This is What It’s Like to Survive Overdose

It’s International Overdose Awareness Day.

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I woke up this morning alive. I finished the book my sister gave me last week, Mastering the Addicted Brain. And I wrote an emotional treatise about the three overdoses – the ones I remember. One, in the dorms, at age 17. I had taken a bunch of various forms of speed and was slurring my words. I thought I was having a heart attack. Maybe I was just really high.

The second landed me in the hospital. I showed up to a party at a friend’s house drunk and high, and proceeded to get more drunk and dangerously high on any number of substances, but mostly cocaine. Those were the days I kept my stash in hollowed out Burt’s Bees lip gloss pallets, or replaced loose eye shadow with it so I could have it in my purse inconspicuously. It’s not lost on me that it was childhood church friends that dragged me to a car and to the hospital. It’s not lost on me that Nita, my mom’s best friend who came immediately to my side, didn’t live long enough to see her daughter get married – and yet, here I am. (Not two days later, I got a ride to my grandparents’ farm to convalesce and be with my mom, who was caring for ailing relatives. I did more cocaine – literally off the front of a Bible – in the car on the way.)

The third overdose was in Brooklyn, a few weeks before I entered long-term recovery. I’d been tripping for days at that point, and mixing hero’s doses of psilocybin with cannabis and cocaine. I had a seizure, and lost control of my legs. I slammed around in the elevator on the way to my apartment. I simply told my flatmate that I’d fainted, and asked for some bread, a cold wash cloth, and water.

It occurs to me again that it’s International Overdose Awareness Day, and somehow I woke up alive. The war stories just don’t matter today.

Some will wear silver to commemorate. Others will visit the grave of their child, brother, or lover who died this tragic, undignified death. (Undignified on face, anyway.) Some don’t know Overdose Awareness Day even exists; they don’t know there’s a worldwide campaign to #EndOverdose. Someone will overdose today and live. Someone will overdose today and die.

All too often, I’m reminded there are those who visit these graves daily, through the unhealed wrench in the heart, or the persistent pit in a stomach. There are parents, children, and siblings that walk the earth as zombies, numbed and hollow from the overdose death of their own. They are living mausoleums to what might have been.

And then, there’s me. Unworthy, unwitting, and unclear on how I survived overdose, time and time again. It’s not fair.

It’s not fair.

I’m alive, and I don’t know why it’s me and not your sister, your girlfriend, or your daughter.

I don’t always feel guilty enough, or #blessed enough, or whole enough to make it fair. All I know to do is to listen to others, offer my energy to help teach people to use drugs safely, advocate for the shift to an evidence-based, harm reduction model of drug policy in the United States, and to go to the mat over and over for those who are suffering from addiction. I don’t let a day – not a minute, really – go by that I’m not grateful for being in recovery. Recovery is all I have. All I know to do is work for a better tomorrow.

This is what it’s like to survive overdose.

 

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1,591 Days

I wasn’t planning to post about this, but I was overtaken with a wave of gratefulness today, as usual, for my life lived in recovery. I had a semi-emergency surgery this week, and can’t imagine how hard this would’ve been if I wasn’t sober and focused on health of mind and body. 

The way I conduct my recovery isn’t for everyone, but I forewent opioid and narcotic pain meds after post-op, though I did have the good stuff in the hospital. There is no nobility in suffering, but I have reconceptualized my pain by stubbornly willing it into a string of silver linings. 

I was supposed to be in Texas this weekend, but my beau flew up here on a moment’s notice, instead. And I’ve been fortunate to be able to recuperate in the beautiful countryside of the Shenandoah Valley, watching fog lift over the river at dawn, and rumbling thunderclaps quiet themselves with a purple sunset. My tribe has been wonderful and abiding, of course, as they so consistently are. And I got to spend the evening with a dear friend joining us briefly in the city, who I would’ve missed seeing otherwise. 

I am reminded further of my good fortune in life’s small details: wearing my I Am Not Anonymous t-shirt, and blindly selecting the matching pen from a drawer as I read Write Who You Are — a book of poetry written by immigrants for a program I am now facilitating. To be able to serve this way without compunction is indeed a dream. Getting caught in a hailstorm and thusly listening and smelling the lingering, sweet summer rain. The conversation inherent in a meaningful silence. 

The point of it all here being: If I can do the hard thing I thought I could not do, you can do the thing you are afraid of. The thing that makes you better, that obliterates your comfort zone, that takes away things before it heaps on rewards. Recovery is this thing for me. I hope that you find yours. 

Thoughts on 4 Years

Thursday marked four continuous years of recovery from problematic substance use (drug addiction). I oscillate between thinking I’ve lived a sober lifetime, and having many, many days that feel like no time at all has passed.

I graduated high school in three years, not the customary four. I went to school at a community college after hours with the pregnant girls and the fringe element and studied until I could test out of my junior year. My sister had done it, and was out of the house and in college at the cusp of turning 17. For as long as I can remember, she has created paths where once there were none.

I’ve been sober longer than I was in high school. That feels meaningful, somehow. I’ve been sober for the length an entire presidential term. The Gregorian calendar has to adjust a full 24 hours to synchronize with the solar calendar and stabilize its equinoxes every four years (leap years). Four years is significant.

Some lessons from the past 4 years:

  • Recovery is the most important thing in my life. This will not change.

 

  • Early recovery is the hardest part. The early hours, days, weeks, months, and years are the hardest. I started my recovery journey by unintentionally going into withdrawal psychosis. I was not at all trying to stop using drugs, I simply hadn’t done any in a few dozen hours. I’d had other periods of psychosis — a term that can’t help itself but stigmatize, and resonates as might dropping a cinder block on dirty carpet. Luckily, I guess, being hijacked from whatever sliver of reality I had been casually clinging to prior, into an exorbitantly fractured mess overtaken by sinister hallucinations was foreign, but not altogether new to me. Cold turkey, all at once. The beginning was the hardest part. It took a long time to know up from down.

    In my work advocating for others, I have seen this, as well. Everyone wants their life back, immediately. No one wants to dismantle their webs and realize new coping skills, only to build back up at a sustainable pace. Humans seem to be wired for instant gratification, and many want to be healed as quickly as they get high. It doesn’t work that way. The best part about early recovery is that, if you stay in recovery, you will never have to go through that again. Most days, that’s all it takes to keep me sober.
  • Every other day is the second hardest part. I am lucky to enjoy virtually all of my life in recovery. I am also aware this is an existential choice, and I must make it on the regular. I don’t ever feel like I’m doing enough for my loved ones or the good of humanity, I do not make enough money, and I don’t often feel accomplished enough to consider myself a legitimate person. But that’s my stuff, and I choose to enjoy my life while working on it.

    Once your neurology is reliably sorted (again, I cannot stress enough that this might take several years to even begin to get right, and will look different for every person), you can begin to really create a life. Now, there are remarkably few days where I think, “I need to get high to deal with this thing,” but it’s true I always want to be high.

    The saving grace for my own journey is that I’ve never been fooled into thinking I can enjoyably have “just one” bowl, line, dose, or pill. Simply put, I have no interest in non-problematic substance use. Frankly, that sounds annoying. If I can’t be blasted all day every day, what’s the point of doing drugs at all?

     

  • People don’t get it. Every person suffering from substance use disorder (addiction) lives in their own private hell. Getting better comes at a huge — huge — cost. On every possible level. People do not understand this; it isn’t their job to understand. This does not mean they cannot help, and it does not mean they can’t relate. In listening and working with others, I hear this echoed, as well. It is quite fitting that one of the common shibboleths used in recovery is an alien. On that note… 

     

  • You will feel lonely. Very lonely. Often in conversations, or in rooms full of people. There are times when you’ll be engaged in any number of activities, and all of the sudden you’re hit with a wave of this human condition.Personally, I feel lonesome much of the time. I hail from Texas, where sprawling solitude is both laudatory and commonplace, and I am a lifelong student of philosophy. All things considered, lonely isn’t so bad.

 

  • Without great change, whatever’s broken will stay broken. This goes for oneself, tenfold. Additionally, if you’ve come to problematic substance use (addiction) to cope with the horrors of childhood or adolescent abuse, or to medicate the brokenness of a fully dysfunctional family, you are not alone — and your family does not understand you. I’ve been told by professionals that virtually all family are about five years behind the healing person. The person (or people) who break negative cycles in family units must often create space between their healing self, their traumas, and these broken systems. As the healing get healthier, the space becomes greater.

    Continue along your path. The brokenness around you will change, or it will not, and you will naturally grow away from it. Continue along your path, reserving judgement where possible, but vigilantly protecting yourself. You know what’s real and what’s not. 

 

  • Your life when you used drugs and alcohol is still your life. With most people, there seems to be a “BC/AD” (or, more accurately, “BCE/CE”) delineation in their lives: BR & AR — Before Recovery and After Recovery.To some extent, in the early years, this is necessary, and there’s nothing wrong with focusing on how forgoing substance use is helping or has helped you build, rebuild, and enhance your life. But, your entire life has meaning. Everything you do matters, even when you’re screwing over your brain chemistry and fucking up your life.

    I am guilty of enforcing this dichotomy my own self, but am getting better. Substance use saved my life, until I became completely lost in it. It allowed me to delay coping with earlier abuses until I could survive them. Heavy marijuana use and the years I spent exploring psychedelics directly inform and markedly impact my worldview and life choices. Drugs kept me alive in many ways, and I’m not afraid to say that out loud. Jails, institutions, and overdoses notwithstanding, I wouldn’t give that up for the world.

    I won’t give up sobriety for the world, but I was fully human and mattered on drugs, as I exist and matter off of them. Doing the work to integrate all aspects of my identity has given my life new meaning, and makes it easier to openly meet others where they are.

 

  • You are still part of drug culture. People don’t seem to get this. Recovery is the flip side of the coin of drug use. It’s all drug culture. For me currently, this means devoting much of my energy to advocate for safe use, sane domestic policy, an end to the horrendously failed drug war and its Draconian punishments, and helping others suffering with problematic use. Additionally… 

 

  • You do not need God or a 12-step program to “do recovery right.” Some people need these things, others do not. Some people need them for awhile, then can move on. There are as many paths to recovery as there are people in recovery.

     My advice to anyone is to do everything you possibly can for the first year or several years. If it keeps you alive and sober, do it. This can mean rehab, therapy, seeing a psychiatrist, hiring a sober companion, coach, or consultant, 12-step meetings, sponsors, church, SMART recovery, MeetUp.Com groups, Internet communities, eating a lot of ice cream, working out like a fiend — literally anything you can think of that will help keep you sober. After you have some time away from problematic substance use, then you can define your recovery for yourself. For me, this means advocacy, activism, CBT, meditation, and making healthy choices.

    If you or a loved one needs help with this or a sober companion, please feel free to contact me for a consult.

 

  • At this point, it is not weird when people drink (or, in rare instances, smoke pot) around me. It does not feel weird for me to do a drink run, or to pour/fix people’s drinks. And, yes, I will be your DD. My comfort level with this might change, and at that time I will let people know.

    Happy to discuss should you feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. If I feel uncomfortable, I will let you know, and immediately remove myself from a situation. I am used to it, and it’s not a big deal. If we are close, however, and you offer me drugs or alcohol, we will no longer be close. I can protect non-problematic use if reciprocally respected in my recovery, although I will not, under any circumstances whatsoever, allow drugs around my family or people I work with and advocate for in early recovery. Be cool. 

    And, lastly…

     

  • My work is never done. There always seems to be more to do. I can always be a better person — I constantly feel like I need to be smarter, more effective and impactful, more productive, and more strategic. And so I start year five, with sights set high and feet firmly on the ground.