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[ Personal Narratives ]

Crawling Through Recovery After the Pink Cloud Bursts

[THERAPY UNSCRIPTED – A WEEKLY COLUMN]

Amanda was six months sober the first time she cried.

The tears came tumbling- as if they had been stored and sealed for years- revealing a mystifying, locked pain that I don’t think she knew was there. She broke eye contact and looked away, upset and embarrassed by her emotional expression.

She was confused. A few days ago, she had just started an amazing job. She had been reconnecting with her family and researching going back to school. On paper, she was glowing. On paper, she was the poster child of early recovery.

Six months sober. Therapeutically, she had endured six months of searching and eventually rescuing an identity lost to her and six months of learning how to do this bizarrely abstract thing called recovery.

Six months isn’t everything- not by a long shot- but she had never accumulated more than six weeks sober before. For the first time in over a decade, Amanda was choosing to participate in active and conscious living. 

She was my client. I met her at four days sober, when she was gaunt and frail with sunken eyes and ratted clothes. And, yet, she was beautiful- all of her-with an intelligence one doesn’t just get from textbooks and a gentle, old soul that was ironclad with resilience from the pain she had endured. She came with desperation and willingness to change her life. She loved therapy- she loved to explore and learn and absorb. 

Amanda knew addiction fluently. Maybe you know the type. The one who can recite how each substance impacts neurotransmitters, the one who understands how the legal system works down to the penal code numbers, the one who, for better or worse, understood the streets more than she understood herself. 

Like too many children, Amanda had been born into addiction, with parents who hustled instead of played, who bought meth instead of diapers. This translated to her dropping out of school early, raising younger siblings, and falling prey to the tantalizing drug experimentation before she really even stood a chance. 

She was an eloquent and entrancing speaker, who could describe any detail of her life without flinching- who talked about severe trauma devoid of any emotion. Essentially, she had been blunted, completely desensitized to her past. She had enough traumatic material and how-could-that-actually-happen-how-are-you-even-alive stories to write a bestselling memoir. 

Homelessness in the wintertime, gang rape, overdosing in filthy, gas station bathrooms, detoxing in jail – the emotion and anguish of just one of these events could comprise an entire book. But, for her, because there were so many incidents, they only comprised a few sentences in a chapter. They were just part of what she did, what she went through- an acceptable, bargaining chip for a short-lived high. The horrors didn’t faze her.

Still, Amanda was intelligent, and she knew this lifestyle would kill her. When the opportunity for treatment arose, she took the first plane ride she could. Sobering up was the only logical choice.

She came in full speed, ready to work and attack her addiction at all fronts. She wanted assignments and homework; she embodied the star student of early recovery. She was determined to make something of her life, to redefine her reputation from deadbeat junkie to recovery warrior. She was overwhelmed with emotions and grateful. She was humbled and excited. She was hopeful and entranced. She was, very much, living on the notorious and complicated pink cloud.

Pink cloud, defined: someone new who talks about how great life is, now that they’re sober. Usually meaning that the person is out of touch with reality.

This delusion is not intentional. Novelty does feel exciting. So do the promises and experiences of early recovery.

Amanda had been used to a blurred version of the “real world,” living in a semi-delusional haze of meth, theft, and prostitution. This life was violent and chaotic, and it took nearly everything from her. After losing so much, Amanda genuinely believed life could only move upwards. Recovery felt so enticing because it promised so many good things-physical health, closer intimate relationships, mental sanity, financial stability. It offered change and hope. After all, how much worse could it get?

People assume the horrific withdrawals and early detox stages are the hard part. And, yet, those are only the beginning. Most will acknowledge this: the physical symptoms and intense early cravings hardly compare to the long-term haul of having to actually rebuild life and move through this new daily routine.

Again, novelty wanes. All shiny things lose their luster.

When this happens, one cannot just rely on the virtues of recovery. Amanda now had to face the entire cacophony of being a functional adult- I’m talking about the dental appointments and the waiting in line at the DMV and the court paperwork and the custody arrangements and the bills that went to collections and the wondering if your sister will ever speak to you again. I’m talking about the fear of your roommate relapsing and the dealing with alcohol at restaurants and the random panic attacks and the wondering if dating is okay and experiencing guilt for the mistakes you have made and the time you have lost. I’m talking about the sideways cravings and random triggers and annoyances and a convincing bundle of skewed evidence luring you to believe you should just fuck it all and run.

Pink cloud usually ends when the real world begins.

Amanda had been blindsided by the dangerous Once-I Syndrome (once I get sober, once I get the job, once I get the apartment, once my mom forgives me). Slowly, she had accumulated all of these things- and yet, they weren’t a cure. They weren’t going to automatically keep her sober. She didn’t reach some pinnacle of fulfillment, some guaranteed insurance for her recovery. Instead, she reached a weird, anticlimactic mix of dread with boredom. Was this really what life was- outside of the miracles and the gratitude and the freedom? 

That was when she cried. Her pink cloud had burst, and this letdown was unexpected. It was cruel. She had been working so hard! She had pulled herself out of the tides of hell, and it still felt like that she was on a rickety bridge about to plunge right back down. 

What’s the point if I’m still miserable? she had asked. I’ve done everything I’ve been asked to do.

Pink cloud is threaded with intensification of feelings- it provides its own rush of endorphins and feel-good hormones, its own delusion and escape. When that bursts, when the newness became dull and the emotions became running rampant and the bills needed to be paid and the job wasn’t as glamorous as expected and the guy never called her back- that was when her recovery mattered.

A lifetime of horrific trauma hadn’t left her quite vulnerable, but navigating the real world without being utterly numb did.

I’ll leave you here.

She didn’t relapse. She wanted to. The next week felt like a losing battle and her cravings were insufferable. Although she had slowly begun to accumulate everything she dreamed for, her life felt more unmanageable than it had when she first started this journey. She had been used to the failure- this success was unnerving, and it felt more appealing to jeopardize it than to absorb it.

She rode the roller coaster instead of hurdling herself off it.  She accepted- and embraced- the difficulty and discomfort. She tolerated the difficulty and discomfort. She allowed for boredom- because life in early recovery can feel slow and stagnant and monotonous. She just started getting used to the routine of life without the euphoria from being on drugs or the continuous euphoria from being off them.

Amanda is still sober. Some days, the clouds are gray. Some days, the clouds are pink. And sometimes, the sky is so blue, there aren’t any clouds at all.

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