Thursday, February 6, 2014

Crying into laughter.

I must admit, when I saw the news of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death I was not overly moved. I am typically a deeply emotional ponderer that has, over time, created a protective shell that allows me to detach from situations that I don't deem worthy of my full emotional output. Remaining objective about news that doesn't directly effect me keeps me sane.

I have read several obituaries of the late actor, those just reminding me why I hadn't liked much of his work. He played many flawed and unlikable characters veraciously, so real that I couldn't really take it. More specifically, the movie "Happiness" is among the films I have seen in my life that I wish I could un-see and has tarnished my view of nearly every visage in it. Obviously this has nothing to do with the actors personally or professionally, their performances made the story so real to me that I just couldn't take it.

As you may have guessed by now I am a comedy, romance, and fantasy gal. I love entertainment that makes me feel good, though a good crier with a hopeful ending can be beneficial for my soul too. Maybe it is because I know my threshold for tragedy and drama, I get enough "real" in daily life. I can't seem to find anything helpful about watching fatally flawed characters in dire circumstances especially when there is no promise of resolution or redemption. It doesn't make me feel good to know that I'm not alone in pain, just the opposite. Please don't get me wrong. I have a pretty blessed and kick ass life, I'm just not into emotionally torturing myself as entertainment.

Confessional exposition aside, I just didn't take too much notice of the loss of this talented man until I read an article this morning that echoed one of the few thoughts that I had had about it. I inquired of my husband just yesterday, "did you know that Phillip Seymour Hoffman had 23 years (clean)? That is crazy right?" One other thing kept nagging at me, we are talking a lot about Phillip Seymour Hoffman (his life, his death, addiction, relapse) and what it means to those struggling with addiction, but I haven't read much about the impact on the children of addiction.

I have seen recovery through the eyes of a child and relapse through the eyes of an adult child. By several sober living traditions you negate all of your clean time by a relapse. 23 years? Relapse and, you are taught, that it's as if you were using the whole of that time. Back to square one, do not pass, go, you begin again…hopefully.

My dad went into treatment for a prescription pill addiction when I was in middle school. I wasn't old enough to fully understand the scope of the situation at the time, but I've muddled together my memories, conversations as an adult with my parents, information I've read on the subject, and other loved ones' related experiences to come up with my own view. While my dad was gone, we lied to everyone where he was. I was so very confused with the whole anonymity thing. I went to Al-anon meetings, Al-a-teen meetings, and one particularly exasperating Al-a-tween meeting (I was 12, the oldest in the group and already too big for my britches). I didn't know who I could tell, I had no idea if I could even acknowledge that I knew the kids from my school that were at the meetings outside of those meetings. It became a very lonely time and I still* get a similar feeling in groups of people: unsure, slightly confused, and far away. I can only imagine what in the world my mom and dad were feeling at the time.

The focus was squarely on my dad and his recovery. So much so that is was a huge relief I felt to finally have him back after what seemed like a years in my ever changing pre-teen brain. I think it was actually only a few months, but tell me that then and I would have argued you down. We could go back to normal, begin living our lives full of possibilities. What I didn't know was what a struggle it would be, at times, for all of us in our own way.

In my world, I found that I am extremely aware of consequences to my actions. Yes, this has kept me from falling into substance abuse or mistakes that may have seriously hurt me, but it also kept me from taking many normal risks that make many people who they are as adults. I have come to the point of compulsion to be perfect so as not to hurt or shame my family. I am terrified of failure that has, in the end, paralyzed me from taking action that I cannot convince myself of a positive outcome. This is my reaction to events experienced. If you ask me, a little more intense treatment of families could be a step in the right direction when treating addicts. {side note: I have a theory of why this permeates my being to the core. The age I was when I was first introduced to this world of addiction were my formative years. It just hit me this morning the weight of the word "formative," it literally means to form. Scientific study says that around the age of 11 we have twice as many brain cells as we need, by age 13 that overstock is gone leaving on the brain cells you were actively using during that time period. WHAT? That makes a lot of sense! You become the very foundation of your adult self in those years. So, even the exact set of circumstances at a different time of development would have had a different effect on me. Not to say that it wouldn't have been lasting, just different. This is a great piece about those middle years on This American Life.}

Years later my dad confided in me that not a day went by in his near 20 years of sobriety that he didn't think of using. The absolute fear he had of relapse (and the subsequent guilt and pain a relapse would cause) kept him from seeking treatment of a degenerative spinal disc condition that ultimately cost him his career, home, quality of life, and sobriety. That's right, fear of that relapse eventually caused a relapse. How cruel.

He didn't want to have a surgery to halt the progression of his condition because of the pain medication that he would no doubt have to take to manage the pain from an extremely invasive procedure. He was also afraid that medication would not overcome the tolerance he had built up in his years of addiction, he was right. After losing his business to the inability to work in pain, losing his house to a failing business, and his independence to his condition, my dad had his surgery because he was out of options. He could no longer fear a plan for some kind of help.

I had hope that maybe we could overcome this as we had his initial trip to rehab. We could rely on each other and everything would work out I told myself with the naivety of a child. I will never forget the moment in absolute detail that he told me even though the prescription pills were prescribed to him and were being carefully monitored by my grandmother, that he considered himself relapsed and a failure. My heart still breaks for him.

What none of us knew is that he was secretly supplementing his pain medication with alcohol and his heart was already irreparably broken. By the time we discovered the clinking bottles in his suitcase during a stay with our family, it was far too late. He suffered a silent heart attack during that visit, we would later learn. The doctors explained to my sister and me that it was an unfortunate combination of genetics and substance abuse that had lead to his heart failure. The emotion on Dad's face at this doctors assertion was hard to take. Two short months after his visit with us he was in congestive heart failure, another month he was on the list for a transplant, a few more months he was taken off the list for not complying with doctor's orders, and by October he was gone.

I think Dad did his best. And that is all we can ask of those we love. What we can ask of ourselves is to love them unconditionally and not be shy to tell them so. I'm not saying that we enable addicts in our lives, but rather make decisions about them based on love and not fear. I'm sure that my dad did a bit of both, because I know he loved us very very much.  Be loving, open and honest before it is so late in the game that losing them to the disease is inevitable.

During the time when we knew we had very little of it left together we had a few very frank conversations. He wasn't into talking on the phone, he preferred texting, so we were limited to our face to face interactions. He confided in me his fear, anger, regret . . . we talked about Squidbillies and Beavis & Butthead to lighten the mood at intervals. I wasn't there when he passed, but I do know he is no longer fearful where he is now. I don't have to be afraid for him either.

So yes, this extremely public death of a person who was sober for half of his life yet died during a comparatively brief relapse should mean something. It should scare us all, but we cannot let that fear dictate how we charge forward. It should get a conversation started about how we treat the illness of addiction, how we treat those that are afflicted with it and how we support their families. Shame and guilt does not work, in fact it only keeps us from seeing this inconvenient problem. I'm dubious of the anonymous system where at a certain point the members feel tapped out and opt for a life of self treatment. The anonymous system separates the addicts from their love ones who need healing too. There must be a better balance. I don't have any answers though, just that the conversation continue, never shelved, and the stigma be removed. Addiction is a disease that can be treated and managed, not cured and surely not made better by secrecy and denial. We also need to admit that this problem affects us all, not just the addict.

Balance. Knowing that life is a series of traumas and joys, we can only hope to have the happiness outweigh the pain.



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