I always wondered how people can fall into Addiction—the self-medicating kind. The kind that is relied upon to take the pain away. The people that I am acquainted with who suffer this kind of Addiction do not fit the picture some of us might have in mind when we think of drug addicts or drunks. There’s no cardboard boxes in back alleys or shopping carts filled with tin cans—although I think now that each of those people has a story to tell. No, the people I know are intelligent human beings, smart as whips, capable of critical reasoning and problem solving. Yet still, find themselves lost in this blurry, unremitting vortex of need, self-destruction, and mounting pain. How can it be? I never fully understood the kind of misery that can literally drive you to drink until I encountered the Monster. Now I get it.
On my husband’s 60th birthday earlier this year, I drank wine with my friends. My husband felt good that day, and there was food and laughter. It felt like the time before the Monster. And surrounded by close friends, I felt safe, and my guard came down. Later that night, I basically vomited everything I have ever eaten in my life, and then sat in my big soaker tub with no pants on, heaving over a bucket, while my friends took it in shifts to take care of me—because they are my friends, and they are my safe people. In spite of everything, amid all the vomit, and other bodily fluids, and me crying like a drunken fool, there was still a sense of being home. I know such a notion might not make sense, but despite my self-induced misery, I was in my safe place surrounded by my safe people. Later, they washed me up, put me to bed, and tucked me in with a bucket beside me. They did not judge me, and I love them for that. Laughed at me the next day—oh yes. Judged me—never! What should have made me feel deeply ashamed, came to me instead as a lesson of how sorrow can suddenly disrupt our normal, steady lives, and take us places where we need not go. I realize now that I could have imbibed a gallon less wine, and rid myself of a gallon of tears instead. Or, I could have just talked it out instead of drowning it in poison. Honestly, I had so many other options that did not have to end in the worst hangover ever.
That’s the thing with substances though. If therapies are the three star cuisine, then substances are the fast food fare, or worse, the stuff in the dumpster behind the three star cuisine restaurant. Like fast food, substances are cheap, a quick fix, an easy way out of a complex situation that has no easiness about it. Sometimes, you just can’t talk anymore. Or cry. Or scream at the sky. Sometimes it’s easier to raise a glass than your fist. And for a while, just like that cheeseburger from the drive-thru staving off the hunger, the sorrow is put at bay for a time. It is lost in the forgetfulness of the drunk or the high, because the haze and discord seems preferable to how your real life feels. The truth is, however, that we feel like we are walking normally when we are actually staggering about and bumping into things. I understand.
That said, I fully support finding your safe place, putting yourself among your safe people, and letting your hair down for an evening. Just make sure your safe people are the type who will wrestle you to the ground to get your car keys away from you, and will take that final glass of wine away from you and tell you that they are cutting you off. You see, there’s much to be said about drinking with old friends, talking and laughing about things no one else in the world will understand, then blubbering like a baby, and wiping your nose on their shoulders when they hug you. There’s much to be said about this type of fundamental, uninhibited catharsis, and if you haven’t gathered a few intimate friends together to do something like this during your battle with the Monster, I highly recommend it. Nothing soothes the soul like laughter and tears and laughter—in that order. It’s like taking an emotional bath. Wine—or something similar—can act as a lubricant for our emotions. It’s all good…infrequently…but not as a lifestyle. Remember, you can’t live on drive-thru. Eventually, it will kill you. Not the friendship part; the constant cheeseburgering part. See how I worked that metaphor in there?
As for my husband’s reaction to my little wine incident on his birthday, it was a mixture of humor-infused disapproval, complete understanding, a modicum of support, and a whole lot of worry. “Is this what you will do later?” was his question. “I don’t want you to stumble into this kind of lifestyle when I’m gone. What can I do to make sure you’re safe and healthy?” My answer to that was ‘Nothing, my darling. There is nothing you can do except not worry about me.” You see, I have given this a lot of thought. There will be nothing more he can do for me after he’s gone, and the Monster prevents him from doing anything while he is still here. For you who are battling the Monster still, do you sometimes feel aware of a widening gap between you and your loved one in terms of mutual support and help? Are you starting to feel like you are going it alone before you are yet alone? It’s such a dark place to be…a place we might not like to admit to…this place where Death has not come inside the door, but is lingering in the front yard and watching the house. It’s like a Bergman film. So yes, self-medicating is extremely easy. Perhaps it even seems natural in a terrible, awful way. Therefore, I think it’s a topic that warrants discussion in the moments when we are overcome by an enemy as vicious as the Monster.
I don’t know what the remedy for this could be other than the death of the Monster—having his toxic presence wiped from the face of the earth. However, I think something of an answer might be found somewhere within the core of the issue: sadness, grief, pain, loneliness, anxiety, stress, fear, guilt, sympathy, horror, and the agony of unavoidable and catastrophic loss. These are the things we most despair will invade our lives. The Monster encompasses all these things within the evil he inflicts upon what we love most in the world. There’s nothing we can do but watch it all happen, and then try somehow to maintain a sane existence. We clutch our fading illusion of normalcy tight against our chests while staring down the beast. Wine can make it feel easier to do this, but really, it’s just another illusion. The only thing real is the hangover in the morning.
So what to do? I think the answer might be, as astounding and impossible as this will sound, to find the escape hatch. Look, I know all about worrying and caring for a sick and dying loved one. I have done it for my father as the Monster killed him. I took care of my newly widowed, utterly bewildered mother after my father died. Now, I am taking care of my own husband as the Monster slowly devours him from the inside out. I know all about it—this terrible, slow suffering, while your world comes apart at the seams. I don’t believe anymore that any amount of literature on the topic, or self-help books, or well-meaning words from friends and family is going to change anything that is happening to you. In fact, sometimes, it just makes you more aware of the horror of the situation. I have long since put the literature down. I have left all the “advice from the experts” sitting on the shelf. All I want to do right now is think about something else. I need to clear my mind and just relax for a little while. I need some space from the Monster because the toxic stress I constantly feel is the killing kind. How can I care for my husband if I am not well enough or strong enough…or sober enough. So again, what to do?
Yes, I do have an answer…at least, I have an answer that seems to be working for me. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in Western Canada, we have Community Health Care workers. They have many outreach programs that assist people dealing with a loved one with a terminal disease, and I can’t recommend this loudly enough that if you haven’t already looked into this, and if your medical professionals have not already approached you with this, that you familiarize yourself with all applicable programs immediately. Do it today. Right now. Most of the information can be found on-line, or at your doctor’s office, and there are phone numbers to call. Call them.
In my community, there are professional care givers, whose services are covered under our provincial health care system, who will come into your home. They will stay for four hours a couple of times each week, and let you leave. I know what some of you might be thinking, and believe me, I probably thought some of the same things: I don’t like the idea of strangers in my home, I don’t like the idea of someone else caring for my husband, I don’t like the idea of someone babysitting my husband, I feel guilty for leaving, what if something happens and I am not there. Yes, I went through the entire gambit of why I should not avail myself of this free time. For those of you unfamiliar with this service, it’s called Respite and it’s a term you will need to remember if you decide to investigate it.
In the dictionary, “Respite” is defined as “a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.” I asked the Community Health Services what I’m supposed to do with four hours of respite and they said this, “Nothing. Do nothing. Or something. Or sleep. Or do some shopping. Or meet a friend for tea. The idea is that you relax and have some time away to decompress and think about something else besides worry, pain, and disease. It will help you cope and maintain your strength.” Wow. Pretty much sounds like exactly what I needed.
On my first time with a respite period, I felt weird just leaving the house. But I did eventually, after I spent a few moments hovering around my husband like a helicopter wife. Finally, I left, got in my car, and drove. I didn’t even know what to do, so I went to a coffee shop with a book. I wrote a letter to my elderly aunt. After, I went down to the beach, sat on a picnic table, breathed in and out, and stared at the water. Then, at the end of my four hours, I went home. Believe me, the Monster was still there when I got back. Nothing had changed. The world had not collapsed in on itself. But I had changed. I felt…better. I don’t know how to describe it except to say I felt better. I had been out in the world, leisurely sipped a coffee, and breathed in the fresh ocean air. Other times since, I have met friends for tea, had my hair done, browsed the local library, and gone to a movie. I did nothing important at all, except experienced the reprieve of being away and getting a bit of freedom from the Monster. I am stunned by the effect these few short hours have on me, how they reduce stress, clear my head, break up the week, and give me time to do things out of the home that I have not been free to do for a long time.
I highly recommend looking into respite care, therefore. Let yourself rest and feel a moment of freedom. Let yourself be cared for. You are not a coward. You’re not weak. You are not neglecting your loved one. Respite is a time for you to decompress, and this is not only important, it is absolutely necessary. You MUST decompress or you will become overwhelmed. A glass of wine is okay from time to time, but what you really need is a physical break from your routine of fighting the Monster. He doesn’t want you to find relief—the healthy kind, that is. He wants to enjoy your suffering. Refuse him this—he’s had his share, God knows. Instead, run past his legs, and dive out the escape hatch. Run! Run away and don’t look back, well, at least not for four hours or so. Take care of you so that you can take care of your loved one.