Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Old habits die hard

So yesterday afternoon, my brother called to inform us that my sister had missed her flight to Sacramento, where he was to pick her up and then drive up here for Christmas. My brother, understandably, was pretty angry. The rest of us were thinking, "Here we go AGAIN!"

My sister has a track record for missing flights. In fact, this is the second or third one she has missed this year alone. She has a long track record of irresponsible or flaky things she has done.

Since my sister started drinking at age 15, she never really learned to be in charge of herself, or to fix her own mistakes. Drinking and drugs halt a person's growth to maturity. Until a year ago, at age 23, she was stuck in the mind of a 15 year old. So she is now somewhere in the range of 16 or 17. Most teens aren't entirely capable of thinking everything through. But that's no secret, is it?

The reason my sister missed her flight is because she didn't take into account that she had to be at the airport 3 hours early, as opposed to 1 and a half hours early, because of the extra volume of people flying during the holidays. In a way, I guess its an honest mistake, but most 24 year olds would be able to think that far ahead. I am in no way making excuses for her missing the plane, nor am I trying to cast her into a bad light or embarrass her. I am simply trying to make a point (which is now seeming to be two-fold).

Not only is my sister locked into the mind of a 16 year old, but she is also locked into behavior patterns that 8 years of drug and alcohol abuse created. Anyone who is close to a user knows that they do wierd, irresponsible, flighty things constantly. They thrive on drama, and don't like taking responsibility for their own actions. Everything is out of their control (or so they think) and things just "keep happening" to them "at random." They live from crisis to crisis, and drama to drama. Their life becomes full of it, and it is what they live on and live for. And sometimes, I think they create it just to feel "normal." (I am using these parenthesized words quite loosely.)

At the height of her using, my family had a little saying; "The only thing you can count on, is that you can't count on her." It was 100% true, too. She would skip out on her jobs, important dates, doctor appointments... Sometimes I think she just didn't want to go, other times I think she just plum flaked. But it became a pattern, and like all patterns, it became more and more ingrained with every new day.

So now you see where I'm going with this. While she is now clean and for the most part pretty responsible now, there are still patterns that are so deeply rooted, that she still has these pretty flaky, flighty tendencies. And for us, its still pretty darn frustrating.

In her defense though, she did own up to her problem and came up with the best solution she could. She booked another flight, and paid (monetarily for the flight, and situationally with my brother's anger) for her mistake. So at least its a step in the right direction. I'm proud of her for that.

So habits can be broken, it just takes time and continual work. And that gives me hope and inspiration to work on my own bad habits. (Uh oh. Conviction.) Because if she can put her bad habits to rest, so can I.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

I was thinking today about a part of this journey I don't really care to think much about because, well, it somewhat embarrasses me. Not that it necessarily should, but it does. Which might make me a snob, but whatever. Anyway, I guess I will dive into the background, since this won't make any sense any other way. There is so much more to the story, and in time, I am sure most, if not all of, it will be revealed, but for now, you get what you get.

In July '07, my sister came up here on a visit with my parents. She was going through withdrawls and was very unpleasant (to say the least). Some events ensued, and she ended up stealing my aunt's camera to trade for drugs. I got angry at her - very angry. I yelled at her, shamed her, and told her exactly how pathetic I thought she was. (I don't regret doing so, though I do regret the presentation.)

My mom and I left her in the car while we went into a restaurant for a Miss Oregon after-party, and when we came back, she was gone. She had left on foot, and my town is small, but nevertheless, my mom and I drove around in circles for about an hour scouring the town looking for her. Around midnight, she called me to say she was safe. She said nothing else. For 2 days, we had no idea where she was. When she finally resurfaced, we found out she had been holed up at some guy's house; she said she knew him from her brief living period here before, but we later learned that was a lie.

She then began dating the guy, and decided she wanted to try and live here again and get a fresh start. (Heroin is hard to come by around here; we're a meth area.) Or so she said. I think she just didn't want to be alone and liked the attention. But who knows, and its not important anyway. Against my better judgement, I agreed to let her live with us again temporarily. Her boyfriend, overall, seemed to be a nice guy, even though they had a very drama-fueled relationship. So I ended up befriending him, since he was always around, and I wanted to try and be supportive of my sister, even if I didn't agree with most of the choices she was making, and she was walking all over me like a doormat.

2 weeks later, they were at the beach and a fist fight broke out, and her boyfriend got a free ride to jail. My sister cracked. No longer able to be with her boyfriend, no money to her name, no access to heroin, and with only 1, very physically abusive female friend (she beat her to the point of a concussion twice), she unravelled quickly. 3 weeks, and many other strange events later, she was back in rehab.

Again, against my better judgement, I decided to be middle man and stick up for the guy. Yeah, you can probably tell where this is going. It backfired big time! I spent countless hours trying to keep the guy from going completely nuts inside his jail cell. I allowed him to call me collect, to relay messages to and from my sister, and racked up phone bills like you wouldn't believe. I would defend him to friends and family, sometimes to the point of tears, when they would tell me what a lost cause he was. Even after my sister broke up with and severed ties with him, I tried to remain his friend and lifeline.

Call me an idealist, but I believe everyone has a chance to be a better person. And my goal with this guy was to try and pull the better person out of him. I encouraged and ministered to him as best I could. Some days he would seem like he was starting to get it. Other days it was like talking to a wall.

There were 2 conversations in particular though that still play over and over in my mind continuously. One makes me feel like an idiot, the other still stirs up old anger. Both involved him calling my sister every name in the book, telling me what a loser, low-life, cheating you-know-what he thought she was. The first time I calmly tried to convince him he was wrong, and to let her mistakes go. The second time, I yelled at him. Loudly. Then I hung up on him. He tried calling me back multiple times that night, then almost daily for the next month. But I had nothing left in me.

I realized at that moment, I was giving respect that I wasn't getting in return. I was offering unreciprocated friendship, and every word I was speaking was falling on deaf ears. Jeremy encouraged me many times to pick up the phone, but I just didn't know what I could say that I hadn't already said, or how I could put up with any more of his half-hearted apologies, excuses, and BS. I drafted letter after letter to him in my head, but never put any of it to paper. I could waste the mental time, but not the physical time. I still think about this man often, because I tried everything in my power to help him. But like the saying goes, you can't help those who are unwilling to help themselves.

I have learned a lot from that experience though. While I will never give up faith that there is hope for anyone and everyone out there, I have learned there is a point when you just have to let go. Some people just can't be helped because they are too busy basking in their own pride, misery, and anger. If someone isn't ready to change themself, there is absolutely nothing you can do or say to get through to them. At a certain point, you have to know when to fold, because trying to hold a drowning person's head above water gets pretty darn exhausting, and it doesn't take long before you start to go under too. I hate giving up on people, but at a certain point, the only constructive thing I could do was shut up, get out of the situation for my own sake, and continue to pray for him.

I am thankful I finally cut ties. Do I like the manner in which I did it? Not really, but it had to be done. It was sapping too much of my energy and turning me into a person I didn't like.

....But that's another story entirely.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

It will always follow

I talked to my sister briefly on the phone last night. After I hung up, I realized that probably 2/3rds of our 10 minute conversation had to do with her past as a user, her addiction, and her recovery. It made me wonder if that bothered her, because it seems like our conversations go in that direction a lot. Its not that I think I should try and skirt the issue, but does she really want it to come up in just about every 5 minute conversation? Probably not.

But then I had the realization that, even if we do try and skirt the issue, its still going to be there. For the rest of her life, she will be a recovering addict. It doesn't define her, not by any means, because she is so much more, but it will always be a defining factor. Her past will never go away - the choices she made, the hurts she caused, the people she associated with - will always be there. And while I think that realization still bothers her, I think she is beginning to accept it. And acceptance is key.

When I first found out she had the addiction and was going into rehab for the first time, I was ashamed. I felt like if people in my life knew, their view of me would change, that they would think I was a low-life because my sister was an addict. So I hid it. I didn't tell many of my closest friends, I was terrified (and that's putting it very mildly) of the possibility of Jeremy's family finding out, and I sure as heck didn't want people at our church finding out! I felt like this was my private battle to fight, and I didn't need the stigmas on top of the crisis. I wanted to have people to talk to about it, but I was too afraid. It was my "dirty little secret."

The same thing happened a year later when I suffered my breakdown. I was trying and trying to hold everything together, but I wasn't. So I did what most depressed people do and I withdrew. I didn't want my kids' friends' parents or schools to find out I was depressed because I was afraid of how they would view me as a mother, or that they would treat my children differently. I didn't want pity. And again, I didn't want my friends or in-laws to know, so I did my best (very feeble) attempt not to show that anything was wrong. It was just one more major "dirty little secret."

But the problem with secrets is, they follow you anywhere, and they make you paranoid. It took me close to a year after diagnosis to let my mother-in-law know that I was on medication and had been diagnosed with Bipolar II, a more serious form of chronic depression. We get along well, and I know now that she wouldn't have viewed me any differently, but I was too afraid that she would judge who I am as a wife to her son and mother to her grandkids, which was a consequence I couldn't live with. My in-laws still don't know the extent of my sister's addiction, but its only because its never come up, and I don't really feel they need to know anyway. What do the nitty-gritty details add to their lives anyway, you know? But if asked, I would be 100% open and honest.

Today, both these issues, my Bipolar and my proximity to my sister's addiction, are things I am okay talking about. They are big parts of me, but they don't define me, nor dictate who I am and the values I have. It doesn't change the fact I am a good wife and mother, or a Christian, or a productive member of society. It makes me drastically different from 90% of people out there, sure, but its the hand I've been dealt, so its something I have learned to be okay with. If people can't look past the stigmas that follow me, then that is their crying shame, not mine. I can't live my life as one big "dirty little secret." If people know these things about me, then fine. I'm no longer out to hide them. In fact, I use my experiences as examples to say, "Hey! No, I don't fit the "mold" of what these things say I should be, so let me educate you and show you that a label doesn't define nor limit you." If people want to think I am trashy because my sister is an addict, fine. In my heart, I know I'm not, and neither is she. If people want to think I am an unstable, unfit mother because I have Bipolar, then whatever. They don't have all the facts; I am on medication, and so long as I don't go off them, I am a really good parent. If people can't see past my stigmas and accept me for me, then they are the uneducated, closed-minded ones, not me.

The "dirty little secrets" will always follow. You can't change the hand you're dealt, and you have to lay in the bed you made. But you can control your attitude about it, and eventually you have to accept it and move on with life, because the secrets never go away. Its what you make of them that makes all the difference.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The thought I thought I'd never think

I'm talking about death. Its that one taboo thought you never want to touch; the mental preparation for someone's death. It truly is the one thing you hope you never have to think about.

But I've been there. I've envisioned being at my sister's funeral, crumpled in a ball of unconsolable tears. Her "good" friends around, wondering how this happened, how it ended this way. My parents in that gut-wrenching grief I saw on Jeremy's friend's face when he lost his little girl. Its anguish of the purest, most painful form. Your kids are forever your kids, and you as the parent are supposed to go first. Its the natural order. And what about my kids? How would I tell them that their auntie, whom they love so much, and is so incredibly fun, is no longer going to be a part of their lives? Especially when I wouldn't even be able to explain it to myself. And where would she die? Would she be alone? Would she be hurt? Would she be in pain? Would she be scared? How could I stop it? What could I say or do to rescue her from the fate of the hand she dealt herself? ....And on and on my mind would race, sometimes for hours. I would envision, and cry, and hurt.

I think part of the problem is that I have this "thing" about death to begin with. I have always been afraid of death. Not the actual passing over, but of what's left; cemeteries, headstones, caskets, funerals, sad people, the mourning, the loss, the emptiness. Its just cold and creepy and I hate it. It makes my skin crawl almost as bad as snakes do.

But as I hate to think about death, I had to. I had to think the thoughts I thought I would never have to think. I had to mentally deal with my own demons (so to speak); those things like caskets, corpses, and funerals, that sincerely terrify me. I had to push past the fear and actually construct a game plan for dealing with my sister's death, because at times it seemed inevitable.

Its a horrible, humbling, sickening reality when you get to the point you have to think about these things; when you know you have to hope for the best, but be truly prepared for the worst. To have to strengthen your inner self to try and accept what you feel is the "end of the line" for someone you love more than anything in this world....frankly, its awful.

I hate it when people can't accept that addiction is a disease and not a choice. Yes, choices started the ball rolling in that hellish direction, but addiction is like cancer. It gets in there, it eats the addict and everyone around them like a hard-to-cure, "crapshoot"-type disease. It makes you do something I have coined "pre-grieving."

When my grandfather had his heart attack in '94 and landed in the LDS hospital in Salt Lake City, we were told he had a 2% chance of living to get out of the hospital. We pre-grieved. He wasn't dead yet, but 2%? Come on. Who were we to think he would beat a 2% odd? So we huddled together and cried and cried. We said our goodbyes, then flew home to await the inevitable news. But amazingly, he beat those odds and did come home. But it was a rocky road for the next 7 years. We pre-grieved over and over again. When the call came that he had finally passed on, I didn't shed a tear. (And I am a crier! Anyone who knows me even a little bit can attest to that.) I had grieved all my grief before he passed. I was prepared, and I had no grieving left to do, as odd as that may sound. In fact, I didn't cry until 2 months later at his funeral, when his box of ashes were being lowered into the ground next to my Nana's headstone. And they were mostly happy tears because he was finally with Nana again, and I knew how happy that would make him. I miss my Gramps all the time, but I rarely cry over his death. I left nothing unsaid or undone with him, and I did all my grieving years ago. I was prepared.

My point is, I think its perfectly normal and natural, when faced with the reality of death, to prepare and pre-grieve, to try and lessen the pain when the inevitable happens. And while my sister is now clean and sober, I will forever have my "grief plan" in the back of my mind, "just in case."

I hate that I have had to think these unthinkable thoughts, and my heart aches for anyone else ever put in thise position. Its horrible. Its painful. And the mere fact I have already grieved the loss of my sister, while she is still alive, is sobering and somewhat tragic. Hopefully the thoughts will lessen and fade as I begin to trust in her life again. That is my sincere hope and prayer, because if I can't let go of the grief and rejoice in her life, then she's already gone. And I can't let that happen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The faith of a faithless man

My dad has always claimed to be an Atheist. I am not 100% convinced he is 100% an Atheist, but for the sake of arguement, we'll just roll with it.

When my sister went into treatment, my parents started going to Alanon meetings (meetings for friends and family members of addicts) for their own "treatment." Alanon walks people through the same 12 steps to recovery as AA and NA do. The first step is to admit that you are powerless. The second and third are as follows:

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

For an Atheist, believing there is a Higher Power is contrary to the core beliefs of Atheism. So it probably comes as no surprise that getting through the 2nd and 3rd steps was quite a challenging process for my dad, and one he fought and struggled with a lot. Finally, he came to define his Higher Power as nature and the universe, and in those times when he needs to reach out to his Higher Power, he "communes with nature," as he puts it. (This is also defined as surfing.)

A week ago, in light of my sister's first visit "home," I told my dad that I was worried and had been praying a lot that everything would work out. During my sister's visit there, I called at least once daily to check in on everything and make sure my sister was okay. Admittedly, I was a bit neurotic with worry. On the 2nd or 3rd day, my dad intercepted the phone before I could talk to my sister, and told me I was needlessly worried. I argued that it wasn't needless worry; she had relapsed countless times by going home, so based on history, I was feeling nervous.

He then told me, "Meg, I have faith in her. Everything will be fine."
"But Dad, we have trusted her in this situation before, and its always gone badly. How can you be so certain it will all be okay?"
"Because I have faith in her. I have faith in all my kids."

I have spent the past week thinking on this conversation, and have come to the realization that for a "faithless" man, my dad has far more faith than I do. I don't have blind faith in people. And probably my sister least of all. I have faith in God, but not in people. And even my faith in God is shaky at best a lot of the time. I came to the conclusion that having blind faith in a mortal person takes far more faith than believing in God, and that He has everything under control.
I've found it humbling, to say the least. And as far as we know, my dad was right. She is okay. (And I can put the phone down now.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Runaway train

During the height of my sister's first stint in rehab and first big relapse, Jeremy bought one of Jack Johnson's CD's. I fell in love with Jack's music and listened to the same songs over and over again. One of those songs, "Breakdown," kind of became like an anthem for that period of my life.

I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
And see what there is to see
And time is just a melody
All the people in the street
Walk as fast as their feet can take them
I just roll through town
And though my windows got a view
The frame im looking through
Seems to have no concern for now
So for now....

I need this here
Old train to breakdown
Oh please just
Let me please breakdown....

That is just the first verse and chorus, but it makes the point. I used to play that song at top volume when I was alone in the car and just cry my eyes out because that is what I wanted more than anything. I just wanted to feel like I could come up for some air.

When you are in high crisis mode, just trying to get from one moment to the next, and everything seems to be stuck on fast forward, there is nothing you want more than for the "train to break down." You just want off. You want out. You want to be able to see and feel and experience other things, but it consumes your whole life, your thoughts, your every breath, your every minute. It sucks the life right out of you. It really feels like life has become a runaway train that is going too fast, and you are too scared, to jump off of. You just feel like screaming at the top of your lungs, "STOP!!!!!!!!"

But you're along for the ride. You can't bail out, because its someone you love who paid for your ride. And though their life has taken you on a ride you never bought a ticket for, or would have chosen to in the first place, you're stuck there.

You eventually just resign yourself to making the best of it. And in time, you do find ways to cope. It does get easier. You wind your way through all these little "towns;" Angerville, Apathytown, Denial City, Despairopolis, and finally, you arrive in Acceptance. You still hate the train you're on, but you start to realize the food isn't as bad as you once thought it was, and the views are improving. It could be worse. You grow, you change, and at the end of the journey, you are a whole new you, having seen and experienced new places along the ride. You have gained a wisdom and a heart of understanding that supercedes anything you would have had, had you not been thrown on the train against your will. Sure, there are still days you just want the train to break down because its all a blur. But you learn how to appreciate the ride you're on for the good it produces. Its a wild ride, and not one I would recommend to anyone. (Take the train to Boston instead, its much more enjoyable!) But you see things and live things that change the whole shape of who you are.

For me, I believe its been for the better. I have arrived "older" and more worn than I ever would have imagined, and I don't think I am anywhere near my final destination yet, but I no longer hate the train, and I am along for the ride until the train finally stops. But for now, at least its slowed down enough for me to enjoy the people, places, faces, and experiences I encounter along the way. And for now, that's good enough.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rehab isn't as the media portrays

I was watching the new 90210 yesterday. And while I am happy they shed light on the issue of teen drug addiction, their portrayal, in my opinion was way off. Adrianna (the character) was using, overdosed and almost died, went into rehab, tried to flee rehab, her friends took her back, she stayed and got better, and now is back into "normal" life, going to school again and dating Naveed, the friend who paid for her rehab, and now its all sunshine and roses. She's never tempted, blahbitty, blah.

Or there is the whole Lindsay Lohan approach that rehab is like a magical retreat one goes on; you're there for 30 - 90 days, and then poof, you're magically cured.

I think too many people out there think of rehab through the media's portrayal. I know I certainly did at first. But its not like that. Its not a cure-all. Life after addiction is never what it was before. Rehab doesn't fix everything. In fact, statistically speaking, most users relapse at some point after leaving rehab. The percentage of those who are truly "cured" is extremely small.

I think this limited and usually highly embellished exposure sets everyone up with false hope and expectations. I know it did that for me. My sister first went into rehab in September 2005. It was a 30-day program at a Seventh-Day Adventist-run rehab facility in the Napa Valley. I went to visit her about 3 weeks into the program for a family session, and it was eye opening. I realized then that they weren't all going to stay clean. Still, I figured my sister was one of them that was going to make it. She seemed to be taking it seriously, so I figured it was a done deal. She was intellectual enough to realize that using drugs is stupid and a worthless way to spend your life. I figured since she was smart enough, that staying clean was a given. She'd been to rehab so it was over, end of story. So imagine my heartache and sheer shock when I learned the following March that she had relapsed clear back in October! I was crushed, angry, and felt like a total fool.

Rehab takes work. Its a rehabilitation and restoration of every level; spiritual, emotional, physical, mental. If they aren't willing to put in the daily introspection, self-cleansing, and leg work to actually change their life, then its not going to happen. I thought through the love of me and my family, it was a done deal. Unfortuanately, it just doesn't work like that. Since then, she has relapsed countless times and been back into rehab twice. It wasn't until she almost died before going into rehab for the 3rd time, that she finally realized she had too much to lose. Still, like Adrianna, during the toughest point of rehab she tried to run away from the center. Its not all sunshine and roses. Rehab makes you deal with those parts of yourself that you hate and have spent so much time, energy, and money trying to self-medicate against.

My point is, rehab isn't a miracle. It isn't a retreat. It isn't fun. It isn't easy. And it isn't permanent. It is very hard work. It is dealing with the years of pain and heartache. It is deciding to live a better life. It is beating the statistical odds. And the statistics don't lie.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why I am telling my story

Many people may not know this about me, but I have been fighting the day-to-day family battle of addiction and alcoholism with my sister. As of right now, she is 16 months clean off heroin and a little over 10 months sober. This is a huge feat - it is a point all of us were coming to terms with never seeing.

Anyone who thinks that the pain and struggle of addiction is limited to the addict, nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone in my family has felt the gut-wrenching pain of watching her slowly kill herself, wanting a better life for her. We have screamed, cried, prayed, and hoped our hearts out. We are still dealing with trusting her, and trusting our hearts to trust her and her recovery again. Its been a very, very long, hard, painful road.

My mom suggested once that I write a memoir-style book about addiction through the eyes of a sibling, because nothing like that (as far as we have been able to find) exists. My thoughts on my sister's addiction come in waves, and everyday a new "theme" emerges, so there is going to be no rhyme or reason to the order of my entires. But I thought just writing my thoughts about it when I can and in whatever jumbled order I can in a blog may be a good jumping-off point.

Since dealing with this and coming to a point of personal strength and triumph over the pain of all of it, I have decided it is part of my God-given purpose to offer our family's story to educate, minister to, heal, comfort, and offer hope and understanding to others, and to break down the stereotypes and shame that is often tied in with those living day-to-day with an addict. So I think in sharing my story, hopefully I can, in some small way, start the ball rolling on what I believe I was supposed to share with others. Life is about taking a bad situation and turning it into something good, and I am hoping through blogging about this, perhaps I can do just that. I know its heavy material and many people aren't really comfortable with it, but part of my goal, hopefully, is to make people rethink things about addiction and the family - all the ups and the downs, the whole process, with complete truth, honesty, and openness. I feel its my duty, and with that, I begin.