other people and circumstances to write this narrative.  I came to believe what was told to me instead of developing a secure sense of my own identity.  What I believed about myself was shaped early in my life; something is wrong with me, I don’t belong, and I am not enough.  

Something is wrong with me. 

The first time I remember feeling out of place was in Kindergarten.  When we had free time to roam about the classroom, I gravitated toward the corner where the kids pretended to be a family.  There was a mini house set-up complete with plastic kitchen, small couch and a doll cradle.  When the group of kids assembled it was time to decide who was going to be mommy, daddy, and children.  One of the kids automatically assigned me as daddy and told me I had to leave for work.  The other kids couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be the daddy, but instead stay home to cook and clean.  I remember with vivid clarity a brown-haired girl saying what are you, a sissy?  This was the first time I had heard the word ‘sissy’ but certainly not the last.  Something must be wrong with me.

I don’t belong.

I was about ten years old when my dad sat me and my brother down to tell us he had planned a camping trip for the three of us.  I was excited by this because he had made it a habit to invite his brother (who happened to be my age) along to all of our outings. When I expressed my desire to make plans that included only immediate family, my dad replied that his brother was like the son he never had but he would plan something to shut me up.  The day of the camping trip came and the three of us loaded into the truck, my brother and I in the back, and took off for the river.  A few miles into the trip, my dad made an unplanned stop and picked up his brother who got into the front of the truck with him.  I stared at my dad through the back window as he turned and shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes at me.  I recall looking out of the truck as we pulled off onto the road, the wind blowing the tears out of my eyes and feeling a hurt that burned my stomach. I don’t belong.

I am not enough.

I thought that I had found my tribe when I began attending church on a regular basis with my mom.  I was beginning to receive much-needed accolades from her family and church members because I didn’t cuss or drink and took an interest in learning about the Bible.  That was until age 11 when my hormones surged and I found myself attracted to the boys in my class.  I remember one night sitting in church beside my mom listening to my Uncle, who was also the Pastor, giving a sermon on the topic of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The message?  How the sin of homosexuality would send me directly to hell and how God hated it so much that he burned cities that allowed it to the ground.  I went home after church, opened the window to my room and prayed and cried as I stared at the moon asking God to help me, to take me away.  This was a prayer I would pray many times over for years.  I am not enough. 

I could write for hours about the ways in which the narrative that I allowed to be written for me caused a relentless pursuit of acceptance and approval. From my marriages to the college degrees to continuously finding new jobs where I would be praised for my performance.  I was always trying to get others to rewrite my narrative, to validate it, to measure my worth.  And so when I discovered the escape drugs could give to me, a temporary departure from the battle of my mind, I jumped in wholeheartedly.  And the bonus was that the Meth population welcomed me as one of their own.  I became a part of a group who had similar narratives, who could relate.  This felt comfortable to me for a short period of time until my life spun out of control.

But then, as I transitioned from active addiction to building a sober life the feelings of being out of place and not being enough compounded.  I had lived for so many years believing the lies of an externally-built narrative that I didn’t know any other way of life.  Taking charge of my own narrative was scary and uncomfortable.  But through drug treatment and my support system, I found the courage to take responsibility for my story.  I have vowed to never allow no one or no thing power over what I believe about myself.  The results have been revolutionary beyond my wildest dreams.

If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, that confused little boy, I would wrap my arm around him and tell him that he isn’t weird, or wrong, or misplaced.  I would assure him that deep within he has all of the love and light he will ever need to be happy.  I would promise him that he has big work to do, people to touch, and love to spread all over the Universe.  I can’t go back in time, but I am eternally grateful that I can tell myself those things today and fully comprehend the implications.

Nothing is wrong with me, I do belong, and most of all, I AM ENOUGH!

      

junk drawer.

drawer
My junk drawer.

Do you have a junk drawer?  A designated space for things that maybe don’t fit anywhere else, need some work that you aren’t ready to give energy to, or just don’t need very often; out of sight, out of mind.  How about a figurative junk drawer in your mind where you store emotions or events?  Those parts of your life history that don’t quite fit into your narrative, that require hard work to process; out of sight, out of mind.  At a very young age I taught myself how to use my mental junk drawer, what I call the art of emotional compartmentalization.  I’m not sure if this is an actual term in the mental health field, but for me personally it is how I avoid processing complicated emotions or trauma.  I learned that if I suppress uncomfortable or hurtful emotions, storing them somewhere deep inside my mind to deal with later, I could put on my happy face in the present.  No one would know that I was hurting, and life would continue on as if nothing ever happened.

My earliest memory of this behavior is at about five years old.  Without the skills needed to adequately voice my concerns, I would crawl under the dining room table and bite the face of my Mickey Mouse watch until I heard it crack.  There was something about the act of damaging the watch that gave me the instant release I needed.  I  secluded myself, transferring those uncomfortable emotions to an inanimate object, then emerged from underneath the table ready to return to regularly-schedule programming.  If I hid what I truly felt, I would be viewed as a happy, well-adjusted kid.  Fast-forward two decades.  The Mickey watch had been replaced by my emotional junk drawer, the reward being the same: I hid what I truly felt to be viewed as the happy, well-adjusted man.

It was a summer day in 2006, and I had finally made it to the exit ramp.  Eyeing the interstate, I slammed my foot on the accelerator.  I could feel my eye balls pulsate with every intense beat of my heart.  Tears began streaming down my face as I screamed as loud and long as I could.  I was now going over 100 mph, barely breathing from the smothering anxiety, desperately gripping the steering wheel.  I reached over to the stereo knob, finding it hard to grasp it from the violent shaking.  I managed to turn the volume up as far as it would go, unbuckle my seat belt and scream again.  I shut my eyes knowing there was a sharp turn at the bottom of the decline, a spot I had scoped out for weeks.  Beyond the arch in the road were several large trees.  This was to be the chosen location of my death .  I had already arranged the scene in my mind of a lonely wooden cross driven into the ground to memorialize the tragic accident that took my life.

And, just like I had done many times before, I opened my eyes, let off the pedal, and lost at my own game of chicken.  By the time I would arrive at work my face would be dry, blood pressure stabilized, smile attached, and my sadness shoved back into the drawer.  Maybe one day I’ll have the balls to go through with it.

Arriving at work, I noticed an email from the HR Department: the company I worked for collaborated with a local counseling agency to provide one free therapy assessment for all employees.  I immediately picked up the phone.  At 29, I was married with two small children, recently attained a professional position and was serving in various roles in the church.  From the outside looking in, my life was a picture of the American Dream, but inside I lived a daily wretched nightmare of an existence.  Living with depression and masking it to the world is nothing short of a living hell.  This hollow emptiness and hopelessness began in the pit of my stomach and slowly spread throughout my body like a smothering black cancer. As the days grew closer to my 30th birthday, I was consumed with suicidal ideations.   My daily life felt like I was standing on the edge of a steep cliff, looking over into the vast emptiness trying to gather up enough nerve to jump; do I want to live another day? 

How do you fit thirty years of repressed hurt and shame into a one-hour session?  As soon I sat down in front of the therapist, I ripped open that junk drawer that by now was so packed it was ready to explode.  By the end of the hour, the therapist had made a call to a local mental health facility and I checked myself in that evening.  The therapist called my wife at the time to tell her what was happening.  She didn’t even know I was going to the counseling center, much less that I was depressed or dealing with hurt, shame, anger and pain of that magnitude.  I managed to compartmentalize so well that no one in the world had the slightest clue that I wanted to end my life for the betterment of my family and friends.

After two days of staying in the facility, I refused to talk to anyone or participate in group sessions.  One cannot learn how to unpack that much junk overnight.  On the third morning, I was wrapped up in my blanket when the nurse came to my room.  I will never forget this lady.  A tall, large African American woman with the sweetest and softest of voices, she took her hand on my shoulder and forced me to turn toward her.  Baby, they never gonna let you out of here if you don’t get up out of this bed and try to get better.  You’re a grown man, now act grown.  Needless to say, I rose out of bed and took the first step in a long journey toward learning how to unpack my junk drawer in a healthy way.

I am writing this today for anyone who relates to suffering in silence.  You have reached the point where your emotional junk drawer won’t even budge.  There is no where else to store trauma and you feel the gripping anxiety that stems from the fear of exploding.  You don’t have to live this way; there is freedom and a higher version of yourself waiting to be found.  I often still feel the urge to compartmentalize, but I remind myself that the life I live now having gained a sense of true identity and personal awareness pales in comparison to the living hell that almost took my life.

 

the witching hour.

File_001Recently I have found myself wide-awake at 4:00 a.m.  Many mornings I will enjoy the solitude by sitting on the couch and staring out into the dark stillness of the night.  While looking at the shadows cascading into the living room from the street light, I noticed how they danced from the headlights of a slowly passing car.  I was reminded of my life as an active Meth addict.  This is the time of the night we used to call the “Witching Hour” as all the tweakers would be at their climax of deviancy. 

One particular witching hour came to mind, a time when I had been awake for four consecutive days, and the first time I can recall feeling out of control while actively using.  Turning off my bedroom lights, I got into bed and moving figures on my walls and ceiling immediately caught my attention.  Of course, being a part of the Meth social circles, I had heard all about the “Shadow People” from other addicts which were movements and figures that one would think they saw but were the result of sleep deprivation.  I had previously experienced swift movements caught in my peripheral or what looked like small animals diving into the street while I drove at night.  These were no big deal to me and I typically laughed at myself.

This time it was different.

These shadows took on three-dimensional shapes; an elephant, oddly shaped men, a large bird, and a gigantic flower.  I was frozen on my back, sinking into my mattress as I witnessed the animation before me.  I remember wiping my eyes and closing them tightly as I attempted to make what I knew to be illusions disappear. Eventually, I succumbed to the entertainment.  I was giggling like a child as the flower bent over and touched my nose, I was talking out loud to the elephant who had sat down beside one of the human figures.  I’m not sure how long this went on; Meth can cause a minute to feel like hours. 

When I try to reflect on the rest of the night, it comes to me in pieces and not necessarily chronologically.  I recall hearing loud rustling and voices outside in the back yard, and the night took a dark turn.  As if a villain had entered the scene in a child’s movie, the friendly shadows ran in fear after hearing the sounds outside.  Suddenly they were gone, replaced by the long stoic obscurities cast from my windows.  I sat up in bed, heart racing, and stricken by fear I had never felt and have never felt since.  The sounds were coming from a group of policemen who were positioned outside my bedroom (or so I believed).

My bedroom had sliding-glass doors that led onto the patio and back yard of my condo.  Beyond the curtains over the doors, I could see the stealthy movements of men flipping, running, sneaking…they were planning an assault on me.  I was frozen except for the erratic darting of my face toward every tiny sound outside, each time gasping.  And then, I could hear them in the house.  I began to sob.  I was so overcome with fear that I was having difficulty breathing and shaking so violently I couldn’t even grip my phone.  I inched my way to the very top center of my bed and curled into a fetal position.  I cried profusely and remember screaming out each time I would hear a twig break under the pressure of their boots or the crackle of their radio or their faint conniving whispers. 

Hopeless.  Fragile. Confused.  And completely out of control.      

The grip of fright felt as if I was being slowly smothered by a python.  I lay curled up, tensed, crying uncontrollably, with my face buried between my legs hoping I could drown out the noises.  There were several instances during the night when I desperately tried to seek help.  For some reason, maybe exhaustion or dehydration, when I was finally able to control the convulsions enough to hold my phone, I couldn’t remember how to make calls or send texts. Out of sheer habit from being high and scrolling apps on my phone, I managed to log into a dating app and sought out help from other people.  But who was going to rescue someone who was currently surrounded by the police?  At some point, I recorded a message using the “Voice Memos” function on my phone.  It was a plea for help referring to how the police were connected to my friends and family, I had been followed for days, and other irrational paranoia.  In my mind, I had sent that memo out like a S.O.S. to the Universe, but in reality it went nowhere.  Some time after day break, my body finally gave in to the pull of rest my body needed and I passed out.  I frantically woke up later that day, my muscles sore to the touch from the intensity of the night.  It took my sober mind several hours to piece it all together.  I had lost my shit.    

Up until this point of my drug use, I prided myself in being one of the few users who had control over their mind.  I wasn’t like most others: face-picking, schizophrenic, or violently paranoid.  I saw myself as an educated, level-headed man who understood reality versus drug-induced mind tricks.  What I have come to understand now is that Meth has a clever way of manipulating emotionally mature people like me into the false notion that they are making the decisions.  With those who aren’t as mentally advanced, it is easy to make them hear voices, see bugs crawling on their body, or think that the neighbor is recording their every move for the FBI.  The real challenge for Meth is to intricately deceive someone like me by utilizing their confidence, will, and intelligence against themselves.

Please understand that this drug is highly clever in the way it slithers into the synapses of the brain and quickly learns where and how to attack.  This strategy is individualized for each person as it studies patterns and writes new ones.  And, now that I am reflecting on my life history, I understand that my first addiction was to control.  Control is the high that enables me to feel good, safe, and powerful. This is why Meth and I had such a natural connection. It allowed me to feel as if I had complete control. All the while, as if a gifted marionettist, it knew exactly which strings to pull inside my brain to make me dance.

After I completely lost control that night, I began to analyze my thoughts and behaviors from an outside perspective and sought to understand what was slowly happening.  My mind was being hijacked; I was a puppet.  With that understanding, then began the labored and deliberate work of leaning in and taking back my mind from a chemical (and I believe spiritual) perpetrator.  The healing from the profound cerebral damage Meth has caused is the battle of a lifetime.  It still tries to attack me, even sitting alone on my couch in the middle of the night.  The memories flood, good or bad, which can lead to triggering the craving, and then my brain easily gives in to those marionette strings, those drug-forged synapse patterns.  But each time I deny those cravings, I am forging my own path, cutting the puppet strings, and authoring my life.

Even during the witching hour, sobriety has given me a new kind of control, one that is positive and produces a light that rids my world of the shadows that seek to destroy me.

 

the moment.

Accompanying Video on YouTube

Balloons and confetti covered the stage as millions of people cheered.  With tears streaming down her face, Kelly Clarkson stepped forward to accept her place as the first American Idol.  Her original song summed up the scene best: “Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this!”  That one single moment, hearing her name called as the winner, has forever transformed her life.

Have you experienced those single snapshots in time that become vividly scribed into your memory?  That solitary experience that, no matter how many years pass, recalling it transports you there in an instant when time seemed to pause, sensed heightened, and the brain etching every finite detail.  How can one moment in time be so impactful that it changes the course of your life or alters your world view?

I experienced one of these moments as a child.  I was in the back of my dad’s pickup truck, wind blowing in my face as I stared into the passing pastures.  I had just learned our “father/son weekend” was now going to include his brother and several cases of beer.  He had turned to look back from the driver’s seat after unexpectedly stopping to pick up his brother and through the window shot a familiar nasty glance at me.   That was the moment I made the decision to keep my promises to my children and committed to make myself as opposite of him as possible.  That one moment altered the way I viewed the world, him, and how I chose to behave for years.

I could go on,  throughout my life’s timeline, pinpointing these epiphany moments.  I’ve learned that doing so helps me better understand the driving force behind my thought patterns and ultimately the resulting behaviors.  But the latest “moment” has been the most influential so far: when I made the decision to be sober.   `

It was an August day, the humidity was a thick, smothering blanket. The three of us, my kids and myself, were sweating as soon as we left my daughter’s car and began walking toward the greenway.  I had been released from jail earlier that day, and my daughter had been the only voice to answer my “collect call from a Mecklenburg County inmate”.  This had been the fourth time I found myself there in two years.  We were silent as we walked through the grass, I recall the distant sounds of a brook, birds singing, and children playing.

This was the first time I can remember feeling awkward around my own children; I hadn’t seen them in months after we were evicted from our home and I went out of state to “get my shit together.”  I didn’t know what to say, but I knew what I felt.  There was an overwhelming surge of emotion that I can only describe as a newfound release of the past and resolve for the future.  I clumsily stumbled over my words as I attempted to apologize and explain how I ended up in jail again. I hesitantly vowed to stay away from drugs because I had made that promise to them before and the words seemed hollow.

My daughter, not sure if it was the frustration of the heat or impatience with me, or a combination of all those things, abruptly stopped the awkward walk-and-talk.  I turned to see her standing in her best scolding stance: hands on her hips and head tilted, lips quivering.

“Dad.  It’s either Meth or us.  You decide.”

We all stood in silence.  My son’s eyes met mine with a dull sadness that I had not seen or maybe never noticed before that day.  He then looked down at the ground.  My daughter’s chest was heaving; surely it took a certain boldness for her to confront me in this way.

That’s the moment.  I let it go.

Mentally I finally made the choice, seeing the dire situation in a new way.  As my psyche experienced the epiphany, it manifested physically as I felt every muscle in my body seemed to melt.  That is the moment I take myself back to every time I have a craving or feel weak or faced with a temptation.  Imagery has played a major role in enabled me to stay sober for, as of this writing, over 160 days.

Was there a moment in time that made you decide to be sober?  If not, what are some factors that led you to break the hold of addiction?  I would really love to hear about it.