Notes From This Side of the Bench

From Junkie Stories:

All was quiet around me. I was in a strange holding pattern, awaiting a new placement in new housing, and unsure of what would come next. Outside, a sharp wind blew through the trees and snapped with a wind so cold you’d think the branches would crack from the frost. I sat alone, wishing I was elsewhere, waiting for a ride over to a place I call The Farm—I was a million miles from home and a million miles from the things I missed the most. I was also million miles from the strong dose of quiet storms that sent me in terrific nods and left me bent over, halfway down to the ground, and spiraling into a sense of beautiful emptiness.

There is something to this life that the outside world could never understand. The attraction to the madness, the bliss of a beautiful chaos, and the crazy swings from unthinkable highs to the unalterable lows; this sickness comes with a strange temptation that can be described as nothing less than captivating.
There I was young and thin—I was too weak to ever survive on my own and too stupid to know how to get by. I was high all the time, or drunk—trying to counteract the weight on my shoulders. I was no longer innocent and no longer a kid, but I was far from a man and even further from capable of surviving the life I had tried to live.

I thought about places like B 15th Street in Rockaway and under the train trestle in East New York, Brooklyn. I thought about dark corners and men with gold teeth, hiding pistols in their jackets, with dead-cold eyes, enough to show that life meant nothing to them and selling packets of poison.
I thought about the worst of places—which was the worst place I had ever seen, like the spot on 134th Street near Willis Avenue. Broken down brownstones, burnt down buildings and empty lots with piles of junk in the center, and thin, crack-head zombies walking over to approach me and ask, “What are you looking for?”

The world was in the middle of an epidemic at the time. The spots were different then and the drug of choice, in my opinion, is interchangeable because when it all comes down to it—addiction is addiction. And that’s the end of story.

I never sat on any side of the bench except for this one. I never knew what it felt like to be on the other side of the argument. I never knew how it felt to be a parent;  to come home and find my child slumped over, eyes-half closed—open mouthed and drooling while the body sort of dangles in weightless in a semi-conscious nod.

I never experienced that feeling of helplessness a parent feels while their child withers into sickness. All I knew is what I saw, and while minimal in comparison to so many; what I saw was enough to nearly kill me; and what my parents saw was enough to break their heart.

Decades after my sobriety date, I walked in a small room filled with parents to support a family in need. All of them were there for the same reason. All of them had children undergoing treatment and all of them sat in a similar position with a similar expression on their faces. I noticed men sitting with their arms crossed, face somewhat smirked as if to put on a show of intimidation before admitting the true fact, which is they were frightened, at their wit’s end, and unsure what to do. Women sat like concerned moms with a common, “Where did I go wrong” sort of look on their faces. This is the kind of look that asks, “What did I do to deserve this,” without actually saying it.

The chairs were all set up in a semi-circle with a chair, front and center, where a well-dressed, soft-spoken counselor sat with a comforting smile explaining her therapeutic rap. She handed out pamphlets to the parents in the room. However, not all in attendance were moms or dads. There were brothers and sisters in the room as well. There were also girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. And much like the junkie has a common expression when walking into treatment for the very first time, so do the parents, family, siblings and so on.

I listened to them all negotiate with the counselor, trying to rationalize the sickness, to defend their position, and explain the behaviors in the household. I listened to a mom speak about her son. And she wept when she spoke. She wept with the sort of tears that truly reflect a broken heart.
She was a victim. She was a hostage in her own home. She was also her son’s biggest enabler—giving in to his demands because she didn’t know what else to do.
“He’s my son,” she rationalized.
“What else could I have done?”

I listened to a father talk about disciplining his son.
“I swear I thought I was going to kill him,” he said.
“Maybe I should have killed him,” he added. And when he finished sharing, the father weakened in position.
Suddenly, the tough façade cracked and tears formed in the corner of the man’s eyes.
“But he’s my son,” expressed the father as if to remember his son as the little boy he once was.
The father also pleaded, “What the hell was I supposed to do?”

This was hard to sit through. I never sat on this side of the bench. I was always in the other room, sitting with counselors, and talking about me—talking about what I did wrong and how I felt. I never saw this side of the room. I never saw what my mother and father saw.  And painfully, I never saw my addiction through their eyes.

There was a short break. Afterwards, I raised my hand and explained who I am. “I told them my name is Ben and I’m an alcoholic.” I told them, “I am an addict too.”
“I’m no different than your son,” I said while pointing at the father that shared earlier.
“I am just like your son,” I said while pointing at the mom who felt as if she was a hostage in her own home.

It hurt to see these things. It hurt to listen to the blame they put on themselves. My parents did the same thing as if my addiction was “Their” fault. But it wasn’t.

Had I not gone away; had my parents never chosen to stand their ground—had the courts never intervened and had the legal system not remanded me to treatment; I would have been left to my own devices, and left to my devices, I would have been nothing more than another statistic. I would have been another tragedy, another name, and another suburban kid that lost to this thing called teenage addiction.

Although I had resentments with my parents and while yes, they had their share of mistakes; I never really blamed them for my usage. Although my parents made mistakes; they were not responsible for my feelings of awkwardness. They simply had no understanding of my depression. They knew nothing about my frustrations or my feelings of insecurity. They never knew about the secrets I couldn’t dare tell anybody. They never knew about the shame I felt or the struggles I had while dealing with an undiagnosed learning disability in the classroom. They never knew about these things because I lacked the ability to voice them. I had no way of telling them. Simply put; I thought there was something wrong with me and if I told my parents; then all my faults would become painfully real.
In response, I chose my path to balance the scales so to speak. I chose the high and the bottle to even the playing field. I chose it as a means of protection; it was a numbing agent, an emotional pain killer, and a solution at times to kill the boredom, to stop the thought machine, and if at minimum, to smile in a time that would otherwise seem unhappy.

My parents had no idea what addiction was. They never knew anything about the disease of alcoholism. I suppose to my parents, alcoholism was a choice; not a sickness.
But once they learned and had my parents chosen to remain blind and stagnant in denial; had my mother and father chosen to listen to my lies to save them the pain of feeling like a failure as a mom and dad; and instead following the professional direction of addiction specialists, had my parents given in to my demands, I would have never made it. And I know this for certain.

After I shared a bit about my history, I listened to a different mother share her story. This was not her son’s fist trip into treatment. She had listened to him for too long. She gave in too often and gave him too much.

“You’re right,” said the mother while nodding at me.
“I can’t give in anymore.”

I remember this very well because it was my Mom’s birthday—and it was the first birthday to come after my mother had passed away. I suppose the fact that I was already thinking about Mom made this heavy enough. I wished she were there with me. In a whisper that morning, I had asked Mom for a sign, just something to let me know she could hear me and that she was proud; however, with the day nearly over, I had resigned to the fact that there would be no sign for me.
After the meeting, one of the moms approached me. She had thanked me and offered a hug, whispering to me, “I don’t know who your mother is . . . but I know she must be so proud of you!”

This mother had no idea that Mom was gone. When I told her, she said, “Believe me, she’s proud!”

I never cared much about anyone else’s opinion of my sobriety. I never cared much if anyone thought I “Sounded good,” or if anyone else thought I knew what I was talking about. I am who I am—gratefully and unapologetically—and of all the gifts I’ve received while remaining clean; this meeting was one of my biggest gifts to date.

I know it’s not easy to sit on either side of the bench. With regards to the addict; I know it’s not easy being a parent or sibling, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife. I know one thing for certain; this is a clinical and family disease. But given the right direction, and by taking the right steps, I know it is possible to recover.

Believe me . . .

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