Thursday, April 24, 2014

I Choose Happiness and Joy

Life to Ethan was like grief to me. Rare bits of joy in a seemingly endless pool of uncertainty and darkness.

That thought popped into my head while walking the dogs one morning not long ago.

Even when I don't break down and grieve for what it cost me, I frequently find myself wrestling with the question of addiction. I've struggled to understand how life was so hard for him that he had to escape it with drugs.

Leaving aside the idea of addiction, I enjoy the world God created too much to want to lose myself in one created by my mind to start with, so the whole idea of getting high on a regular basis escapes me. Yes, when I was younger I overindulged on occasion and could easily do so again during times of stress or as a poorly thought out coping mechanism, but just to set out to escape I simply cannot understand.

That questioning means there are songs, including one we frequently do our Zumba cooldown to (Beauty in the World), that make me want to cry. They are songs that celebrate life and the joy to be found in the world around us and within ourselves and I find myself wondering why Ethan could not have felt that way. I wonder why when he was just a kid struggling with the things all kids struggle with to one degree or another, he thought that some altered version of reality, one in which the blue of the swimming pool wasn't blue enough unless you could also feel it like jello on your skin, was better. Even knowing that he was at times unhappy with himself, or that his friends were traveling down the same path, I cannot understand why he felt that escaping life -- and ultimately losing it -- was the best choice he could see.

He formed a few close friendships in elementary school, a balance of good kids and bad. He liked writing stories, being the smartest kid in class, ironically winning the D.A.R.E. essay contest. In middle school he scored a 1080 on the SATs in the seventh grade and was disappointed if he wasn't the number one student. He was destined for college, scholarships and achieving his dreams. But he wore braces and he was heavy, the girls didn't flock around him like they did his friends, band wasn't a cool place to hang out even after he worried me to death for a saxophone that he never brought home to practice.

Somewhere along the way he decided he wanted to be someone different. In high school, not only did he lose the braces and transform his weight to height, but he made a choice not to be the smart kid any more. He dropped out of AP classes, just managed to pass the others, wanted to dress like a thug, and never talked about college. Perhaps escaping the reality of who he was with pills made sense within that context, but I still struggle with it.

Beyond that, I try to understand why, once he had experienced all the disaster that came along with drug use, he still couldn't admit it was a problem and get whatever help he needed to quit. I know that is where the question of addiction comes in.

I know that the first time he used dextromethorphan it took him to a place that he wanted to go again. Somehow his brain knew that this was special, something to keep a secret and protect from all of the sharing that he might do with people who wouldn't understand. He could talk about anything else -- smoking pot, getting drunk, losing his virginity -- but not this. His friends who managed to quit told me that it was incredibly hard to quit, partially because it made them feel smarter and like they knew so much that they forgot when they were straight. It was like the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the Devil whispered it would make him more than he was, but it actually delivered death.

A former cocaine addict told me when he was using all he thought about was the drug, when he could get it, what he had to do to get it. It didn't matter what he lost or who he hurt to get there. He was always searching for some way to get back to that high he remembered, even if it meant more drugs each time, even if his memory wasn't necessarily accurate and perhaps the high had never been as great as he thought to begin with.

I've read writings by a former addict who went on to study the brain that said the drug of choice, the one that triggers the chemistry for an addiction, takes over the brain's pleasure centers. Nothing that we think of as bringing pleasure, love, companionship, a good movie or video game, a delicious meal -- nothing brings them the pleasure that the drug brings them.

That brought me to the point of realizing how life for Ethan in his addiction must have been so much like it has been for me in my grief.

For months I've often gone through the motions, eating, smiling, laughing when it was expected, but the joy that was supposed to come from those moments, the pleasure my brain was supposed to be recognizing, wasn't really there. I imagined Ethan living for years that way, knowing that the pleasure he craved was just a few pills away. Seriously, there have been times that if I could have somehow brought the pleasure back to my life, I might well have been like the characters in "Pet Sematary" and risked the bad just for a chance to have what I missed so much. When I look at it that way, I almost understand that no matter how good it seemed his life was going, he may have been faking it as well. I almost understand how after months of being straight, working and rebuilding his health, he would convince himself that it would be safe to get high, just once, and begin the slide into wrecking his life all over again. Almost.

I know that because I cannot hug and talk to him, because I can't get that pleasure again, my "addiction" is fading over time just as my grief eases. I don't have to wake up to Dec. 16 again with a chunk of my life missing and beginning all over again, perhaps feeling to a degree like he did when he tried to be straight after indulging, knowing that something was missing that brought him pleasure and joy. I don't have to keep starting my journey back to "normal" again as he did every time he gave in and took the pills.

I don't have to choose between what I've lost and what I have now. He had to choose every day.

So my journey through grief has been a struggle much like his journey through addiction. Sometimes, there has been real joy and pleasure that pushed everything else aside for a while. I have been consciously taking the time to recognize it (thanks once again Annah Elizabeth, you've been an inspiration) and I think that doing so has helped me heal. I think realizing that there was real joy, whether it was from someone else's smile or managing a tough PiYo pose, has helped the joy to spread. I wish Ethan could have undertaken the same exercise because then, perhaps, he might have found life wasn't so bad after all.

Looking at my journey over the last four months, I think that was a turning point. I think for anyone coping with loss, addiction, grief, or even some depression, looking for the happy, the joy, the delight in each day can help make life seem more worth living, the things we've lost or given up more bearable to live without.

I've decided to live, seek out the happy moments, to hold on to the joy even when it seems the sadness will surely drown me.

I wish Ethan could have done the same.

1 comment:

  1. I wish Ethan could have done the same, too, Angela... We never really know what is going on inside another person's brain and with her emotions... I wonder if the drug intoxication is so euprhoic that everything else pales in comparison? We know that the high is nothing but an illusion, but how to convince the person who believes he has found nirvona? I was recently speaking to someone whose son commited suicide after an extended battle with depression and mental illness. She blames herself and carries a heavy burden. But I think our society failed him as much as anything. We have come so far in the past 30 years when it comes to talking about mental illness (and good mental health!) and bringing the resources to the people who need it, but we are backsliding...the precious few resources dwindling and our mental health professionals struggling to keep their proverbial heads above water.

    We need more people on the frontlines, more stories, more outreach, more people sharing their tales of triumph and recovery... And I honestly believe that we need some sort of roadmap to help people recover, which is why I've created The Five Facets Philosophy model...not to replace grief, but to pick up where it leaves off...

    I know it won't bring Ethan back and it can't help him now, but possibly someone else who is searching might find a thread to hold on to, something to keep him going and moving forward, as you have... I am glad to be a little ray of light on this tough journey, Angela... And, might I add, the first step in healing is to choose, when you do feel the stabbing pains, please remember that they are okay, too, that there is no shame in your sadness, no timeline to its termination, and that the dance between your sorrow and your happy is one that will blend itself into the ultimate healing of conflict resolution... All my very, very best, Angela...

    Hugs and love, Journeyer...