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[ Personal Narratives ]

I Wanted to Save A Life, So I Started With My Own

I know a woman, who has so much potential and so much talent, but struggles with addiction in a way most people in society will never understand. When she is healthy, she is beautiful and charming and so incredibly intelligent. When she is in the grip of her illness, she is a thief, a manipulator and one of the most dishonest and devious women I have ever come in contact with. Most people would walk away from someone like her, but not me…not yet.

When I look into her eyes, I see sadness, pain and fear. When I look into her eyes, I see me…

We met in treatment, and while I was able to find a recovery program that worked for me, a program that has worked for years now, she wasn’t quite ready yet. 

I’ve gone through all of the various phases with her. I have been her nurturer, cheerleader, disciplinarian, codependent. I’ve been understanding, empathetic, and assertive. I have even gone to her house, at her request, and removed any and all substances she could possibly use, only to have her turn around and use again within hours of my departure.

I have been listed as an emergency contact for her and have been called to the local crisis center to speak with her, only to have her tell me that she hates me and wants me to fuck off!  

I’ve been asked how I can stay so calm in situations like that? I tell the truth, “Because I have been her before. I am her. That is not my friend talking to me like that. THAT is the addict.” 

At times I have fought harder for her recovery than she has, and it would take another recovering addict to remind me that this is not healthy behavior for either of us. I would look at them, with tears in my eyes, and say, “But she is going to die! She doesn’t know what she is doing. She is sick! No one deserves to die this way. What about her children?!?”

Those poor children…and suddenly I am angry again.

I’ve cried for her and defended her, until one day I realized it was time for me to stop. I was tired, and I had reached my limit. I told her that I loved her and that I wanted nothing more than for her to conquer her demons, but I would no longer take a front seat and watch her self-destruct. I was exhausted, and I couldn’t do it any longer. I assured her that when the time came where she chose to seek help, I would be there waiting for her with open arms. 

I let her go. I didn’t give up on her, I simply let the woman in active addiction go. I stopped trying to convince her to stop using. I stopped trying to convince her that a better life was available to her. She knew that already. I gave myself permission to let go of all of the worry, stress and feelings of helplessness.

I knew I could not save her. It was time to let her save herself…

What I learned through my relationship with her, and many others, is that I cannot save an addict. I cannot make anyone stop using drugs or alcohol, no matter how much it breaks my heart to see them suffer. As I’ve stayed clean, and my life has continued to be transformed, I recognize more and more that I have absolutely NO SAY, whatsoever, in any matter concerning another persons drug use and/or recovery. 

I have no control over any persons choices or behaviors. What I can control, is my own attitude and my own actions. I can choose to be proactive, instead of reactive. And sometimes, I’ve had to learn to say goodbye to a still suffering addict, and there are few things I find more painful in life than that. 

I’ve learned to detach with love when it is necessary. Not because I don’t care about them or because I even want to, but because I care about myself and my recovery more. 

That may sound selfish, I thought so too. Let me explain… 

Imagine you are on an airplane and you are seated next to your child. Suddenly, there is an emergency and the oxygen compartments have opened; the masks are now dangling in front of your face. Your initial instinct is to put the oxygen mask on your child first, because you love them and you know they are frightened. You may even feel like you would be a terrible parent if you put your mask on first, but remember what the flight attendant told you right before take off. She instructed you to put your mask on first. You do this because if you do not, and you suddenly fall unconscious, you will not be able to take care of your child at all.

How can I even begin to help another addict, if I haven’t learned to help myself first?

My recovery has to come first, before anything else, because without it, I lose everything. I need to protect it as if it is my baby; protect myself from any person, place or situation that may threaten to tear it apart.

When I finally chose to stay in recovery, I dove right in. I was so excited and enthusiastic, I honestly thought I was going to change the world and bring every suffering addict along with me.

I was still in the mindset that I was the center of the universe and that my life actually mattered that much in the grand scheme of things. It took me a long time to realize that I am not that important. I am simply one person, among billions. 

I am, however, that important to my family and friends, to my community even, and that means that I can still make a difference in the lives of others. 

Just because I have found long term recovery, does not mean I am in the business of saving lives. I wish I had that power. The only life I have the ability to save is my own. That starts by reminding myself every morning, before my feet even hit the ground,  to choose recovery, to make healthy choices and to let go when necessary.  

I’ve had friends come and go throughout my journey, just as I imagine any person walking this earth has. The difference, it seems, is that when people disappear from my life I am often left to wonder if they are using again, if they are safe, homeless, in jail or worse, dead? Often times, I am relieved to find that a missing addict is in jail or treatment. It means they still have a chance. I hope they can find it within themselves to recognize just how lucky they truly are.

So why do I continue to share my story if there is no guarantee that I am helping anyone? Because, it keeps me honest, humble and healthy

I just want to touch one life…that’s all, and in the end if the only life I touch is my own, I will be ok with that. 

It reminds of a story I read once, called The Starfish Story by Loren Eiseley. The story takes place on a beautiful beach right before sunrise and there are thousands of starfish that have washed up on shore. There are miles and miles of starfish, as far as the eye can see. A young man is taking a walk along the water and sees an older gentleman throwing starfish back into the ocean; one by one. The young man asks him why he is doing this? He tells the gentleman there are far too many starfish, and the sun is coming up soon. He tells him he is wasting his time, that there is no way he can possibly make a difference. The older man bends down to pick up a starfish, throws it back into the ocean, looks at the young man and says, “It made a difference to that one…”

I choose to recover out loud because I firmly believe that no addict should ever have to suffer in silence, that no addict should ever have to die from this disease and that there is nothing that compares to the magic that happens when one addict helps another addict find a new way of life.

Today, I understand that I can ONLY carry the message, NOT the addict. I can only hope that this message will help the addict to carry themselves into a better future before it is too late.

I spent a lot of time in early recovery afraid. I was afraid of living my life. I was afraid of relapse. I was afraid to leave my house, because I couldn’t predict my next movement. Today, when I wake up, I am unafraid, I feel peace. It’s what was promised to me in the beginning; freedom from active addiction! Freedom to choose my own path; I just have to have the desire and I have to stay vigilant. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the people who showed me the way through their own actions; the people who never gave up on me. 

I was once one of those Starfish, stranded on the beach at sunrise, until someone came along, picked me up and threw me back into the ocean…

Vanessa Day

Milwaukee, WI

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