Emerging from the Shadows

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“There’s no story if there isn’t some conflict. The memorable things are usually not how pulled together everybody is. I think everybody feels lonely and trapped sometimes. I would think it’s more or less the norm.”  Wes Anderson

On Saturday 28 October I played my last gig with The Warning Shadows – a Halloween special at The Blue Moon in Cambridge. We were headlining and the room was full, which made me feel nostalgic, but I felt that my decision to leave the band, made weeks before, was right. I had a couple of problems with carrying on, one being the music – heavy psychedelic rock – but my fundamental rationale was to protect my recovery. Old friends of mine will certainly find it ironic, but I decided I had to leave the band because there were too many drugs.

Rock and Roll is a strange world. Drug abuse is not only condoned but expected. People like to see these musical misfits living on the edge. They make heroes of them. For many years, imbibing insane amounts of pharmaceuticals was part of my creative and performing process. It was all wrapped up together. My addict brain now tells me I am being hypocritical for using this as justification for my departure but I have travelled a long way since we formed the band nearly three years ago. When we first started playing together, I was still drinking a bottle of whisky a day.

Two of the other band members are comparatively clean-living, talented musicians, one of whom is my oldest friend who I will continue to play with in a new band; my issues centre on the third. It is sad that this man is probably the most talented musician I have ever worked with. As the front man, he is lead vocalist and also plays guitar and violin (he is also a great drummer). When he is on form, his musical brain is quite phenomenal. Unfortunately, his musical brain is severely hampered by rampant drug use, although It is impossible to say whether he is addicted to one particular substance. This wasn’t a problem for me at the beginning: as he had all the dreams for the band and a massive amount of the talent, I was fine going along with it. However, as I began my voyage of recovery and my confidence grew, I began to feel less tolerant.

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The other three of us were also beginning to suffer the consequences of his increasing drug use: the time we spent sitting in our rehearsal room waiting for him to get his shit together and embarrassing gigs when he was too out of it to play properly. At one gig in particular, with cotton wool stuffed up his nose to stop the blood leaking out (due to a three-day coke binge), he brandished a whisky bottle on stage and slurred and stumbled his way through his singing and guitar parts. My wife commented at the time, that he looked like his face was going to slide off. This was the first gig my daughter had been able to attend for some time; it turned out to be something I would rather she hadn’t seen. In retrospect though, I am glad she witnessed it; it made it obvious to me that this incongruity of lifestyles had to be addressed.

I have tried hard not to sound angry or bitter in this piece. I hold absolutely no anger or bitterness towards him and am grateful for the times when it was enjoyable. When we all played well, we sounded great. I certainly don’t wish to be judgemental – goodness knows I have behaved in similar ways in the past – but The Warning Shadows stopped being fun. He is well-aware that I am in recovery, yet at a recent gig he held a large glass of whisky under my nose saying, “Go on man, have a drink”. Later that night he pushed a wrap of coke into my hand. I had already decided to leave the band when this happened, but it left me feeling very hurt. I like to think that he was not maliciously trying to undermine my recovery; I am certain that he meant it out of generosity. He is just unable to think outside his intoxicated bubble.

I achieved all I wanted to in the music industry many years ago. The reason I left, back in 2003, was excessive drug use – mainly my own. I have no further ambitions or expectations than to carry on writing and making music, simply for the fun of it. I just can’t be around this sort of behaviour anymore on such a regular basis. It puts my recovery at risk. My only sadness is being unable to use the stunning poster that Aaron Lee Perry designed for us. I have already begun playing with another band. We play reggae, which is far more up my street, so I can still enjoy playing loud music every week, free from pressure or regret.

“I have come to believe that there are infinite passageways out of the shadows, infinite vehicles to transport us into the light.”  Martha Beck

The Warning Shadows

 

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Contentedness

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“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”  Henry David Thoreau

One of my current preoccupations is narrowing the spectrum of my possible rewards or indulgences. I have worked hard all my life, whether as a musician, at a job or both. For many years I worked all day to pay the rent and finance whatever current musical project I was working on in the evening. I believed that as I worked hard, I had earned tangible compensations for my efforts.

In 2003, I stopped using heroin and cocaine; by this time, they were no longer a reward but a necessity, so it was life-changing to be free of them. In my euphoria, I was unaware that the scope of my reward system had narrowed a notch. Clunk. I hadn’t noticed because I was reaping the rewards a clean life brings: love, friendship and self-respect. As I have related in this blog before, alcoholism crept up on me over the next few years, with the consequent loss of self-respect and that of the people I love.

The next adjustment came when I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Clunk – goodbye sugar and countless other delicious more savoury rewards. I believe my Diabetes is self-inflicted, a result of the sugar contained in the ocean of whisky I had been working my way through. It was also around this time that I had started to address my alcoholism, taking faltering steps from relapse to relapse. Chocolate I have found very hard to relinquish, especially due to the sugar cravings shared by most recovering alcoholics. The running jokes in my family began to revolve around discovered packets of M&Ms tucked away under my side of the bed, or an expensive piece of cheese hidden behind a more pedestrian item in the fridge. I went from secret alcoholic to secret food fiend.

I am still working on sugar, although my diabetes is at a more stable level now. Tobacco is the next clunk I know is approaching. I know I have to quit, there are financial reasons, let alone the health implications. Also, I no longer truly enjoy smoking, it is just the final piece of ill behaviour I allow myself. I think I am still smoking due to nostalgia. But tobacco is next, hopefully by the end of the year. Then I will be left with coffee, the obsession of most of the people in recovery I have met.

It was only when talking this through with my counsellor that I realised this narrowing of my system of rewards is mirrored by the narrowing of my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I still have dreams. As Samuel Johnson says, “We love to expect, and whether expectation is either disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting.” I want to go on writing and making music. I want to hear new ideas and read books. I want to grow old with my wife and watch my daughter grow up and become a woman. I believe what I am beginning to understand and be grateful for, is the contentedness that is a result of a simple life.

My friend Mark Goodson writes very beautifully about this in his blog, Miracle of the Mundane. I too, am learning to celebrate the mundane. The day-to-day stuff that is sometimes left unnoticed. My pleasures at the moment include feeding my family. Nothing brings me more joy than cooking a delicious meal for my loved ones. I am happy in my role of Recovery Coordinator at The Edge Café, helping to build a small community project to support addicts in recovery like me. I am content playing music in a little local band – I no longer harbour any dreams of fame or world tours. I lost the joy of making music through drug addiction, the lifestyle involved and the unnatural pressures of making a living at it. I have rediscovered the joy of making very loud music every week, just for fun.

I suppose this new-found contentedness may be the result of reaching the ripe old age of fifty-five, but I believe the reasons are far more deeply rooted in my recovery and parenthood. All my expectations are bound up in my daughter’s future; the pressure on me now is to prolong my life so I can enjoy watching it.

“He who is contented is rich.”  Lao Tzu

The Fall And Rise Of Amy Dresner

A Review of My Fair Junkie

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“As he drives me back to the sober living, I vomit relentlessly. Yet, instead of thinking, I should not have drank, I think, I should have just done coke. Welcome to the mind of an alcoholic addict.” Amy Dresner, My Fair Junkie.

The cover picture on my Facebook page, which I have also shared previously in this blog, is a quote from one of my favourite authors, Umberto Eco: “To survive we tell stories.” I started writing my blog in March 2016 and it soon became an intrinsic part of my recovery journey. I started to connect with people all over the planet, who were similarly sharing their experiences of addiction and recovery. These people became my recovery heroes and mentors. Some of the writing was expert and crafted; there were also simple messages straight from people’s souls. Both held equal significance for me.

I recently received my copy of My Fair Junkie by the incomparable Amy Dresner. I connected with Amy in my earlier days on Twitter, when I was following anybody and everybody from the world of recovery.  I soon began to weed out the organisations advertising their businesses and other less interesting pages. Amy’s tweets and posts on Facebook invariably brought a smile to my face, so when I learned that her book was being published I couldn’t wait to read it.

My Fair Junkie is a brutally honest memoir; a killer fairy tale for the 21st century. As an addict, her absolute candour and razor wit had me shuddering in empathy one minute and laughing out loud the next. I recognised many character types from both my addiction and my recovery. I shared her disappointments, her pain and her joy.

A quote for her publisher states, “Dresner had managed to dodge any real repercussions of her 20-year battle with addiction despite six rehabs, four psych wards, three suicide attempts, and twenty grand mal seizures. But on Christmas Eve of 2011, that all changed. She was high on Oxycontin, in a shitty marriage, and she pulled a knife on her husband. She was promptly arrested for felony – domestic violence with a deadly weapon.”

Amy goes on to describe her experiences of sex addiction, rehabs, halfway houses, AA, community service and the people that inhabit them. We meet the users and the used; the abusers and the abused. Unsurprisingly in this life, many people are a mix of the two. The succession of professionals is a mix of dedicated saints and the more human, less devoted experts who hold in their hands the fate of vulnerable people in recovery. These are the heroes and villains that populate all of our daily lives – recovery or not.

In my blog I have always tried to be truthful and transparent about my experience, but Amy Dresner has taught me more than one lesson about honesty. Her comedian’s humour and the casual frankness of her prose style belie the gut wrenching truth of her book. Every addict’s road to recovery is individual but the experience is universal. To survive, we must share our stories. In the cold despair and isolation of addiction, reading of other  experience of recovery can truly make a difference. Words touch people. Not only do I urge you to buy and read this book, I believe it is essential reading and should be part of the drugs education syllabus in our high schools.

13423723_10208454172545572_6896469298402465453_nAmy Dresner is a former professional stand up comic, having appeared at The Comedy Store, The Laugh Factory, and The Improv. Since 2012, she has been a contributing editor for the online addiction and recovery magazine The Fix.com. She’s also freelanced for The Good Men Project, The Frisky, Refinery 29, and has been a regular contributor to Addiction.com and PsychologyToday.com, where she has her addiction blog entitled Coming Clean.

A World of Recovery

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“The greatest and noblest pleasure which we have in this world is to discover new truths, and the next is to shake off old prejudices.” Frederick The Great

The global world of recovery is a remarkable place; a place of heroes. People who have found beauty and simplicity through sobriety and are passing on this truth, offering support, advice and a listening ear in those dark moments of the soul that all addicts endure. In my role as Recovery Coordinator at The Edge Café, I talk about recovery every day. I talk to people in recovery and their families; people in addiction searching for answers; professionals and volunteers.

What I find really interesting are the opinions of the customers of the café. Civilians, I call them. We are based on the site of a small hospital. Consequently, The Edge is patronised by professionals such as doctors, nurses and therapists including the staff of Inclusion, the Drug and Alcohol treatment centre based next door; patients and their families; builders from the nearby construction sites and people from the local community. Before we opened, we were concerned about the attitude of these people to a café run by addicts. Okay, we are in recovery but ‘addict’ is a pejorative word that conjures pictures of aggressive street drunks and junkies in alleyways

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Our fears have been proved to be unfounded. To start with, people love the café. The food and coffee are great and we are constantly complimented on the positive ambience of the place. We have a postcard (above) on every table explaining our work. This card has started many conversations with staff about addiction and recovery. People are interested and, through these conversations, knowledge is broadened and innate human compassion and empathy is activated. So much of our opinion and belief system is built on words and the pictures they bring to our minds. Through true knowledge comes understanding.

In my daily conversations about recovery, I hear heroic and inspiring tales, I see understanding grow and the joy of people discovering the safe space we have created at The Edge. I have watched their confidence grow. I also hear tragic tales of relapse and death. I listen to families in despair and without hope. I offer support through our activities but know that it is the addict who must decide to change. Their families are powerless.

The world of recovery can also be a place of villains. Some of the most judgmental things I have heard about addiction and recovery come from people who should know better. People in recovery themselves and professionals involved in their treatment. I have heard people with years of sobriety being called ‘dry drunks’. This describes a person who no longer drinks or abuses drugs, but continues to behave in dysfunctional ways. Any human claiming not to be dysfunctional in some way is deluded. I also recently heard the term ‘thirteenth steppers’. These are people with years of sobriety who prey on vulnerable people in early recovery. I was disappointed but not surprised.

We have recently founded The Edge Recovery Support Group. It is for people like me who can no longer access the Inclusion groups as their treatment has ended, and offers an alternative to more traditional support options. My hope is for it to be a conversation. So far, it has been a place of shared stories, empathy, friendship and laughter. Long may it continue in this fashion. Recovery is about people. Recovery is about connection.

Due to the all-encompassing nature of my role in the world of recovery, with all its highs and lows, The Edge Board of Directors have arranged for me to have counselling to give me support. I am very grateful for this. It is always nice to talk about yourself to someone who is paid to listen. I am half hoping for some answers though. Last year, I completed a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I had no blinding moment of self-realisation but felt it validated my views on reasons for my frequent descent into addiction. However, I am all too aware that this self-validation could merely be my addict brain continuing to choreograph my dance.

“The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.” Sarah Ban Breathnach

The A Word

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“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”  Mark Twain

Okay, I have delayed writing this one. The A word I am writing about is not alcoholic or addict, it is anger. Anger, a subject suggested by my wife, was one of the topics I noted down when I started this blog well over a year ago. I have, so far, successfully avoided the subject, doubtless a hangover from my addict’s shame.

There is nothing uglier than an angry addict. Nothing is their fault. It is everyone else, circumstances or bad luck that are to blame. I was an angry addict. This anger was born in my shame, magnifying what would otherwise be everyday annoyances. The people that bore the brunt of my behaviour were those closest to me: my wife and daughter.

Addicts who get angry alienate whoever is on the receiving end of their aggressive behaviour and those who witness it. During their addict lives most succeed in losing friends, and alienating or losing their partners and children. Families of alcoholics suffer the most from physical assaults or angry, sarcastic, irrational, verbal attacks and they have no way out until the addict truly admits to having a problem and begins to address it.

What would make me angriest was when my wife dared to suggest that I had been drinking. Full of righteous indignation I would protest: “How can you say that? You never trust me.” I would aggressively deny that I had been drinking, when the fact was obvious. Even now, it doesn’t ring true when I write that my anger was born of shame. I still believe I should have been bigger than that. It came very close to costing me my marriage and my relationship with my daughter.

My 10-year-old daughter has recently begun writing about being the child of an alcoholic. In her first post she writes:

“I heard some loud noises coming from the kitchen and I realised that, oh yes, he was drinking. I was scared. To start off, I tried to ignore it but after about 5 seconds I was panicking like hell. I ran upstairs and grabbed the landline phone and found my mum’s number and tried to call her repeatedly, but I forgot she was in a meeting. So, then I just worried and worried until I asked Dad when Mum will be home and he got upset (like crying) then he stopped and told me.”

This was not an isolated incident. I don’t know whether I will ever be free from the shame of my behaviour.

There is nothing wrong with justified anger. Any emotion can be focused positively into change. The anger of an addict however, cannot be justified. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, alcoholics struggle with recognising and understanding anger. Some alcoholics also struggle with expressing anger productively and recognising that they’re actually angry with themselves. I, however, always knew who I was furious with. For the addict in recovery, learning to process anger is an essential skill. Drugs and alcohol affect different people in different ways, but the angry alcoholic has become a stereotype for a reason. Anger and aggression are regular themes in the lives of many alcoholics, and finding ways to moderate these is central to overcoming their addiction.

In my recovery, I cannot truly say that I am totally free from anger but I try to limit it to other drivers. I now enjoy the role of grumpy curmudgeon, a family joke (I hope) I play to with relish. Working through cognitive behavioural therapy, I identified the possible roots of my anger and, apart from the greed and hypocrisy of some humans, freedom from alcoholism has meant, so far, that my family are liberated from worrying about my moods. This alone gives me the reason I need to stay sober.

“You will not be punished for you anger, you will be punished by your anger.”  Buddha

The Go-To Addict

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“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” Thomas Jefferson

My recovery has been a huge experiential journey during which I have rediscovered long-buried facets of my personality. I am certain that I am not alone in this. In recovery, things can change very quickly! I have metamorphosed from a ‘secret’ alcoholic, constantly hiding and denying my drinking, to one of my home town’s most visible addicts in recovery.

Like most addicts, in the beginning I was so deep in a hole of shame and guilt, that I still hid my situation from all but those closest to me. I had only just begun telling the truth and was starting to free myself from a world of deception and delusion. The first step, or the first truth, is always acknowledging you have a problem. The liberation from the constant anxiety that surrounds all the lies became almost intoxicating – I have written before about the simplicity of an honest life.

I then began participating in the groups at Inclusion and I started to get used to telling my story truthfully. I also shared my recovery with friends, but I could still hide what I wanted from the wider world. When I started writing this blog, I shared it on my Facebook page. I also discovered the power of stating openly that I was a recovering addict. I began to refuse drinks I was offered by saying, “No thank you. I am an alcoholic.” When you say these words, someone will invariably want to speak to you. Addiction touches so many people and most of them need to talk about it.

In February this year, I began my job as Recovery Coordinator at The Edge Café. Part of my job is promoting our work. This is not difficult as we are a very positive ‘good-news’ story. I told my story to journalists and local television reporters with the same honesty. My recovery story was now in the public domain, hidden from nobody. Teachers at my daughter’s school told her they had seen me on the television. Fellow parents told me the same, so I began to have great concerns for my daughter’s feelings. This was a huge line crossed. It was an emotional moment when she told me that she didn’t mind as she was proud of me and my recovery.

I am now contacted by the local media to comment on addiction-related news stories. My wife calls me Cambridge’s ‘go-to’ addict. I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t prefer anonymity some days, but it is vital for people like me to stand up and be counted. We are a visible demonstration that recovery is not only possible but rewarding and fun. As I have said before, you never know when your words will reach somebody who needs to talk, be they a struggling addict, or a family member or friend of an addict. It would also be false if I said there was no pressure attached to being the public face of recovery in Cambridge, but the team here at The Edge is so supportive and nurturing that this has yet to become an issue. I also have complete support at home from my family. I am happy and grateful to be Cambridge’s ‘go-to’ addict.

“Self-control, openness, the ability to engage with others, to plan and persist – these are the attributes that get people in the door and on the job, and lead to productive lives.” James Heckman

A Life In A Day

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“The long days are no happier than the short ones.” Philip James Bailey

Friday 21 April started, as most schooldays do, with getting my daughter Rubi ready, fed and delivered to school. I love starting the day this way; it is an instant reminder of my priorities. I then drove to The Edge Café for what was to be an extraordinary day.

Not long after I arrived, I had a meeting with a young woman offering to run another art workshop for us. She was bright and brimming with ideas – a positive start to the day. The café then got very busy. Eighteen builders turned up, all wanting a full breakfast. The Edge kitchen is fast and professional but numbers like that all at once put a strain on our single hob!

In the middle of my washing up and waiter duties, my 10:30 meeting arrived: Sarah from the NHS Sexual Health team, to discuss us being named a Centre for distributing free condoms to young women registered with them. I really wanted to achieve this as promoting safe sexual health fits in completely with our ethos. We discussed the rather complicated procedure for getting involved until my washing up skills were required again. More builders!

I was then informed that there was another woman wanting to talk to me. She had come to discuss holding events for an organisation she is involved with locally called Death Café –a monthly gathering where people can talk about death and grief. I am becoming less surprised when people and groups are drawn to The Edge’s magnet. As I talked about our work with people in recovery she was very moved and tearful. She felt she had found the perfect venue for the Cambridge Death Café. I had to agree.

When I finally had time to check the post, there was a letter for me. I had been waiting for a response concerning a potential donation to The Edge from someone I had met at a charity event in February. When I told him what my job was he was immediately interested and told me that there had been alcohol addiction and substance abuse in his family. He also informed me that he worked for a charitable trust and that I should email him. I did, and had sincebeen waiting for a reply. As soon as I picked up the envelope I knew what it was. I then went into a state of shock. Enclosed was a cheque for a five-figure sum made payable to The Edge Café.

I barely had time for this to sink in before I had to make my way home and then to London for an evening of ambient music with The Orb at the Royal Festival Hall. I had been looking forward to this for some time, especially as I was going with a very old friend. Also, it was some much needed downtime for me. The music was splendid, as was the company. It made me very nostalgic for my London life.

On the train back to Cambridge, just after midnight, I received a text from another very dear friend. Someone I knew from my London days was dead. He had hung himself. Absolute shock. Everything else from my eventful day left my mind. When I knew him, he was a coke dealer, or I should say wholesaler, with whom I did business. I don’t know whether he was still doing this, but my life has moved on so much in the fourteen years since I last saw him I find it difficult to imagine anyone would still be in that place. A place of substance use and addiction.

Wherever he was, he was in pain. And the pain he leaves behind is measureless. Suicide like addiction is a place of isolation and despair. Both are selfish. Both can destroy the lives of family and friends. Those left behind are haunted by unanswerable questions. My father used to volunteer for Samaritans. My respect is boundless for anyone who makes themselves available to those in crisis. It is priceless to know that someone is always there to listen. We survive by telling our stories, sharing our experiences.

After a day of such highs I was numb, then full of sadness; finally I was left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Grateful for being involved in The Edge, where we are connecting with so many people and changing lives with our positivity. Our recovery hub is building a community where our experiences and differences are understood and celebrated. I am grateful, too, that I am still free of addiction. I am blessed.

 

“I cannot make my days longer so I strive to make them better.” Paul Theroux