The First Introduction As An Addict
“I’m Dan, and I’m an addict.” That was how I introduced myself during the first group session I attended after I entered a treatment facility in late 2006. This proclamation was the first time I admitted aloud to being “an addict” after using alcohol and other drugs for 35 years (75% of my life). I had used one or more substances virtually every day for almost 30 years. It was an admission I had steadfastly avoided, but it was simultaneously terrifying and liberating. I recall being able to breathe more deeply than I had in some time.
Although relapse is an all-too-common reality for people challenged with addiction, it has not been part of my experience for the over 16 years I’ve been in recovery. There is no shortage of autobiographical stories that describe the horrors of addiction, many of which also depict people’s journeys into recovery, and some of these describe people who go on to become addiction counselors.
My story is a little different in that I was a behavioral health professional, initially as a therapist, before I entered recovery.
I was highly regarded as a practitioner and administrator until the devastating final 18 months of my active addiction when my life as I knew it started to unravel, a process that picked up speed like a snowball gaining momentum and size as it rolled downhill.
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How My Past Played A Role In My Addiction
I grew up in an upper-middle-class family with plenty of advantages. There was no horrific or overt abuse, but the wounds inflicted by ongoing criticism and put-downs created an accumulation of low-level or “small t” trauma. Everyone is wounded to varying degrees; those wounds may be visible on the outside, but they are often internal and hidden. And sometimes, people learn to deal with the pain of their wounds, as well as life’s other stresses, through the use of alcohol or other drugs.
My substance use may begin innocently and experimentally; however, in my case, it progressed because it fundamentally changed the way I felt—enabling me to feel “good,” “better,” or just “different”—providing temporary respite from emotional discomfort or pain. My addiction evolved as using became reinforced and habituated through repetition over months and years. When your primary tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
I started drinking alcohol in 6th grade, added Marijuana in 7th grade, pills (Barbiturates and Opioids) in 8th grade, LSD in 10th grade, Cocaine in 11th grade, and Heroin in 12th grade. Prior to graduating high school, I had used Cocaine and Heroin intravenously. All the while, I was involved in competitive sports, including varsity basketball, and graduated early, pouring the foundation of what would become a decades-long practice of effectively living a double life.
Living A Double Life
I graduated college with honors in psychology, walking the tightrope of continuing to use all of the above substances, selectively picking my spots. During my first 2 years post-college, I dove much deeper into active addiction, using Cocaine and, increasingly, Heroin intravenously nearly daily.
A drug-related arrest and conviction diverted my further descent into this abyss; however, during the 5 years I spent on probation, I completed a master’s degree in social work and commenced a career, rapidly moving up the promotional ladder.
I had stopped using so-called hard drugs yet continued to use alcohol and Marijuana daily. I did not use before or during work, but invariably after work and throughout the weekend. In retrospect, even though I took care of the responsibilities of work, home, marriage, and parenting, and it was “only” alcohol and Marijuana, I still used like an addict as there were obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and a self-centered focus on using.
All was essentially well (or at least stable) until I developed a chronic pain condition in the late 1990s—two herniated discs in my lumbar spine, for which I was prescribed Opioid pain medications that reawakened an addiction to narcotics, which had been in hibernation for over 15 years.
“Chronic pain gave me medical sanction to dive into my real dope of choice, and the serpent of my addiction began to devour me.”
Physical pain became my main river of feeling. All other emotions: sadness, fear, anxiety, hurt, guilt, frustration, anger, sadness, depression, etc., were tributaries that ran into it, fed it, and increased its flow and power. These uncomfortable emotions became harder to distinguish from one another, and my inability to tolerate them created a truckload of internal stress that only made my pain worse, demanding the use of more and more Opioids.
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The Journey To Recovery
The disease of addiction is known for being “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” It is also exquisitely patient, treacherous, and seductive in how it attempts to convince those suffering from it that they don’t have it. Ironically, as long as my addiction was active, my education and professional experience obstructed my ability to see it for what it was, to admit to it, and seek help despite mounting personal and professional consequences.
Usually, it’s when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the fear of change that people make significant changes. Ultimately, the damage to my marriage and career “gifted” me with enough desperation to accept that I needed inpatient treatment. There I was introduced to a holistic multi-dimensional approach to living with chronic pain and 12-step recovery, which I have since actively practiced.
In my second 12-step meeting, someone with nearly 30 years clean stated, “Recovery won’t open the gates of heaven so you can get in, but it will open the gates of hell so you can get out.” And that has been my experience.
I have a 12-step homegroup. I have a sponsor who has over 35 years clean. I sponsor others. I’m connected with people in recovery across the US and around the world. I’ve been able to rebuild my life, re-creating my career, remarrying happily, and restoring my relationship with my now adult children.
Recovery Is An Ongoing Process
Once I entered recovery, my professional knowledge and experience enriched my understanding and awareness that recovery is an ongoing process of learning, growth, and healing. Staying clean one day at a time through the full spectrum of life’s vicissitudes necessitates no small amount of mental, emotional, and spiritual renovation. This is a Herculean task, and there is no adventure more worthwhile.
Life takes its toll on all of us, and everyone—whether or not they struggle with addiction, chronic pain, or any other serious condition—sustains degrees of damage along the way. The rooms of recovery are full of damaged people, some of whom have been abused and traumatized in horrific ways. Recovery provides a pathway to heal from that damage and become stronger, just as broken bones can become stronger after they heal than before the injury. It is a warrior’s path that requires strength and courage to traverse, and every step along the way is a step toward grace.
Dan Mager, MSW
Dan Mager is a Licensed Masters Social Worker in Nevada. He received his MSW from the Hunter College of the City University of New York, School of Social Work.
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