We all have voices in our head. It’s our subconscious talking to us. What happens when that voice gets loud and won’t leave you alone? I’m not referring to the the psychotic disorder of schizoprenia. No, it’s more like our conscience, but for some, it can be more like a demon.
A year and a half ago, my then 24 year old daughter began a journey toward sobriety. It wasn’t her first try — she had tried and failed several times and succumbed to that voice. Today, she’s standing proud, celebrating an entire year of telling that powerful, relentless voice to shut up, giving it the middle finger. And I am incredibly proud of her for doing so. Unless you’ve experienced this yourself or witnessed it first hand, you honestly have no idea how powerful that voice can be. You see, dealing with addiction is not just a simple matter of saying no. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it. It’s not pushing away gratification. It’s not just saying no. It’s not just a failure of development.
Sometimes I wonder what that voice is like for her. I try to imagine it, but I can’t really grasp it’s intensity. I just acknowledge it and believe it’s there. Let’s go on a little journey together and see if we can get a better feel for that fight of fights that many addicts face everyday and what led them there. Let’s try to imagine, just for a moment, what it’s like.
You wake up in a sweat late at night. Not from the pangs of withdrawal, but from a nightmare that led you to this hell in the first place. It was like a dream, but it wasn’t. It was a flash from a distant memory. One of those memories you wouldn’t just conjure up – it comes without invitation and you wish it would go away. You scream at it to leave, but instead it stares you down with a demonic face, it’s eyes, nothing but pupil, dripping with darkness and evil. You gasp, trying to catch your breath but you can’t. You give in to panic. Not just a momentary lapse of fear, but sheer, full-on desperation that convinces you it’s here to stay. It laughs at your attempts to silence it. Your synapses begin to short circuit. Your senses go into hyper-drive. You smell the fetid breath of the demon, like the foul stench of a rotting corpse, only worse. The sounds are deafening, a cacophony of shrieks, squeals, and screams. You’re paralyzed, though you try to run, like in those dreams where you’re running in slow motion, but the monster is gaining on you. It is desperation without hope. It beckons you like a clown in the shadows, holding balloons and a bag of candy.
Sometimes these episodes manifests themselves at the strangest times. A flicker of a memory triggers it, and suddenly, you’re experiencing it again. This time not from a deep sleep, but during what others consider day to day life. You’re having a friendly conversation with someone. A word you hear everyday comes out, and you fly into a momentary alternate reality. For an instant, you wonder if those around you saw your immediate, and to them unexplained, descent into panic, but then you snap back. Your heart is still pounding, you tremble as your thoughts become muddled. It’s not fear. That word is too weak. It’s absolute terror. Again, that demon laughs in your face, but grows angry when you try to suppress it. Your fear makes it stronger. It then becomes a test of wills.
You know there is one thing that will make it go away, or at least make it tolerable, if only for a short while. And you know that numbness, because it showers you in sweet relief, allowing you to return to the innocence and joy of childhood before the monster came on the scene. You know that magic elixir will eventually kill you but you try to convince yourself, anything is better than this living hell. One day, you realize it wasn’t you thinking that. You’ve learned it was in fact that filthy, wretched monster inserting thoughts into your head. Clever bastard. Screw you, you disgusting, putrid incubus from the deepest pits of hell! [My words. Hers would be much more colorful.]
Some studies indicate that over 60 percent of addicts have suffered from some sort of sexual abuse in their earlier lives. Do you remember when your young child would tremble in fear because of the monster under her bed? Do you remember how you promised her it wasn’t real and you comforted her? When my daughter was 23 years old she told me she was an addict and tried to describe to me what led her to that place. I was mortified at what she said. I had no idea. I knew it wasn’t just an excuse. Her fear and sorrow was palpable to me, and it broke my heart. It was then I learned there really had been a monster under her bed, and it had been hurting her. This real-life sub-human had convinced her that if she said anything, great harm would come to her mother and father, so she kept it inside. Every fiber of my being wanted to pull her into the safety of my arms and tell her it was all just a dream–that all would be well. This time, I couldn’t because it was too late. It wasn’t going to be okay. It’s impossible to describe the helpless feeling when your baby says “Daddy, please help me,” and you can’t.
She told me she can’t recall who this monster was. It was in fact a real person and he preyed on her innocence and her fear. Her mind was keeping it hidden, just a fragment of her mind trying to control the horror. In her nearly two years of intense psychotherapy, I suspect my daughter has now recalled who this evil son of a bitch is, but she won’t tell me. She knows me well enough to know what I would do. Even as she struggles with this horrible, debilitating, and treacherous condition, she’s trying to protect me even though I couldn’t protect her in her most vulnerable time. Perhaps it is best I don’t know, but knowing he’s still out there, probably doing it to others makes me fantasize about things better left undone. It is hardwired into a father’s DNA to protect his children at all costs. Oh how I wish I’d known.
You see, addiction isn’t really about a drug. It’s always about something else. It wasn’t just a recreational temptation that goes on too long, nor was it a prescribed medication creating a physical dependence. This is why the vast majority of us can be prescribed addictive drugs and not become addicts. It’s why most of us can drink alcohol without drinking ourselves into a drunken stupor. Most of us have not endured the psychological hell brought on by some sort of childhood trauma, one in which we would be unable to process in a rational way.
Today, I congratulate my daughter for fighting this monster for an entire year. She has slain many dragons and I know her mind and body are stricken with near debilitating fatigue. I can only speculate about what kind of strength it takes to persevere, knowing there are more of those dragons around every corner. She knows the journey will never end, yet she soldiers on, waking up each day, putting on her armor and wielding her heavy sword. Today, the demons are at bay, knowing she is the stronger one, and for that I am thankful. She knows they patiently await her moments of weakness and she must always remain vigilant. She has become a hero and a combatant in a never ending war. I pray for her strength to march on and set examples to others that wars are never won without battles. Congratulations my little warrior princess.
[UPDATE, March 19, 2019: The featured image in this post is a painting I did of my daughter while in her early stages of recovery. It’s intended to portray both her vulnerability and her fierceness in her battles against her demons.]
[UPDATE, Oct 23, 2019: My daughter has graduated with a Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is working as a full time therapist at a recovery center, focusing on women who have suffered childhood trauma]
[UPDATE, January 23, 2020] My daughter invited us to attend a celebration of her three years of sobriety. We were honored to present her with her three year “cake” at three separate AA meetings. She expects to get her full license as a therapist in September, 2020.]