Say It With Your Teeth

2020 has truly been one of the most challenging years for so many people in this country. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge everything that my friends, neighbors and coworkers struggled with during the last twelve months. I too faced many obstacles this year, and found myself met with challenges that I never dreamed that I would be confronted by or that I would have the tools to successfully manage. Yet here I stand, on the cusp of the new year, having had a year of tremendous growth, success, and prosperity in so many areas of my life that I would have never expected.

Amid the chaos, changes, and adversity, I hustled. I found myself thrust into a new role at work. With little practical experience and little more than a lifetime of watching my mother and aunt play this important role, I stepped out from behind the curtain and walked out to center stage in front of a packed house. I became the administrator of a multi-location optometric practice overseeing four busy locations inside of Walmart Vision Centers. It felt like every day was opening night and there I was performing for the largest retailer in the country.

I opened three new offices by myself in the middle of a global pandemic. When we started screening patients for Covid-19, the Walmart staff came to me and asked me what we should do when we got our first recovered Covid patient in for their eye exam. Had it been sufficient time? Was it safe? Nobody knew and they were asking me what to do. It was my responsibility to make a decision that could affect the safety of countless people. How had I gotten here? Six years prior, I was shooting heroin in this very same Walmart bathroom.

 Along with my promotion came a competitive salary. I started making more money than I have ever made in my life, more money than I ever dreamed I could legitimately earn by going to a real job every day. To some people, it may not seem like much, but from where I came from, it was everything. I was able to start getting my finances in order, start paying down credit card debt, and even build a $1000 emergency fund. For the first time in my life, I was able to start saying a firm “No” to my father when he inevitably asked the question he has been asking me my entire life: “Do you need money?” I have dreamed my entire adult life about when the day would come that I could say no to that question. While I am still working towards complete independence, I am so much farther than I ever dreamed I would be even a year ago. I thought I would be collecting disability for the rest of my life. Instead, I cut the cord. When I started asking Social Security questions about getting off disability, nobody could even answer my questions because “People don’t do what you’re doing. Nobody just gets off SSDI like this.” I voluntarily gave up the check in favor of working. And again I ask myself, who am I? How did I get here?

I have worked so hard over the past year to learn and grow in my role in the business world. I have earned the respect of many seasoned individuals who I look up to and admire. However, I have not forgotten my roots and the work that is closest to my heart. It pains me that due to Covid, I have been unable to reach the students who would normally hear me speak about my addiction and experience in recovery. However, we will move forward when Covid allows us to do so safely. This year I was honored to be offered a two year engagement in the Hamden School System through the Quinnipiac Valley Health Department. Both the Hamden and North Haven School systems have made a commitment to me and my mission and we will resume presentations when it is safe to do so.

Recovery has been so profound for me in the last year. I feel the furthest away from heroin that I have ever felt. My number one coping skill, much to the discomfort of those around me, is that I can always use “tomorrow”. Meaning that when I am faced with a craving to use, I tell my brain that we can’t use today, but we can always use tomorrow. Then when tomorrow comes, I tell myself the same thing. I can’t use today, but I can always use tomorrow. And you just kick the can down the road in perpetuity. However, I rarely pull this coping skill out of the bag of tricks anymore. I find the desire to use heroin happens so seldomly these days, that it’s difficult to even imagine myself back in that place.

I also have fear today. I have fear for my life. I never really had that before because I never valued my life, I never felt that there was anything worth saving or that the loss of my life would really matter. I felt that my life was a burden on those around me, and I felt that way even years into my recovery. Today I feel that my life has value, that there are people who depend on me and count on me, that my existence is purposeful.

If I overdosed and died now, after everything I have survived and been through, that would be the dumbest thing I have ever done.

I feel this most around the holidays. Christmas is such an important time for me in my recovery. Having been banned from Christmas in my addiction, for good reason, it means everything to be able to celebrate with my family. This Christmas, I received such an important gift from my aunt that was so symbolic to me. She gifted me a gorgeous emerald necklace, my birthstone. Jewelry is such a loaded subject for us, as it is for many families because of the sentiment behind it. But even more for us, because I stole and sold practically every piece of jewelry my mom and aunt ever owned in my addiction. For her to invest her hard earned money into such a beautiful piece of jewelry and trust that I will keep and cherish it, that it will never see the inside of a pawn shop, is meaningful to me beyond words.

Truly this has been a year of purging addictions. I also quit smoking most recently in anticipation of having major surgery. That was one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I have been a smoker for my entire adolescent and adult life, about seventeen years. At the end, I was smoking close to a pack a day, despite pretending I was only a half a pack a day smoker for years. When I speak to the students in the schools, the teachers always ask me to touch on vaping. I always tell the kids that I was able to get sober from heroin- arguably one of the most addictive drugs out there, yet I was still a smoker. What does that tell us about nicotine and the addictive nature of the hand to mouth motion associated with smoking and vaping? It took me six years into my recovery to let go of smoking, and only because I was highly motivated by my upcoming surgery.

My addiction brought me many consequences: Some criminal, some material, some emotional, some familial, some cosmetic. While I cleaned up my appearance in many ways, there was something that pained me to look at every single day that affects so many people with Substance Use Disorder, and that was both the cosmetic and functional state of my teeth.

Many people never noticed the state of my teeth because I took great pains to hide them. I had already had a great deal of expensive dental work over the years, trying to preserve my natural teeth. My front upper six were already crowns. Ultimately one of those became an implant. My bottom teeth were decaying into nothing. As for my back teeth, they were long gone. I took great pains to speak a certain way so as not to reveal the worst of it. I never smiled with my mouth open more than a crack. I tried never to genuinely laugh in public, I was always conscious of what my mouth was doing. I lived this way for a decade. I never really talked about it because that would draw attention to it. Most people never knew I was dealing with this problem and how much it affected me and my self-esteem. In addition to that, I couldn’t eat certain foods. Increasingly more foods got added to that list as time went on. And worse still, I was in pain.

I dreamed of getting new teeth and starting over. I prayed for a miracle. I played the lotto, hoping to win enough money to buy myself new teeth. I would’ve bought teeth before I bought a house or a new car, that’s how much it meant to me. I had nightmares regularly that my teeth had fallen out of my mouth or broke into pieces. Every morning the first thing I’d do before I even opened my eyes was check my mouth. I’d run my tongue over every sad tooth, checking to make sure everything was still there. As time went on, and the pain got worse, it became all consuming. All I could think about was my teeth.

In my addiction, I had no faith. I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in only when my drug dealer didn’t pick up the phone. Today, my God is so good to me. On December 16th at 10:00am I went into surgery for full mouth restoration. A few hours later, when it was all said and done, they handed me the mirror. I burst into tears.

It has been 12 days since my surgery and already it has changed my life. Without the help from my parents and my grandmother, I could’ve never done this. But for once, I am paying my own way, too. These teeth are not a free ride like so many things in my life have been. I have seldom been prouder than when I made those first two payments on these teeth.

 I am proud of myself, but I am also proud of the people I have chosen to surround myself with in recovery. My partner is excelling in her field and on her way to a great career herself. She has excelled in her internship as I knew she would and is maintaining a very impressive GPA. My bestie is the best mommy to my sweet little nephew and made it through one hell of a pregnancy and delivery. She is a superhero. I am so proud of these two incredible women in recovery.

I am also eternally grateful for the APT Foundation and everything they have done for me over the last six and a half years to facilitate my ongoing recovery and keeping me accountable. In January, I will celebrate six years in recovery and I owe much of that to methadone and the APT. For anyone who thinks methadone is trading addictions or is just “another form of heroin”, I challenge you to tell me how that could be true based on everything I have done over the past six years. If I was just trading addictions, I would still be a liar, a thief, and a deadbeat. I’d still be collecting those disability checks. I’d still be untrustworthy. I’d still be unproductive. I’d still be everything I was while I was shooting heroin everyday. Methadone is not “liquid handcuffs”. Quite the opposite. Methadone is freedom. It’s given me the life I never thought I could have. I don’t care if I’m on methadone for the rest of my life. If the rest of my life is going to be as good as this, sign me up.

Though this year has been full of challenges, both large and small, both new and old, it has also been a year of joys. It has been a year of progress, and of growth. A year of learning and adapting. I am another year older, I’ve got some fine lines now to go along with my ever fading track marks. Life leaves its mark on us in many ways, and my addiction scarred me in both mentally and physically. Today I can say that I am proud to be in recovery, I am proud to be working in a career job, I am proud to be off disability, I am proud to be on methadone, I am proud to be who I am, and I am proud of where I came from. My past brought me to exactly where I am supposed to be today and I am not afraid to say that.

And now, I can finally say it, with my teeth.

Bipolar Behind the Glass

I’m standing at the oversized glass window, overlooking the city of New Haven, and I’m trapped inside. Freedom, up until this point in my life, is something I’ve taken for granted. I don’t have my computer, I don’t have my phone, but I do have some coloring books and a plastic wrist band that says my name and birthdate. I don’t have a razor to shave my legs unless I’m being supervised and I cannot use my hair straightener. The only door to the outside has big, red, angry letters on it that state that anyone who exits this door without permission is considered AWOL. I’m fifteen years old and I’m locked in the adolescent psychiatric ward at Yale New Haven Hospital.

The weeks and months leading up to my stay at YPI were a blur. I was completely out of control and had no idea. I was misdiagnosed with depression sometime prior in my early teens, and that was a big mistake. They put me on antidepressants, which was an even bigger mistake. Because what nobody took the time to figure out back then was that I was Bipolar, textbook Bipolar, and how my team missed that is still a mystery to me and my family. Maybe it’s because I was a teenager and the mood swings were attributed to hormones. Maybe it’s because I was only spending an hour a week in therapy and as a young teen I was unable to communicate my feelings properly. Regardless, I was Bipolar and on antidepressants with no mood stabilizer. And that, if you didn’t know, is a recipe for disaster.

There’s a fine balancing act that has to be done when medicating a Bipolar individual. There has to be some kind of mood stabilizer or even an antipsychotic acting as a mood stabilizer on board in order to safely utilize antidepressants. Without a mood stabilizing medication, the antidepressants can almost work “too well”, taking someone so far out of depression that it swings them the other way into a full blown manic episode. And that, my friends, is exactly what happened to fifteen year old me on that brisk spring day during my sophomore year of high school.

I had what amounted to a psychotic break, totally disconnected from reality. I lost track of space and time. I no longer understood the difference between right and wrong. I couldn’t properly weigh consequences. I had no fear. Ultimately, I called myself out of school pretending to be my mother, and stole her car while she was away on a business trip. Ultimately, I got in a car accident and someone crashed into me, bringing my joyride and mental health high to an abrupt stop.

My parents were at a loss. They didn’t know what to do with me, but simply grounding me and screaming at me just didn’t seem like the right course of action, thankfully. I was already in therapy, and I was already medicated. I was presenting as delusional, detached, and my behavior was extremely risky.

I’ll never forget when they admitted me, and came to take my clothes and personal belongings. It was the first time I was ever admitted to the psych ward, but it wouldn’t be the last. Managing Bipolar I is like riding a bucking bull that you never know when someone is going to put a quarter in it and when it’s going to stop or start flailing you around. You’ve got to hold on as tight as you can, but sometimes, no matter how hard you hold on, you still get bucked off. And that’s okay. You find yourself on a high, the world in your hands, everything going great until suddenly everything is moving too fast and you can’t keep up and the world keeps spinning and you just need it to slow down. Then it all gets really slow. So slow that it might even be moving backwards. You’re moving backwards. The only place you’re going is nowhere.

Living with Bipolar I throughout my addiction has made a challenging situation even more difficult, but I wouldn’t change it. My mind is my best asset, my most defining characteristic, my best friend in this world. I take the good with the bad, the highs with the lows, because there is no other option.

A few years ago, the medication that saved my life from the day I got admitted to YPI, lithium, started to destroy my kidneys. A small percentage of people who take lithium develop Chronic Kidney Disease, and that’s what happened to me. It brought me back to that day in the psych ward, standing behind that glass window, looking out at the world. Do I want to be in it? Absolutely. So we try something new.

For the past few years, I’ve been juggling different medications trying to replace the lithium that I loved so dearly and that saved my life all those years ago. It’s been going surprisingly well, and I’ve been able to stay out of the hospital and haven’t had any major episodes despite the medication changes.

Taking good care of my mental health is freedom for me. When I don’t do that, I become a prisoner again. I may not be locked in the hospital, but I’m locked inside a place in my head that feels just as tight, just as constricted, and just as unpleasant. I’m standing behind that same glass window, looking out at the world that I’m not participating in. That’s why self care is so important, especially for those of us who have a substance use disorder on top of a mental health condition.

Today, on National Bipolar Awareness Day, I’m here to remind you that we exist.

We walk among you. We are your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Please be gentle with us and handle us with a little bit of care. While I may not be trapped behind that glass window today, it’s still there in a way. Society kind of represents that window where I can see the rest of the world out there, functioning, and I just desperately want to be a part of it but I don’t always know how or have the tools to participate in life the way I wish I could.

Standing at that glass window, I see my mom’s car park in the lot and I know I’m going home today. It’s Easter Sunday. I’m not religious, but I understand the symbolism. Rebirth, renewal, starting over. I walk out of the hospital into the crisp, spring air and feel the sun peeking out behind the clouds. I knew in that moment that I would be okay. And today, I’m okay. Just for today.

©Copyright 2019 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Recovering Slow Turkey

I was watching tv the other day when I saw a commercial for a medication used to help people quit smoking. The ad was a play on the old “cold turkey” method, and advocated instead for the use of their medication to quit “slow turkey” instead.

We often hear it takes 29 days to make a habit, or that change doesn’t happen overnight. So, it got me thinking, why do we expect substance users to change their behavior in an instant?

We expect those with substance use disorder (SUD), which is the appropriate terminology in today’s language, to enter treatment and stop using substances on the same day. This thinking is asinine, and it makes no practical sense for the average substance user.

Using is not just part of our day, it’s the entirety of our lives.

Using and finding ways and means to get more encompasses every minute of our waking hours, and even some of our sleeping hours, too. I can’t tell you how many times I went to sleep with no plan for the next day’s use, and woke up the next morning with a plan in my head that my brain worked on while I was asleep. Using is everything to us, and it takes up the vast majority of our time. For most of us, we can’t just stop using on a dime and jump into recovery with both feet.

Why is it that when it comes to smoking, people understand medication assisted treatment? People understand that ANYTHING is better than smoking. If someone wanted to wear the nicotine patch, or take that medication from that commercial to quit smoking, no one would hold that against them. Even if they had to use those methods for YEARS, maybe even the rest of their life, nobody could possibly say that they would rather see their loved one still smoking. We want someone who smokes to do anything in their power to quit and stay quit, even if it means using a nicotine replacement therapy like the patch or gum.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for opioid use is the same principle. It’s a medication that assists the person with substance use disorder in finding a way to let go of their illicit use. These therapies use opioid and partial opioid agonists to bind to the receptors in the brain where heroin used to bind. It tricks the brain into thinking it has what it wants, so the brain and body no longer crave the drug with such severity and frequency. It allows the brain to repair slowly over a very long period of time. For some people, they are able to continually lower that dose and eventually get off of MAT. For others, the cravings are too severe because their use was too severe. They may need to stay on MAT for the rest of their lives.

The question is, why does anyone care?

If someone is no longer waking up every day with their entire existence focused on using, then who cares if they’re on MAT? If they can hold down a job, pay their rent, raise their family, then who cares if they’re on MAT? If they have changed their lives so completely and become a productive member of society, then who cares if they’re on MAT?

I see people saying they don’t agree with MAT and I ask myself the same question every time: Why is it any of your business how someone else chooses to recover? Why are you judging someone else’s path?

I have no shame about being on methadone and if you are too, then you shouldn’t either. My addiction was so severe that there were no other options for me. I didn’t have time to keep trying the natural way, the twelve step way, the inpatient way. I was going to die if I kept trying to treat my medical brain disease without a medical treatment.

My recovery is as slow turkey as it gets. I’m not in any rush to get off medication assisted treatment. Why? Because IT WORKS. Methadone is the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder by leaps and bounds over any other method. I don’t know about you, but I’m betting on the winning horse. I’m betting on science. I’m betting on what has worked for me and millions of others. Actually, forget the winning horse. I’m betting on the slow turkey.

©Copyright 2019 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

January is for Homecomings & Anniversaries

Seven years ago, I was boarding a flight in Fort Lauderdale, Florida bound for Bradley Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Bound for home. I had been in Florida for five months, two weeks and four days. I was about three months sober after a one time use in Florida, and I was more than ready to come home. What I wasn’t ready for, was to be sober, at home.

I had a connection in Charlotte and I waited anxiously for my next flight to board. Of course, it was delayed. It wasn’t the first time I made this round trip, and I remember distinctly sitting in my seat, stretched out across the empty row, thinking to myself that this would be the last time I would make this flight for this reason.

So far, I’ve been right.

What I wasn’t right about was that I could stay sober on my own. I arrived in Hartford to snow on the ground, which I could not have been more thrilled about. I love the snow, and I had missed several good storms while I was in Delray. We stopped home briefly for me to switch out my bathing suits and tank tops for snow boots and hoodies, and left again for my new home.

I arrived at the sober house in New Haven, which was inside of an old, partially restored mansion. My room was on the third floor, of course, and I never quite got used to those old, creaky, narrow stairs. I made it a few days in the sober house before I realized how to get what I really wanted, which was to use. I had started taking the bus in Florida, but had never ridden it here at home.

The system was completely different, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I could ride the bus for an hour and wind up right in the center of my universe, which at that time was Brooklyn, deep in the sick cesspool that is Waterbury, CT.

I knocked on my drug dealer’s door and there she was, right where I left her. She had a new phone number which I didn’t have since I had been gone, and there was no way for her to contact me because my mother had changed my phone number while I was in rehab. Phone numbers aside, I happened to know where she lived, which I guess no one accounted for. I was back in business.

Even though I had suffered a near fatal overdose before I left for Florida, that didn’t stop me from jumping back in with both feet. I made an early habit in the sober house of using in the bathroom prior to taking a shower, so no one was likely to bother me or see me nodding out. It wasn’t long before I hit my first speed bump and got arrested for possession.

When I got kicked out of the sober house for all of my many indiscretions, I went back home. My mother didn’t know what to do. Another failed attempt at rehab, and I was back to actively using. It was as a last resort that I agreed to get on the methadone program and give recovery another try.

I didn’t want to live that way, and I didn’t want to die that way either.

I was court ordered into an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), and I chose to complete it at the closest facility to home which was the APT Foundation on State Street. That’s where I became exposed to the methadone program and chose to get on board. It was the best decision I believe I have ever made in my entire life.

Within a few months, I had completed IOP and I started to give clean urines. Not everytime, mind you, but some of the time. I had made a friend, who turned out to become my best friend to this day. Years later, I would meet my partner and love of my life in those very same group rooms.

I kept coming, and let the methadone do it’s job, while the program supported me and gave me the time to get my head screwed on straight. They didn’t expect me to get sober overnight, and I didn’t. It would be two whole years from the day that plane touched down to the day I got truly sober. I’m not even sure what day that was, I just know it was sometime in mid January.

This month, I will celebrate four years in long term recovery from heroin.

I still work hard at it every single day. I still think about using all the time, but today I am strong enough to resist that urge. My addiction doesn’t run my life anymore, it inspires it.

It inspires me to speak to students and share my story to help them make better choices. It inspires me to sit on the Substance Abuse Action Council in my town and inform policy and procedure as it relates to substance abuse. It inspires me to work hard at my job and continue to take on new projects and responsibilities.

Today I am dependable, I am collected, and I am sober. I walk through the world as a woman who has faced her own death and come out the other side. I am strong, I am powerful, and I am capable. There is nothing I can’t do or figure out today.

If it wasn’t for my family, none of this would be possible. If someone you love is in active addiction, I implore you not to give up. I implore you to support them each and every attempt they make at sobriety, because you never know when it’s going to be the attempt that actually works. We don’t recover easily, but we do recover.

I am literal living proof.

©Copyright 2019 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

The View From the 24th Floor

The first time I found myself in rehab, I had an incredible view.

Not from the facility, which was simply a nondescript office building across from a Motel 8. It wasn’t from the residence, either, which was an old, run down house next door to a trap house. It wasn’t like other treatment centers I would go to years later, surrounded by lush gardens and vegetation in sunny South Florida. It was just a no frills, basic treatment center in Stonington, CT.

The view I was treated to each day was on the ride from the residence to the facility and back again. As we navigated through the towns in the area, each morning we could watch the sun rise on the windows of Mohegan Sun. The hotel at the casino is over 30 stories tall and made entirely of glass windows. As the sun rose and set each day, we would drive by in dirty white vans with holes in the seats, and look up and the breathtaking reflection of the sun on those windows.

Every single day I imagined what it must be like to stay in such a beautiful place. To have a clean, fluffy bed to sleep in. To take a hot bath in the extra long bathtub. To look down at the world from the top of that hotel tower, instead of looking up from the inside of a dirty treatment center van. I was only 19 at the time, not even old enough to drink or gamble, but even if I had been, the casino was no place for me. I was already deep into my addiction, and quite literally didn’t have two quarters to rub together. I was spending every cent I had on opiates, and there was nothing left for luxury.

For the next seven years, I would battle for my life. I would go to far nicer treatment centers with far better views. I saw the beautiful homes in Boca Raton, the mansions in West Palm Beach, the view of the clearest and bluest ocean water. I sleep in the fluffiest bed, adorned with the crispest, cleanest white sheets. I saw the views from 30,000 feet as I flew in and out of Florida, looking over the entire East Coast.

Despite all that, I always remembered that first stint in treatment and how beautiful the sun looked on those hundreds of clear, glass windows.

I’ve come a long way since then, in the past ten years. Most everyone can agree that none of us are likely to be the same person we were ten years ago, but my life simply could not be more different. From hanging out in apartments that were heated with open oven doors to where I spent the day yesterday could not be a better lesson in extremes.

I never went to the casinos very often, even though they’re less than an hour drive from my home. I never had money to gamble with before. The only time I had ever been before, I remember winning $80 early on in the night and then leaving early to go buy drugs with it. I couldn’t have been happier to win that money because I only had $5 to gamble with.

Now, things are a lot different. While I’m not rolling in cash or rich by any means, for the first time in my life I actually have a few dollars in my bank account. Enough that I could put a few dollars in the slots and not be too upset when I lost it all. Enough to treat my partner to a decent dinner.

But the best and most fabulous part of the casino is riding that elevator up to the 24th floor, swiping that key card, and walking into the kind of luxury I had previously only imagined. There are much more opulent places in the world than Mohegan Sun, but for me, I had this feeling for the first time in a long time of being on the inside.

I was no longer a passenger in that dirty van, looking up. Instead, I was on the inside, looking down from the 24th floor.

Standing on the other side of that glass, looking down at the cities and roads from that high up, I could see everything I couldn’t see before. I could see the highways and the exit ramps. I could see the cities unfolded and the traffic below. As night fell, I could see myself in the reflection of the glass, and that may have been the best view of all.

Looking at myself, today I see someone I sometimes don’t even recognize. Today I am a strong, sober woman. Today, I keep my promises. Today, I do not steal. Today, I do not lie. Today, I no longer commit slow suicide on a daily basis by pumping my body full of poison.

Today, I can see the whole picture, the entire view, and it couldn’t be more beautiful.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

An Open Letter to the Parents of Addicts

From the very first moment you found out that you would be parents, you imagined the life your child would lead. You painted a nursery and assembled a crib and you dreamed of the milestones to come. You stood behind your fearless kindergartener on the first day of school, barely holding it together as they ran off into the world, for the first time, without you.

You sat in the cold ice rink at five in the morning, watching your little one take on the hard, cold ice, covered head to toe in so many pads that they could barely move their little feet. You stood in the blistering heat on the soccer field, trying not to laugh as your four year old tripped over the ball that would eventually become an extension of their foot. You put bandaids on skinned knees which gave way to broken hearts. You laced up ballet slippers which gave way to high heels. You painted cartoon characters on their bedroom wall which gave way to black pleather curtains and posters for bands with names that you couldn’t even pronounce.

You got through the terrible twos which gave way to terrible teens. You watched that fearless kindergartener give way to an anxious adolescent, and maybe you thought the worst was over. You looked at colleges and helped them get their first car. You raised a happy, competent, capable young adult and then you watched in horror as your child became lost.

You didn’t know what was wrong at first, just that something was wrong. You find out your child is doing drugs, and you think maybe they’re just experimenting. You think it’s a phase and it will pass. They’re out partying until all hours and you think they’re just kids being kids.

Then the partying gives way to solitude. Good friends from childhood are replaced by shady characters you don’t recognize, whose parents you’ve never met. The upward trajectory of your child’s life is suddenly stalled out, and like a standard car stopped at the top of a very intimidating hill, your child starts slowly rolling backward.

They roll and they roll and they pick up speed and suddenly they’re flying at 100 miles per hour, backward, in the wrong direction.

They’ve lost control of the car and no matter how badly you want to intervene and grab that steering wheel, or stomp as hard as you possibly can on the brakes, there’s nothing you can do because you’re not the one driving the car.

You watch in horror as your little fearless kindergartener becomes a fearful, dulled down version of themselves. You watch them fight and you watch them stumble and you watch them fall. You do your best to pick them back up, only to become exasperated as they fall again. You get tired and you get angry and you get upset but most of all you get hurt.

You wage war beside them and try your best to help them, but you don’t know how. You would give your own life to see them live theirs, but it just doesn’t work that way. You have small victories and big setbacks. You spend a lot of time praying, a lot of time crying, a lot of time remembering those days when the most danger your fearless kindergartner was in was from a pair of safety scissors.

You pray and you make devil’s bargains, willing to give up anything or pay any price to save your child’s life.

You take a second mortgage on your home to send them to a world renowned treatment center. You lock your purse in your car and wear the keys around your neck. You start checking your child’s breathing in their sleep.

If your child gets sober, you wait with baited breath for the other shoe to drop. Maybe your child is in jail, and you are surprised to find yourself relieved because at least you know where they are and that they’ll likely still be alive tomorrow morning. Maybe you’re living the very real nightmare in which you’ve buried your child.

No matter what chapter of the story you’re currently living in, it’s likely the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. You’re watching your child die of a chronic, progressive, often fatal disease while the world scoffs at you and tells you it’s your fault. People ask “Where were the parents?” like you haven’t been standing beside your child this whole time, since the day they were born, fighting for them.

Addiction is a family disease, and for every active addict out there, countless others are affected. For every addict out there, there is a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, a friend. Every single addict was once a fearless kindergartner, taking their first steps into the world.

Nobody could ever imagine the pain and anguish that an addict goes through, except maybe their parents. Because they watch it, helplessly. They feel it in their bones. There’s nothing in this world more painful than loving an addict, except losing one.

As the dialogue shifts and the world begins to display a little compassion for those afflicted with this deadly disease, it’s important that we remember that none of us can win this war alone. It’s important that we acknowledge those who have walked beside us in our struggles, who have wiped our brow when we were tired and when we were truly broken, they carried us.

Our parents carry us as infants, and they don’t expect to be carrying us as adults. But they do it without hesitation, over and over again, until we learn to walk again or until our battle ends. They carry us through the hardest times of our lives, and though they may get weary, they are stronger than any of us could ever imagine.

They are the parents of addicts, and they deserve our respect, admiration, and compassion.

They are the parents of addicts, and they are the unsung heroes of this epidemic.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

I’m Not Prepared for Motherhood

Sometimes, when no one is watching, I stand sideways in the mirror. I push out my stomach until it rounds and I ever so gently place my hands around it, imagining. Feeling for a twitch or pulse that will never be.

Last year, I had an ultrasound of my entire abdomen in an attempt to diagnose my mysterious health issues. My partner sits at the end of the cot, holding my hand. The room is dark and quiet, and I hear the gurgles and echoes from the ultrasound machine and for a moment I imagine that my fear and anxiety over what is wrong with me vanish. For just a minute, I allow myself to imagine the sound of a heartbeat, the concern on my partner’s face replaced instead with joy, as we count fingers and toes on the screen.

I watch on social media as friends get pregnant, have babies, grow families. I feel a twinge of jealousy from time to time as I watch their lives march on. That’s not my life.

It’s not that I can’t get pregnant, it’s that I don’t want to have children. But it’s not a black and white decision that is made easily. Despite being told how selfish I am, how I will change my mind, I know that I will never smell that newborn baby smell or hear my baby’s heartbeat in utero.

I’m not prepared for motherhood.

I like the idea of motherhood on the best day. But I know myself well enough to know that I am not prepared for that life. I can barely take care of myself, pay my own bills, make my own way. Despite what outward appearances sometimes suggest, I am severely mentally ill. Bipolar I is one of the most hereditary mental illnesses we know of. So not only would I have to deal with my own mental health, I’d likely have to try to manage the symptoms of a child who is almost guaranteed to have some kind of mental health issues.

Addiction is also extremely hereditary. Most addicts and alcoholics have at least one family member who is also afflicted, often their parents or grandparents. For me personally, it’s just not responsible to knowingly conceive a child that could have these issues if you’re not prepared to deal with them. And one thing is for sure, I am NOT in any way prepared for any part of motherhood even in the best of circumstances.

What if a relapsed? What if I relapsed and died? Who would take care of my child? Who would pay her way? Would my parents raise her? Would she wind up in foster care? Worse, what kind of damage would my addiction do to a little human being if I lived? I had rough times in my childhood which by comparison to many others was a walk in the park. I could only imagine what it would be like to be the child of an active heroin addict. It’s just not fair to the child.

It’s not a risk I’m prepared to take.

Maybe I am selfish. I like to come and go as I please. I like to spend money on luxuries and on a flight of fancy. I like to travel and go fun places. I like to sleep all day on my days off. I see parents arguing with their children in stores over what they’re going to buy and what they can and cannot have. I am not prepared to argue with a child. Especially about how I’m going to spend MY money that I went and earned.

Mostly when I look at children, I see annoying, dirty, obnoxious burdens. I see loud, screeching, whining little people that ask never ending streams of questions and are never satisfied with any answers. I see babies that don’t sleep through the night, crying and screaming while I cover my head with a pillow and offer my own tears of sacrifice to the gods to please make this baby stop crying. I see a hole in my wallet from which all of my money falls out and is lost. I see crayon on my iPhone and my priceless make up collection ground into beige carpet. I see disaster, I see chaos, and most days I want no part of it.

But sometimes, very rarely, I miss it. I ache for it. I allow myself to wonder what it would be like or what kind of mother I would be. I hold my little dog like a baby and kiss her little forehead. I cradle her in my arms and sing her lullabys as she drifts off to sleep, her eyelids getting heavier. I count the eyelashes on her tiny little eyes. I listen to her quiet snores while she sleeps and wake up during the night sometimes, checking to make sure she is still breathing.

For me, it’s enough. It has to be enough. Because I am not prepared, I am not capable, and when I truly think about it, I just don’t want to. It’s not for me. I can never be sure, truly sure, that I won’t relapse back into my addiction. Not sure enough to bet a child’s life on it.

This is just one of many consequences of my addiction. I will never have children. I embrace and accept that fact. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. It doesn’t mean it’s always black and white. It’s complicated. It’s a ball of yarn that’s wound up into a knot that is so tangled that it’s impossible to pull it back apart. It’s not that simple for me.

So sometimes, when no one is looking, I stand sideways in the mirror. I push out my stomach until it rounds and I ever so gently place my hands around it, imagining.

And then I stand up straight, shake off that other life, and open the bathroom door and walk out into the world, prepared to be a strong, capable, childless woman. And I’m okay with that.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Dear Addiction: I See You.

I saw you yesterday.

I saw you in the eyes of a young girl. She was frail and her skin was red and erupting in anger. It’s easy to spot you inside of people when you know what to look for. I saw you under her fingernails, tangled into her dull, matted hair. I saw you in the hollows around her collarbones. I saw you trying to hide under the long sleeve shirt she wore despite the ninety degree heat that hung like heavy, wet laundry on an already overburdened line.

I saw you last week.

I saw you in the parking lot of the grocery store as I pulled into my parking space. There you were, hanging in the air between a car window and a pale, shaking hand. I saw you folded up in between the three crumpled twenty dollar bills. You didn’t even care that everyone could see you right there in the open, you weren’t even trying to hide. I saw you last week in that parking lot, but nobody else could see you creeping further into our community, seeping into every open space and into every vulnerable soul. Of course, people know you’re around. But they didn’t see you. I did.

I saw you last month.

I saw you hanging around outside the clinic where people go to get help. You’re just so insidious, sitting there waiting for the next person who isn’t quite ready yet, who is still a little vulnerable, who still listens when you call. I saw you there when the checkout girl from the gas station down the street approached my partner to ask for her clean urine. I saw you when a fist full of Xanax were passed from one shaking hand into another. I saw you as nurses and staff came sprinting outside with Narcan in hand to the car parked against the fence where a father of three was slumped over his steering wheel. I saw you too many times last month.

I saw you a few months ago.

I saw you in the long, snaking line outside the funeral home. I saw you in the eyes of mourners, offering their best sympathies to the parents who are burying their child, at the same time knowing they brought you as their guest to the service. I saw you in the burn hole in the pants of a former classmate, struggling to keep his eyes open, as he wonders to himself if he could be next. I saw you in the casket, in the dead body laying in front of me. That body used to be alive with purpose and promise. Now it’s just the two of you, tied together forever into eternity.

I see you everywhere, every day.

Not a moment passes without you trying to sneak your way in, lurking somewhere in the background, always watching and waiting for your chance to get back into my life. I see you in those texts that still come every once in a while when an old dealer gets a new phone number. They don’t care that they haven’t seen me in three years, because they know you will always be there and today might be the day I let you win. I see you in the scars on my skin from where you got inside me, those black and red splotches and blotches that just never seem to fully fade.

I see you in the clients I meet at my job, where I put my armor on and get ready to wage war against you. I use every weapon in my arsenal to try to fight you off, push you back, cast you out. There’s medicine and there’s therapy and there’s twelve step meetings and there’s friends and family who support us and all the while you hang in the air around us. Because our weapons are only enough to subdue you, enough for a daily reprieve, enough just for today. Because tomorrow you will be back, ready to fight another day, back to your ultimate mission.

Because I saw you yesterday.

I know what you want. You want me to come back to you. You want me to be your slave again, your partner, your lover, you want to be my only friend. You want to take everything from me that I love. You want me to remember the good times, the happy days, the warm blanket, the arms of the angel. You want to possess me, own me, control me, and then kill me.

I saw you yesterday, just like every other day.

But you didn’t see me.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

A Hard Truth To Swallow

Recently I gave a presentation at the high school I graduated from twelve years ago. Even though I speak at the middle school that I attended on a fairly regular basis, this was my first time in the high school that I went through.

I found myself really reflecting on my time in high school and what a challenging time it was for me. As I looked up into the audience, I remembered sitting in the furthest seat I possibly could at assemblies, especially ones about drugs and alcohol. I had already been smoking cigarettes and weed since I was a freshman. By sophomore year, I was on a literal quest to lose my virginity and when I say lose it, I mean lose it like a bad habit.

It was a burden, it was a heavy weight around my self image and it just had to go as soon as possible.

It was like that with every “milestone” of deviance, every piece of myself that I gave away because I wanted to have every experience that would make me more of an adult. I wanted to have agency. I wanted to make choices. I didn’t want to be saddled with responsibility and obligation and to be told to “act like an adult” while simultaneously being treated like a child. I didn’t want to pay for an adult movie ticket but not be allowed to see an R rated movie. I didn’t want to bear the burden of adulthood without any of the cash and prizes that I believed made adulthood worth the hard parts. And for me, cash and prizes came in any substance or behavior that my parents and teachers wouldn’t want me to indulge in. I did a lot of things simply because I was told not to.

I wanted to rebel but also to fit in with other rebellious people. That’s the irony of the whole thing. I was trying so hard to break the molds, to define myself as “other” while simultaneously seeking approval from anybody who I thought was cooler than I was. I wanted to use drugs and alcohol at a pace so aggressive that the toughest guys and oldest people in our group would think I was better, harder, tougher, whatever. I struggled with my grades and I felt like I was stupid, like I was inadequate, like I was less than, based on those little letters on that dreaded maroon piece of paper. I wanted to feel like I was good at SOMETHING. So, I became good at being bad.

I think of these kids, so many of them coming from “good homes” who are just caving under the pressure and expectations. So many of them, even those who excel academically or athletically, are just burdened to the point of breaking. I remember kids in the top twenty five percent of my class literally hyperventilating and having panic attacks that required medical attention because they were so worried about getting into the “right” college. They were worried about making the team, about getting the scholarships and the grades, and many of them working while managing all of this pressure. Whether it comes from parents, teachers, or is self imposed, it’s there and it’s mounting. It’s getting worse as the expectations get higher, as parents become more hypervigilant, each generation adding pressure to what was put on them until the whole thing just goes up in flames.

The opioid epidemic is the smoke you can see from the distance, but for many of these kids and young adults, the source of the fire goes much deeper.

We don’t become addicted to drugs because everything is going great and we’re just thrilled to be alive and feel like ruining our lives just for the fun of it. We use drugs because something is wrong. Something is festering, something is happening long before we start self medicating and become drug addicts.

When the kids started coming down from the audience and waited in line to speak with me, I was instantly transported back to my high school days. I was dealing with tough stuff as a kid, and my parents had no idea what was really going on. They didn’t know the depths of my struggles, they didn’t recognize how hard life was for me, and even though my mom tried her hardest to be open and available, I was afraid to tell the truth about what I was going through.

Almost every kid I talk to tells me the same thing: I’m afraid to tell my parents.

They’re afraid to get in trouble. Afraid to have whatever privileges they have taken from them. If they admit they have a problem with drugs, they’re likely to get locked in the house and isolated from their friends. If they admit they’re having sex, they’ll never get time alone with their significant other. If they admit they’re gay, that will be the end of sleep overs and slumber parties. The fear of the consequence is what keeps these kids from coming clean the vast majority of the time.

Compounding the fear of repercussion is the fear of disappointment. Especially for kids who outwardly appear as “good kids”, it’s even more challenging for them to speak up and ask for help. Or, their issues aren’t taken seriously because they present as “normal” and parents assume it’s just a phase or a kid being dramatic or wanting attention.

I wanted attention, but I also NEEDED help. I didn’t know where to get it or how to go about it. I was in therapy, where I lied regularly because I was afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. I didn’t believe that my therapist wouldn’t tell my mom what we talked about. I also didn’t want my therapist to think less of me, believe it or not, and that’s a real fear that develops with people who have a close connection to their mental health provider. They can become like a surrogate parent, and now we have another adult who we don’t want to disappoint.

I’m not a parent and have no plans to ever become one, so I hate to give parenting advice or act like I have any idea what it’s like to raise children. That said, I’ve sat in treatment for a good portion of my adult life, be it mental health or substance abuse focused, and the themes often repeat themselves. The issues stemming from family dynamics and the expectations put on us by our parents are present in almost every group therapy session I’ve ever been in. It’s not unique to father/daughter dynamics, either. It is a universal issue experienced by anyone who has parents.

I don’t have the answers to how to parent kids today. I don’t have the solutions to these complex problems. What I do have is the first hand experience of going through these tough times as a teenager, and I have the trust of these young adults that they are afraid to give to those closest to them, those who can actually help them, their parents.

I want to encourage parents to be open, and be available. Punishment is not the solution to any known mental health condition, including substance abuse disorder. If your kid needs help, get them help. If you address the root of the problem, address the actual fire itself rather than the smoke you can see from your perspective, you’re much more likely to keep those flames at bay.

Also, please remember that success is not exclusively defined by grades and college acceptance letters and scholarships. There is an entire world outside of academics and athletics. Your kid is good at something, and it’s your job to help them figure out what that is, rather than reminding them of all of the things they aren’t so good at.

That is the message these kids asked me to deliver to you this past week.

I hope you hear it.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

The House That Addiction Built

Addiction is like the house on a nice street that used to look so beautiful on the outside. Over the past few years, it has become dilapidated, worn down, tarnished. The lawn and gardens are overgrown and full of weeds. The shutters have fallen off the windows, and if you think the outside is bad, you should see what’s going on inside. The family and friends of an addict are the neighboring homes. Their houses still look nice, put together, habitable, but by virtue of living next door to a war zone disguised as a house, their property values fall alongside it.

Addiction affects every single person who comes in contact with the addict. Just like no one wants to be a drug addict, no one sets out with that goal in mind, even more so the people who love that addict certainly never signed up for this life. We drag our friends and family into our uphill battle, and they become broken down, bruised, and worn out right along side us.

Worse still is what happens when one of us loses our battle with the disease. The city comes and knocks down the vacant house, but nobody is able to exorcize the ghosts that live there. Our family and friends will never escape the memories that haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Coming off of another overdose death of a friend, I am exasperated. I am horrified. I am distraught. I am powerless. I am frustrated that nothing I am doing is enough, or will ever be enough, to save everyone. And for every addict I reach, every person whose life is changed, there are thousands of people who will never recover. They will die before they ever have the chance to recover.

I am conflicted deeply about these deaths, as they continue to come like a train that’s off its schedule. We know they are coming, we just don’t know when the grim reaper will show up again to steal another soul away from us. On the one hand, if we weren’t losing all of these incredible sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, I don’t think anyone would even care about this epidemic. We’ve been talking about it for over a decade, and it’s only been in the most recent years that “good kids” are dying that suddenly people want to show concern. On the other hand, how many good people have to lose their lives before we see real change?

The opioids are killing us, but so is the stigma. The stigma is the station that the grim reaper’s train rolls into. If there were no stigma, I personally believe there would be significantly less death.

The stigma is what keeps me from reaching out to a struggling addict, because they won’t admit they are struggling. Even if I ask someone directly how are they doing, are they staying clean, they will lie. There is stigma even amongst ourselves, between who is clean, who is on methadone, who is doing it the “right way”. When someone has been doing well and they fall off, they are so ashamed to admit that they, again, need help. We are told not to associate with people who are using when we’re clean, so we cut them out and blacklist them instead of checking in and offering support. I get it, we all have to protect our own sobriety. But when I look at someone who is using, at this stage in my recovery, the last thing I want to do is join them.

My heart breaks for the desperation they are feeling. For the guilt and the shame, and the pain they are in. The struggle is very real and it never, ever, EVER goes away. No matter how much sober time we have, it never goes away. It’s not something you can put behind you and forget about. It’s not something you can pretend never happened. Some days it’s a tiny mouse on a wheel, turning in your brain in the background. Some days, it’s the elephant, its silence getting louder and louder while it takes up the entirety of your mind. You try to push it out. You try to send it back to the circus. But your life is the circus now. You are stuck in the middle of the center ring and some days the monkey is on your back, and some days you are the monkey.

I imagine that scene in the Little Mermaid where Ariel signs her voice away to Ursula, and then is forced to watch in painful silence as what should have been her life unfolds in front of her. That’s sort of what it’s like. You watch your friends and peers grow and find their way, while you drag yourself around the same worn and beaten path until you wind up in jail, an institution, or you lose the fight and you die.

And if addiction is the dilapidated house on a nice street, then heaven must be the most beautiful mansion any of us have ever seen. I imagine every soul that we have lost coming out on to the lawn, arms out stretched to greet the newest resident as they arrive. Tupac talked about “Thugs Mansion”, where he imagined all of the gang bangers and G’s would go when they died. “Ain’t no heaven for a thug”, he rapped. I picture Addict’s Mansion the same way.

“Dear Mama, don’t cry, your baby boy’s doing good. Tell the homies I’m in heaven and they ain’t got hoods.” -Tupac

Instead I imagine a place where they are no drugs, no needles, no earthly struggles. We don’t need to use because all of our problems evaporated the minute we left our old lives behind. We don’t have a void, that hole we talk about, that we need to constantly fill with narcotics, then food, then shopping, then gambling. That hole seems to always be there. I’ve been emptying mine out for years now, and it’s amazing how much shit can fit into that hole. People talk about finding good and positive things to fill it with. I picture it more like a stomach that stretches to accommodate all the garbage we shove inside it. And just like when someone has bariatric surgery, and their stomach is cut into a much smaller hole, I believe that the hole needs to shrink until there is nothing left. I don’t want to fill the hole with positive things, I want to eliminate the hole and never have to worry about how full it is and the quality of its contents.

I like to think when we arrive at Addict’s Mansion, that hole vanishes. We are finally free and at peace. Our addictions leave us and we don’t need to use drugs to feel whole and complete because in heaven there is nothing but wholeness and completion. That’s where my friends are today. Sitting around a bonfire, shooting the shit, remembering the good times and feeling free from all the bad times.

There are roads in my town that I stopped driving down after some friends passed away, because I couldn’t handle it. I learned to subconsciously reroute around town. I’m not going to do that anymore. It kills me to think I will never see any of those friends outside their houses again. I will never see Buckley on his skateboard, or Mat fixing his quad, or Marc kicking the soccer ball or washing his car. But I will drive by and I will remember them all so that I never forget.

My house today is still recovering from the time when addiction lived here. There are still some weeds in my lawn, a few shingles missing off my roof, but slowly and surely I repair the damage. My friends and family help to hand me the tools I need to rebuild. The program of recovery I work is the blueprint for construction. My sobriety is the currency that pays for all the supplies.

I don’t have to live that life anymore. My friends and family don’t need to watch me die. Standing in that funeral home, over and over again, for too many young lives lost, I know for sure that I don’t ever want my mother and my family to stand in that room for me. Not anytime soon.

Because I know for certain that we can rebuild. We can and do recover.

Just think of all the people that you knew in the past,
That passed on, they in heaven, found peace at last.
Picture a place that they exist, together.
There has to be a place better than this, in heaven.
So right before I sleep, dear God, what I’m askin’
Remember this face, save me a place, in [Addict’s] mansion.

©Copyright 2018 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin