“PTSD” – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This is when I am supposed to reference Webster’s dictionary. I can picture the bulleted item list that has been carefully compiled by doctors and psychiatrists, and craftily winnowed down by editors.

Yet words are bound to fail. PTSD creates a feeling that can not be contained by bullets or paragraphs. If forced to use words they would be: “sense of dread.”

A sense of dread accompanied by unwelcome imagery. Imagery that is not imaginary. Dread that is not unjustified.

The ring of the phone makes me ill. Physically ill.
A knock on the door? Visions of a police officer.
An envelope without a return address?  Bad news.
My daughter not texting for a few days? Relapse.
Sad song on the radio? Message of doom.
Bitter snow? Frostbitten child.
Cheap motels off the highway? Sadness, loneliness, death.

My list could be longer. But it hurts to write it. If I suffer from PTSD, how badly must my daughter suffer? I have seen the results of her use, but have not lived through the experience of it.

“Conquer your fears” is written everywhere nowadays – from business journals to self help magazines. But the kind of fear they often refer to is that of financial risk. (Or a lifestyle change: try that new vegan diet! get a new partner! make a career switch!) I am talking about a different kind of fear. A primal fear. The fear of losing your stormy green eyed child to something so unpredictable, so misunderstood, so maddeningly unacceptable. I have written my daughter’s obituary in my head. I have actually looked in my closet to see if I have an acceptable black dress. These were my attempts to conquer my fear. My attempts to claim and manage the unacceptable.

Nelson Mandela says that “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” That the “brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I am not there yet. But my daughter is. She is putting one step in front of the other…. steady and straight. Even with those swirling thoughts that must exist in her head. If I had to provide a picture of bravery for Webster’s dictionary it would be of my stubborn green eyed child making her way across a tight rope.

And I am waiting on the other side.

Comfortable with Uncertainty.

Comfortable with Uncertainty is the title of a book by the Tibetan Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron. Pema has written many books… and they all have portentous titles such as “Start Where You Are,” “The Wisdom of No Escape” and “When Things Fall Apart.”

Pema is speaking to me.
But a Buddhist would say that there is no me; we are all one.

“It’s not all about you.”
I have heard this before. My daughter would holler this when I would try to get her to conform, behave, listen, follow.
(She said a lot of things… this being one of the milder retorts!)

But she was right.
It’s not all about me.

A yoga teacher once told me that it is the ego at work when we think we can control the outcome of any event. Even if that outcome has no selfish impetus. Even if that outcome is to solely benefit another – like recovery.

She questioned me: “If you didn’t take credit when your eldest aced the SATs, or won the lead in the play, why would you own your other child’s difficulties?” She further explained; “If you believe you are responsible for another person’s failures that too is the ego at play. You are, in essence, believing you have a Godly amount of control over another individual’s actions.”

So, where does this leave me? If I am no longer an active participant do I assume the role of spectator?   Do I alternate between cheering from the sidelines or averting my ashamed gaze?

No. As Pema reminds, “just start where you are.” Starting necessitates setting off, not standing still. Basically; get yourself back into the game.

The thing is, if you keep playing, at some point you no longer keep track of the wins and the losses. It just becomes a series of parade like hills; some up, some down. Eventually you realize others are playing the game too. We are all part of this shifting, moving, undulating life force. There are no bystanders. And there are no ultimate victors.  We are all on the same team.

“A Bitter Pill.”

I hate idioms….cutesy tidbits of advice that fashion themselves as sage life lessons. You’ve heard them; “it’s a blessing in disguise,” “it takes two to tango” and the ever popular, “let sleeping dogs lie.”

You know what? It’s not always a blessing. And one person alone can perform quite a destructive tango. And let sleeping dogs lie? That’s just a lame excuse for not “getting your hands dirty.”

But I have to admit idioms have their place. There was a time when I relied upon them for their simplicity. Caring for an addict can turn the highest functioning brain into unstable mush. Rational thought processes become clouded by lies, self deception, and blind worry. So you adapt. Part of your mind shuts down and does not allow the conscious brain to record one more crippling incident. Another part goes into hyperdrive and busies itself with layers of extraneous nonsense; so much so that sleep can become a luxury. And then there is the imaginary brain. In order to spare whatever functioning grey matter you may have left you simply believe the lies you tell yourself. And the lies being told to you.

Of course none of these behaviors are symptomatic of good mental health. But what else can you do? Try to make sense of your daughter face down in watery ditch in a blue shiny party dress? Try to accept the presence of a hypodermic needle in the side pocket of your new black leather handbag? Believe in the sincerity of the two men who arrive in the middle of the night and roll your bloodied incoherent child onto the soft colored pea stone that comprises your driveway?

This is what you do. You chant an idiom. It becomes a very effective mantra.  Something like:

Tomorrow is a new day.
One step at a time.
Relapse is part of recovery.

Another that has helped is “detach with love.” I have to admit it is hard to detach without feeling anger or pity. Detaching with love is difficult. It feels like not caring. But if you recite it with added inflection on the word “love” – then it almost works.

My all time favorite idiom is “don’t get sucked in by the tornado.” It is very hard to not be reactive. You want to fix the issue, defend yourself, or argue a point. But you can’t win with someone who is actively using. While the world around you is starting to blow hard you calmly recite “don’t get sucked in by the tornado.” Over and over and over again. It’s a form of detaching with self love.

Pretty Rat Cage.

There is a popular TED talk by Johann Hari that has received nearly five million views. In it he reports that after three years of extensive research he is convinced that we are incorrectly addressing addiction treatment. Instead of using punishment as a deterrent we should be saying “I love you.”

I wish I could have said I laughed. Instead my breath died in my throat. Of course I take this particular TED talk a little more personally than most. The premise that a lack of love had somehow been the missing ingredient… well, let’s just say I took umbrage.

Hari bases his conclusion partly on research done in the 1970s by Professor Alexander of Vancouver. Alexander recreated an experiment done earlier in the century that showed caged rats consistently chose heroin laced water over fresh water. In Alexander’s experiment the rat cage was outfitted like a rat “park.” They had room to exercise, ate good food, and had females to fraternize with. The result? The rats hardly ever touched the heroin water. The conclusion? Addiction is about your “cage.” (If only we had prettier more loving cages….)

I venture to say that such a conclusion is over simplified. If this were true the poor would be more likely to suffer from addiction than the rich. (This, by the way, is categorically untrue.) And, from personal experience, if loving an addict cured addiction – well then my daughter would be well. There are thousands of us who love our sick children – love them unconditionally! – and they remain addicted.

However, I do believe that self love is lacking. Parents of addicts report a higher number of children that suffer from low self esteem, personality disorder, social anxiety or depression. I have also heard parents say that these children were uncharacteristically giving…almost to a fault. And that they naturally gravitated to connecting with the “underdog.” Addicts themselves nearly unanimously acknowledge feeling uncomfortable in their “own skin.” They report feeling “different,” “misunderstood,” or “alone.” Hari cites this as failure of social engagement – a result of our bigger homes and social media interactions. But here again I beg to differ. We have always had addicts, even when we had closer knit social circles. The social disengagement is more likely an internal process, not an external one.

I have three children, only one of whom suffers from addiction. I told each one of them that they were important, beautiful, and loved by me. My middle child did not believe me. I could see it in her eyes. When she slept at night I would sneak into her room and whisper these things again into her ear. I was hoping that somehow, just somehow, my words would imprint themselves on her unconscious brain. I was singing her love songs.

Observing the Pattern.

“I woke up twice last night. And not to go to the bathroom. My body was sweating, heart racing, my eyes impossibly open. Normal nightmare body response. Except this was not a typical nightmare. I wasn’t falling, or being chased, or recycling scary bits from a ridiculous movie. This was real. I saw Sarah running up to my car window proclaiming that she had been discharged from the hospital, and asking me to buy her some cigarettes, that “she’ll owe me one.” I was so happy to see her. And then it dawned on me that she had run. That she wasn’t going to accept any help. And I was filled with anger, and fear, and sadness and anger and fear and sadness – I was spinning, and sweating, and desperate. And she was tying a long pink lace on a fancy hightop sneaker.”

Just another dream. But it is uncanny how the subconscious pinpoints the most fearsome fact of substance abuse: that the addict appears ignorant to the danger they are courting. The family, however, sees the train wreck approaching. It’s a well worn cyclical pattern. First you note the restlessness, the mounting body tension and the explosive language. Then comes the quiet storm of evasiveness brought on by late nights, sickness and lies.

This is the worst part of living with an addict. Seeing all the signs that they apparently miss. I have heard it said that the addict is a “selfish person.” A “liar.” And “hopeless.”

Addicts definitely lie to cover their tracks for as long as possible. And they are selfish – to a degree. But it is hard to think of someone who is self destructive as truly “selfish.” Hopeless? – yes, it often does seem hopeless.

Putting all labels aside; how in God’s name can you help someone who does not think they are in trouble? Who will sweetly tie a pink shoelace while contemplating where to score their next hit?

I am convinced that the addict has to slow down long enough to recognize the internal rhythms of their own bodies and minds.  Not an easy process considering man’s natural tendency is to tread the well worn path – thoughtlessly.

Unfortunately the addicts behavior is so extreme. And the consequences of their behavior that much more obvious. What they really need is the space and time to redefine their relationship with their own patterned responses.

Insurance companies, in our experience, have offered ten days within which to make this lifestyle change.   Ten days!

There is Sadness.

Sadness pervades my every day. I suppose it’s natural to have a dip in your “happiness meter” when your child is a heroin addict. The sadness is like a low level hum in my body. Everyday things are different now. It’s hard to listen to other parents complain about the smallest of things; like disappointment in falling grades. It’s hard to enjoy a glass of wine when you know your child should not. Even previous hobbies, in my case art, become “diversions” (whereas before they set me free). It is hard sometimes to even smile.

It is better than what came before though – which was anxiety. Anxiety based on the false belief that it was up to me to solve my daughter’s problems. Or, at the very least, to put the magic elixir in her hands. Various attempts over the years include enrolling in four different schools within four years, aptitude testing, educational consultants and weekly guidance check-ins. Then came play therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, medication, psychological testing, behavior modification charts, hospitalizations, and family contracts. Then Department of Children and Family intervention, AA meetings, police arrests, court room visits, drug testing, probation, detoxes, rehabs, transitional service facilities, residential homes and sober homes.

I would do it all again. Of course I would. But I have learned to let go of the results. I have replaced my frustration with compassion. This, however, is where the sadness has seeped in.

Sadness because there is resignation. I can not fix this.  I was told this earlier at Al Anon: “you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” Now I know it to be true. The sick person must ultimately heal themselves.

Resignation and compassion…..better than anxiety and frustration.

And that’s all I can say about this today.