Recovery

Liar, Liar: When You’re High Functioning & Mentally Ill

There are few people out there as open about their addiction and mental health as I am. Anybody who knows me knows that I have some long term issues that I have been dealing with my entire life. The problem is that actions speak louder than words. Even though I am very vocal about my problems, people don’t often see them in action, so they believe they aren’t really there, or are not as severe as they are.

When someone is more high functioning in their mental illness, the way I am, people often think that we’re making up our symptoms or that our diagnosis isn’t real. Because we present as articulate, educated, or in any way “normal”, people think that our mental illness is made up or in some way not serious.

There have been times that I’ve explained to people that I am disabled, and receive disability assistance. I cannot tell you how many times the person has said some form of “You’re so lucky! I wish I was disabled!” No one would ever dream of saying that to a person who had lost a limb, or someone suffering from a serious physical illness. What possess a person to think that being mentally disabled is something to be desired?

What people don’t see is what happens in private. Classmates notice that I miss a lot of school, but when I’m there, it doesn’t seem like anything is wrong. I have always done an excellent job of blending in, acting normal, and keeping the crazy to myself. Even close friends who I have known for years don’t know the extent of my mental illness. I have been able to work a variety of jobs during certain points in my life, and have even owned my own business. On the outside, it seems like I’m just a normal person, maybe with just a few quirks.

The first thing to understand is that I am very medication compliant. I have grown out of the phase where being manic on purpose sounds like fun, so I generally always take the medication that is prescribed to me. However, sometimes the disorder outsmarts the medication. I do suffer from break out episodes from time to time, including some that are very severe and others that are less so.

Bipolar I is the most severe form of Bipolar disorder. It is characterized by extreme highs and lows, which isn’t a very illustrative way to describe the symptoms. People often mistakenly believe that the bipolar high just means a person is very happy. This is simply not the case. The manic high can be just as risky and dangerous as the depressive lows.

Mania is characterized by rapid speech, sometimes so fast that people cannot even understand what I’m saying. Additionally, the thoughts being expressed flow so quickly that people cannot keep up with what I’m trying to say. In my brain, thoughts are cycling a mile a minute. It is difficult to stay on task, because I am prone to jump from one thing to the next without completing any of the tasks at hand. People who are in a manic episode are also prone to risky behaviors outside of their regular character. Common behaviors are shoplifting, wild spending and buying things that you do not need, including multiples of items you already own, excessive drinking or drug use, promiscuity and risky sexual activity, and risky or dangerous activity in general.

During a manic episode, people are prone to grandiose thoughts and behaviors. They believe they are capable of things that they normally would not consider possible. The paranoia is also very real. It’s easy to start believing that people are talking about you, ignoring you, or conspiring against you.

You start to get in arguments and debates inside your own head.

Irritability is another common symptom of mania. Snapping at people, losing your patience very quickly, and having a low tolerance for anything that isn’t going exactly your way are all common attributes of someone dealing with a manic episode. It’s very contrary to the mistaken idea that a manic person is happy. A lot of irritability for me in mania comes from people not keeping up with my crazy train of thoughts and ideas. I start to feel like everyone around me is a complete moron for not being able to make sense of my delusional thought process. It can feel so frustrating, and make me feel so powerless, that often times I dissolve into tears and the whole episode of frustration and irritability to the point of break down happens so fast that people around me are just completely confused as to what in the hell is going on.

Mania can turn into psychosis in some people, myself included. This can be as simple as hearing things that aren’t there, or thinking you saw something that wasn’t real. It can progress into losing track of time and space, being unsure about how you got somewhere or not knowing where you are. It can be very frightening and disorienting.

On the other end, individuals suffering from Bipolar I can suffer from depression that is just as crippling as those with typical clinical depression. It starts with being withdrawn, pulling away from people and things you care about. You feel overwhelmed by life in general, and simple daily tasks become too difficult to even consider.

There are times when I don’t shower, brush my teeth, or even eat, for days at a time.

When you are incapable of basic grooming, the thought of going to school or work is simply out of the question. It feels like the world is coming down around you, like you’re drowning in your own despair. It also manifests physically, making it something that you can’t just snap out of. I get a lot of headaches that make me so dizzy I am unable to drive, or even sit up in a chair. I have no choice but to lay down until it passes. Muscles and joints become sore, so much so that even if I could motivate myself to shower it is physically impossible to hold the blow dryer to dry my hair.

Deep depression is also very disorienting. You become confused about time and dates, losing track of where you’re supposed to be and when. You can become extremely forgetful, and even the most intelligent and capable person can start to feel, and act, like an idiot. You can forget how to do basic tasks that you’ve done a thousand times before.

There are also episodes that we refer to as a “mixed state”, where elements of both mania and depression manifest at the same time. There are some theories out there that Bipolar patterns will change after the introduction of psychiatric medications. I personally think there may be some truth in this. When I was young, my patterns were very easy to detect and follow. Now, after fifteen years of treatment with medications, I experience many more mixed episodes and a much less discernable pattern to the highs and lows. This can also be attributed to the disease changing as I get older.

Living with Bipolar I is a lot harder than people think, because so many of us who struggle with it are very good at hiding its symptoms. Many brilliant people in history are suspected to have been Bipolar, because so much creativity can flow from the episodes. This makes it even harder for people to understand that just because I may seem smart, or put together, does not mean that I am not mentally ill at the same time.

For those of us who have substance abuse issues as well, it is even harder for us to get and stay sober.

When our mental illness takes us from our ability to make rational and logical decisions, we are prone to relapse even when we have been enjoying long term sobriety. Many of us suffer from extreme episodes during early recovery, when all the chemicals are going crazy in our brains. It makes it very challenging to let go of the safety net of regular drug use.

Anyone who knows anything about SSI and SSDI (the two government programs for disability insurance), knows how challenging it is to get accepted. People apply over and over, some with very serious disabilities, and are denied time and again. Getting approved on your first application is almost unheard of. When I presented my history to Social Security, not only was I approved on my first application but in record time. I did not have an attorney or someone to help me navigate the system. I did not have any advantages in any way. All I had was a fifteen year history of severe mental illness, complete with multiple hospitalizations. Not even the government could deny the reality of my situation, even while people around me routinely do.

Despite the severity of my mental illness, no one really knows the true depths of the insanity besides my mother. Even my father, who has been around this entire time, does not fully understand the severity of my condition. He thinks disability is a temporary situation, and that I will finish school and get a full time job. The likelihood of this happening is slim to none. I have never done anything for 40 hours a week with any kind of regularity. I have not been able to complete a full 30 hour school week yet, up to this point. Every time I try to take on more than about 20 hours of commitment, whether to a job or school, I wind up dissolving into a complete break down. Forget school or work, I find myself unable to take care of my basic human needs. I just cannot handle it.

Just like with my father, people who have known me for many years still don’t get it. Whether it’s friends or family, they just don’t understand how severe and far reaching my mental illness truly is. They don’t realize that what they have seen is just the tip of the ice berg.

They have never seen the true extent of my issues, and because of that they have expectations for me that are beyond unrealistic.

The government awards disability to people on the assumption that their situation is permanent, or very long term. I have been dealing with this disorder for over fifteen years. My track record is pretty solid. What gives anyone the idea that I’m suddenly going to morph into this healthy, “normal” person is beyond me.

If it wasn’t for my family and the support they have given me, I would likely be living in some kind of home for disabled adults. I have been working very hard to shift the financial responsibilities of my life and well being off of my parents and on to the programs that are available to me. My parents won’t be able to support me forever, and it’s important that I find a way to survive in this world without their constant attention, supervision, and finances.

The point of this blog is not to garner sympathy. It’s to bring awareness to the fact that none of us know what the people around us are going through in private. Even when someone is as open as I am, the people around us still don’t know the true depths of our issues.

I want people to understand what living with a severe mental illness is really like, the way it affects our daily lives, and to know that what they see on the outside may not be a true reflection of what’s going on inside.

Even those of us who share a diagnosis do not share the same level of disorder. Some of us are more functional than others. Some of us are very good at hiding our dysfunction. Bipolar Disorder is characterized by episodes that come and go, leaving us somewhat “normal” in between. That’s why people think we are better off than we really are, because they aren’t seeing the extent of the illness at its worst.

As an advocate, it’s my job to draw attention to the issues that addicts and mentally ill people face every day. I choose to be honest about my own struggles because I firmly believe the only way to reduce stigma is for those of us who are dealing with these issues to be honest about what we face and what our struggles are.

If I wasn’t honest with school administrators, I would’ve never graduated high school. I needed accommodations then, and continue to need them now. I’ve needed them at every job I’ve ever had. The point is that the help is out there for those of us dealing with mental illness to still succeed in life. If we advocate for ourselves and the assistance we need, we can still do things that “normal” people do like go to school or hold a job. We need to illustrate that many of us do present as “normal” people sometimes, so that those around us understand that it is possible to be crippled by symptoms one week and be highly functioning the next. We need to help people around us understand our strengths and our limitations, so they can be more sensitive to our needs the way they would be with a physically disabled person.

It is also important to remember that mental illness can be fatal. When untreated, and even sometimes when it is treated, those of us suffering from mental illness can become suicidal. We are also at risk of injury or death from risky or dangerous behavior during episodes. The times in my life when I have felt this way have been largely from feeling misunderstood and incapable of keeping up with the world around me. Feeling like a failure at life, a failure at doing the most basic things that “normal” people do, like working a normal 40 hour work week or graduating from high school, can make someone suffering from a mental illness feel completely invalidated and useless. I have often felt like a burden on my parents, and have at times convinced myself their lives would be easier and better if I wasn’t around.

When we are honest with ourselves, and in turn honest with those around us, we can set ourselves up for a more successful life. We can seek special accommodations from school or work, to help us succeed when we otherwise might not be able to. I have tried a lot of things, and have had many failures along the way. Sometimes special accommodations can make an impossible thing possible. Sometimes we still fail, and that’s okay too. It can be very difficult to not feel as though people are looking at you like a faker. Part of that is paranoia from the disorder, and part of that is factual. I just try to remember that the people who matter most know the truth. My doctors know the truth, the government knows the truth, and my mother knows the truth. If people think I’m fabricating something or exaggerating, that’s on them. Luckily, the government protects me and others dealing with mental illness from discrimination under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to continue to advocate for ourselves.

Many people are dealing with mental illness in secret, due to the shame and stigma that surrounds the topic. I encourage you to be honest with yourself, and get honest with at least one person in your life who doesn’t know or understand your situation. Challenge yourself to be honest, and challenge them to learn about your disorder and stand by you despite it. You never know, that person may be dealing with their own issues and you could start a dialogue. You’ll never know until you take that leap, and get honest, about who you really are and what you’re really capable of.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

No Stigma, Know More

Those of us who have lived through an addiction, or are currently dealing with one, know what our biggest enemy is, and that is stigma. We talk about it all the time. We complain about the way people judge us, the way those on the outside don’t understand addiction, and the lack of support from everyone from our families and friends to the government. We are angered by the perceptions people have about us and our family members who are in active addiction or recovery. They don’t know who we really are, that we are good people from good families and that this can happen to anyone. But then we feed it.

We feed it by whispering among ourselves. We feed it by hiding our status or our loved one’s status as an addict once we get established in recovery. We don’t tell people about our history, like it never happened. Parents don’t talk to other parents, unless their kids are also affected. We stay isolated among ourselves and we feed this stigma that we then complain about.

We cannot wait for others to one day wake up and change their minds about how they perceive addicts. The only way people’s perceptions change is when they come into contact with someone who alters their reality surrounding addiction. We have to be those people.

It’s our job to advocate for a change in the way the world views us. When someone loses their battle, and succumbs to a fatal overdose, it is their family’s job to honor their battle by being honest about how they died. When we say a 23 year old with a known drug problem “died suddenly” with no explanation, the world knows what happened and they know you are hiding. That tells people that you are ashamed of your child and how they died, whether that is true or not. That is the message you are sending. That is the perception you give people when you fail to tell the truth. If they died of any other disease, you would acknowledge it. Obituaries are a way for us to acknowledge the fight, and how powerful addiction is when we lose that fight. They are also a way for us to draw attention and donations to organizations that may have served us during our struggle.

Once you or your child gets established in long term recovery, this is an ideal time to wave your addict flag. Because this is the time where you are showcasing an addict at their best. You are showing what can happen when recovery is realized. You are showing people that there is hope, and that this disease can be treated and can be overcome. When you decide the bury the struggle you and your family have just conquered, how are you helping the next family? How are you reducing the stigma that you are so upset about?

When your child is out there in their addiction, and people ask you about them, tell the truth. When you are embarrassed of your child and their truth, what does that say to your child? That you are ashamed. That you are hiding them and their addiction. If they had cancer, how different would the situation be? You would be seeking the best treatment you could find, you would be asking everyone you knew for their thoughts and prayers, and the people in your life would rally around you with concern and support.

People don’t know how to act in these situations because when we are hiding, we are sending the message to the people in our life that we are ashamed and we don’t want to acknowledge what is going on. It can be scary to come out with the truth, because people don’t know how to act or respond. It’s our job to teach them. Then they can teach others. Eventually, we begin to change how people regard addiction and we begin to reduce the stigma. If the people in your life are too caught up in their own ideas about addiction, and they can’t bring themselves to support you, then you should seriously consider their role in your family’s life. It may take some time, and some education, to help bring them around, and that is okay. Don’t complain that they don’t understand, because it is our job to teach them and educate them so that they can come to at least appreciate what you’re going through, even if they never truly “understand”.

We need to be vocal about our struggles and proud of our accomplishments.

We need to teach the world around us about this disease, and how to support us while we’re going through it. When we ask an addict not to talk about their disease, especially when they are in early recovery, we are invalidating them as a person because their disease becomes their entire life at that stage. If they have just come from treatment, if they are fresh in recovery, their recovery is their WHOLE LIFE right now. For some of us, even years later, it remains a significant part of our lives. When we are asked not to acknowledge it, we are being asked to hide. No one would ever ask a cancer patient not to talk about their disease, their treatment, and their recovery. The disease of addiction is just as pervasive, just as all consuming, and just as fatal as cancer.

When a classmate of mine was battling cancer a few years ago, he told me something I will never forget. He said that he wouldn’t trade places with me, because he couldn’t imagine being blamed for the disease that was trying to kill him.

When it comes to the stigma surrounding addiction, those of us who are affected are on the front lines. We need to be proud of who we are, and what we deal with. If we want there to be a change in the public perception, then we need to get loud and get proud about our circumstances. You are your best advocate. If you want to see a change, BE that change. If you want there to be no stigma, then we need to teach people to know more about us and the war we are fighting each and every day.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Great Expectations: The Risk of Pregnancy In Early Recovery

There are a lot of hot button issues that get talked about in the recovery community. We talk about medical maintenance, we talk about Twelve Step programs. We discuss the pros and cons of psychiatric medications. We debate the differences between enabling and helping an addict. We talk about the dangers of romantic relationships in early recovery. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a huge elephant in the room that we are not talking about that we desperately need to be, and that is pregnancy in early recovery.

I have met countless women in treatment who are absolutely convinced that they cannot get pregnant because there is something wrong with their bodies. They will tell you up and down how they have been having unprotected sex with their significant other for years now and they just don’t get pregnant. Then in the first few months of recovery, they find themselves with child.

These women are right, there is something wrong with their bodies, and in many cases the bodies of their partner. What’s wrong is that they are literally dying from their drug addiction.

The human body is a marvel of biology and is an amazingly intelligent machine. The human body wants to procreate by nature. However, when someone is sick and dying, they are much less likely to conceive a child. How often does someone dying of cancer get pregnant? Yes, it happens, but not very often. People with chronic diseases often struggle to conceive. Women who are overweight, even slightly, are typically told to lose weight in order to increase their chances of getting pregnant. That goes for women who smoke cigarettes as well. When the body is being damaged, it is not a hospitable place to grow another human being.

When a woman is using, her cycle can become irregular, infrequent, and she often loses her period all together. If a woman is not ovulating, she cannot become pregnant. Furthermore, women who do get pregnant often miscarry very early on. They sometimes don’t even realize it’s happening because they attribute the symptoms of the miscarriage to being just another odd period issue. Babies need a healthy body to grow, and that is why women who are addicted to drugs often believe they have fertility issues.

On the male side of the equation, it’s all about sperm count and strength. A dying man is not producing the best quality sperm. Do sick men impregnate women? Of course. It happens. But once again, it is a challenge that many couples deal with when they are trying to conceive on purpose. When a man gets clean, his body also wants to get back to its intended purpose of procreating.

When people get clean, some systems in the body get well faster than others. One of the first things that happens to many women is their period comes back or becomes more regular again. The human body’s main purpose in life is to reproduce more humans. It wants to get back to work on that as soon as possible.

Even though methadone is an opiate, the body gets much healthier once someone becomes established on methadone maintenance. Women in methadone clinics get pregnant very early on in their treatment because their body is becoming healthier and is ready to get back to its purpose of reproduction. The reason this is bad is not because methadone is bad for the baby. While it is certainly not ideal, many women on methadone give birth to perfectly healthy babies. Depending on the dose the mother is on, some babies go through little to no withdrawal symptoms at all. Those who do are treated medically and often remain very comfortable until the issue is resolved. Pregnancy on methadone is a topic for another blog. The reason I’m addressing it here is in the interest of a woman getting pregnant in early sobriety and the issues that brings.

When I talk about early sobriety I’m typically talking about the first year or so. When you are working to overcome an opiate addiction, the first year is no joke. You go through many huge changes and challenges while getting sober. The body goes through tremendous changes. The brain is turned upside down and inside out while it tries to recover. Those with mental health issues are typically getting back on psychiatric medications and dealing with the ups and downs of that, which can take up to a year to get right. Those who choose to utilize methadone spend the first six months or so getting stabilized on the right dose.

Lots of undiagnosed health problems can rise to the surface in the first year. People realize they have liver or kidney issues. Some people find out that they are diabetic. All kinds of health problems that were ignored during the person’s using career can come to light once the body starts getting back to its normal state of being. These issues need to be dealt with and can make an unplanned pregnancy that much more difficult or even dangerous.

There are also the social issues we encounter in the first year. Many people are homeless, living in sober houses, or shelters. People struggle to find a job, and often the first job they get is some kind of “starter job”, just to get them back in the swing of working again. Many people don’t have a car, and if they do, it isn’t very reliable. There’s also the issue of health insurance, which many addicts do not have.

Many of us have a great deal of debt to deal with in early recovery. If we’re not in debt, most of us are dead broke. Raising a child costs a lot of money, and most of us can’t even pay our own bills in the first year.

The first year is not the right time for 99% of addicts in recovery to be starting a family. It is a tumultuous, unpredictable, and erratic time in our lives. We don’t know who we are in sobriety, and we are trying to figure that out. Our lives are unstable, and we often don’t know what our plans are for our futures right away. Our support systems are busy trying to help us stay sober, if we are fortunate enough to even have a support system. It’s not fair to them to have to help us support and raise a baby because we aren’t in a position to support one ourselves.

Many addicts are not even stable enough in their life to even get a job right away, or live on their own, or simply exist as an independent human being. The first year is all about figuring out who you are in sobriety, and who you want to be. You should be able to support yourself, both emotionally and financially, before you take the step to start a family.

The idea that having a baby will help you to stay sober is just as much of a myth as the idea that having a baby will save a relationship or marriage.

Babies don’t fix problems, they exacerbate them. If babies kept people sober, then thousands of grandparents wouldn’t be raising their grandchildren and millions of kids would not be caught up in the foster system. A baby is not going to fix you, and it will not fix your partner.

It truly blows my mind that no one ever talks about this extremely important topic in the addiction and recovery field. Many addicts have never ever heard of this issue of increased chance of conception in early recovery, even those who it has happened to don’t realize the reason behind it. People are extremely fertile in early recovery and it is the worst possible time for that to be happening! I encourage all of my clients to pay close attention to this issue and not only to use birth control, but to double up on your methods.

This goes for the partners of addicts as well. I recently spoke with a woman who herself is not an addict, and whose husband got sober, they got pregnant, and within a month he was out using again. Now she is raising her beautiful daughter on her own. Would she give up her daughter for anything is this world? Of course not. But is the situation ideal? Far from it.

Two women I know have similar stories where they got pregnant in the first month of recovery, not once, but TWICE. No one ever explained to them that they are so fertile in early recovery, and even after it happened the first time they didn’t make the connection. They thought it was a fluke. It’s not a fluke!

There are so many children out there who are growing up without their parents because they can’t stay sober. There are children who are watching their parents die in front of them, and those who have had to bury their parents before they are even old enough to understand what death is. This is not the life you want for your child. There are more stories than I care to remember of terrible situations related to women getting pregnant in early recovery and not being able to stay sober in the long term. Everyone thinks that it won’t happen to them, that they are different, that they can do it, that they can change. I’m telling you that it can happen to you, you are not different, and it will not help you stay sober. Just trust me on this one. In rare circumstances, it probably has helped some people. In rare circumstances, it may have changed some people’s lives for the better. These are not the norm, they are the literal unicorns of the addiction world. No one wants to admit that they wish their child hadn’t been born. It’s a terrible thing to think. But I assure you, I have met MANY women who feel that way. I have met MANY women who are out on the streets, with their child growing up without them, because they got pregnant during a short stretch of sobriety by accident.

Please take this warning and share it with those you know in early recovery. Please understand how real the risk of pregnancy in early recovery is, whether it is the man or women or both partners who are getting sober. It just doesn’t matter. Your past history doesn’t matter. This happens every single day and it’s a source of stress you just don’t need in early recovery. Focus on you and your recovery. Focus on your mental and physical health. Build yourself a life you love and become the person you are proud of. Get your finances in order and pay your debts.

If you need help getting on birth control, please contact your local Planned Parenthood. If you want to help women in recovery prevent unplanned pregnancies, consider donating to our fundraiser. It is part of our mission to educate and advocate on this issue and to scholarship birth control for women in early recovery who cannot afford it on their own.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

She Will Be Loved: My Heroin Anthem

Music plays a big role in many of our lives, because it is so versatile and can be interpreted to fit any situation that we may be going through. Many love songs have been written over the years that are actually about drugs and addiction. For me, my addiction has always felt like an abusive relationship, so whenever I hear a song on the radio that speaks to romance, my first thought is always the torrid and dangerous relationship I’ve had with heroin.

My heroin anthem, which is probably very surprising to a lot of people, is a song that I’m pretty sure is not about drugs or addiction at all. That song is Maroon 5, “She Will Be Loved”. As we go through the lyrics, you’ll see what I mean.

Beauty queen of only eighteen
She had some trouble with herself

I was eighteen when my addiction started, so we open the song where my disease began. I have struggled with mental illness all of my life, since childhood, so you could say I’ve always had some trouble with myself.

I drove for miles and miles and wound up at your door
I’ve had you so many times but somehow I want more

My stomping grounds were all the way out in Waterbury, which is quite a few miles from where I live. I have found myself driving there so many times. And no matter how many times I rendezvous with my lover, my addiction, my drug of choice, and no matter how many times it hurts me and the people I love, I still want more.

I don’t mind spending every day
Out on your corner in the pouring rain
Look for the girl with the broken smile
Ask her if she wants to stay awhile
And she will be loved
And she will be loved

Every single day of my addiction, I spent waiting for my drug dealer. I’m the girl with the broken smile, literally, because my addiction has caused so much damage to my teeth. Metaphorically, because my life is a disaster but I always try to be pleasant to drug dealers. When you’re nice, they treat you better.

Tap on my window, knock on my door
I want to make you feel beautiful

They often walk, whether they’ve parked somewhere else and are walking or they’re hanging out somewhere and they’ve sent you to wait nearby. They come and literally tap on my window, or knock on my car door, so I will let them in. Once I’m high, everything is beautiful. I feel beautiful, even though when I am using I am every shade of ugly.

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies
It’s compromise that moves us along, yeah
My heart is full and my door’s always open
You come anytime you want, yeah.

Just like any abusive lover, they try to convince you that all relationships have ups and downs. They try to make you feel like the bad isn’t so bad, and the good is SO good. The compromise is that I give my life in exchange for a short time of feeling okay. Of feeling beautiful, full, and empty at the same time.

I know where you hide alone in your car
Know all of the things that make you who you are
I know that goodbye means nothing at all
Comes back and begs me to catch her every time she falls

And I sit, alone, in my car, tying off my veins with a auxiliarycable. If it’s night time I might have to pull out my flashlight. Heroin becomes everything you are. It makes you who you are, at that time, because everything that is the real you is depleted by the drug. I say goodbye, every single time, and I always come back. When things are bad, when things are good. When I am celebrating, when I am mourning. I fall, and I am caught by the warm wings of the angels who wrap me up in desperation and despair.

Tap on my window knock on my door
I want to make you feel beautiful

Another day, another tap on the window. Some dealers became so close to me that they actually let me into their homes, in which case, I would be knocking on their door.

Please don’t try so hard to say goodbye

Every time I try to say goodbye to my addiction, it pulls me back. Its grip is so tight, so warm, and yet so cold, it holds on for dear life. For my life. The fight is on going.

Every day when I wake up, I have to make the choice to say goodbye. Because if I go back to that corner, back to the pouring rain, I lose my ability to make that choice. When the addiction takes over, there are no choices left to make.

This song speaks to me so deeply, I feel like it was written specifically for me. Every love song I hear makes me think of heroin, because I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved my drug of choice. I would never stay in a relationship with someone who harmed me, physically, emotionally, and every other way imaginable. But when heroin does it, I find a way to look past it. I accept the unacceptable.

I heard this song on the radio today, and it just struck me that no one else knows this hidden meaning that it has for me. That even when I am not thinking about my addiction, I’m still thinking about it. It lives in my subconscious, and I have to actively fight it throughout the day to keep myself from getting on that highway.

Please don’t try so hard to say goodbye

I am trying, every day, to say goodbye.

©Copyright 2017 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Unpopular Opinions: Recreational vs. Hard Drugs

When we talk about prevention, we’re always focused on the parents. We have forums for parents to learn about drugs. We send home notices and we publish articles. We try to reach parents so that they can try to reach their kids. But the problem is that the message that reaches our kids is not sufficient. It isn’t working. “Just say no” and “drugs are bad” is not, nor has it ever been, effective at stopping kids from experimenting with drugs.

By the time they graduate high school, almost HALF of American teens will have tried marijuana at least once. Kids are inclined to try recreational drugs, which includes alcohol, because alcohol IS a drug. There are so many reasons that drive kids to experiment with drugs. Celebrity culture glamorizes drug use. Kids want to do anything that makes them feel older, like an adult. More than anything else, drugs can be fun. Just like the average person goes to the bar, has a few drinks and has a good time, recreational drugs can provide that same social energy and party atmosphere. People do it because it’s fun.

But heroin addicts are not having a good time. Drug addiction is NOT fun. There is no social, party time atmosphere for most junkies. There is a difference between recreational drugs and hard drugs. This is an unpopular opinion. Parents and school administrators want to cast all drugs as bad, and leave no wiggle room for experimentation. This is totally unrealistic, and just as ridiculous as abstinence only sex education.

We know that in areas that promote comprehensive sex education and access to contraception, the benefits are enormous. Teens are 50% less likely to get pregnant than those who receive abstinence based education according to a study by the National Survey of Family Growth. Advocates for Youth reviewed comprehensive sex education programs and found a significant delay in first sexual encounters; declines in pregnancy, HIV and other STIs; increased use of condoms; increased use of other contraception; reduction in the number of sexual partners and increased monogamy; and reduced incidences of unprotected sex. Despite all this success, comprehensive sex education is still fought by conservatives.

Science illustrates to us that education actually decreases the dangerous behavior that parents are afraid of. The same is true of drug education. Providing fact based, scientific drug education is likely to have the same results as providing fact based sex ed.

Kids are autonomous. They make their own choices. Yes, they are influenced by their parents, and parents should always outline expectations for risky behaviors including sex, drinking, and drug use. Parents should make it clear what they will not tolerate, what the consequences are, and what the real dangers associated with the behavior can be.

But maybe we need to let kids make their own choices, since they go ahead and do that anyway. Focusing on the difference between recreational and hard drugs allows kids to see that not all drug use is the same. If they smoke pot or drink a few beers and don’t suffer any of the scare tactic consequences they heard about from adults, they start to believe that all drugs are the same and none of them have real consequences. They start to believe that only weak people become addicts, and that they can totally control this, and it’s just all in fun. This is a direct consequence of painting marijuana and heroin with the same brush, and the same scheduling by the government. Both drugs are Schedule I, meaning they have no medical purpose, even though many states have begun recognizing medical marijuana. This allows the justice system to prosecute all drug offenders the same way.

In every direction in our society, we are lumping all drugs together, calling them all bad, and then calling it a day.

Make no mistake, I am not advocating for the use of any drugs. I suggest we attempt to influence our youth not to pick up any drugs, no matter how harmless they may seem. However, we need to be realistic. Kids should understand that all drugs are dangerous, but some drugs are even more dangerous for different reasons.

Only 9% of marijuana users develop what professionals call an addiction to the drug. This is an unlikely consequence for those who try smoking pot. However, those who try prescription painkillers thinking they are also a recreational drug are in for a rude awakening. Those who try prescription painkillers are almost TWENTY TIMES more likely to try heroin. Four out of five heroin users today started with prescription painkillers. Those are pretty significant statistics. Kids, and adults included, look at medications like recreational drugs because they come from a doctor and are legal when prescribed, which implies that they are considered safe to use.

Opioids, along with methamphetamine and crack cocaine, are the most dangerous and habit forming drugs out there. These drugs are NOT recreational, party time drugs. There is a big difference between going to a party and dropping some ecstasy on a Friday night and picking up one of these dangerous drugs, thinking it’s going to be a one time thing. Kids know meth is dangerous, they’ve seen the pictures of the addicts with missing teeth and open sores on their faces. They know crack is dangerous, they’ve joked about crackheads picking lint out of the carpet thinking they’ve found a tiny rock to smoke. And of course, they know heroin is dangerous. They’ve heard the stories of famous musicians living under bridges and shooting dope. It’s the prescription painkillers that they don’t understand the danger of.

Kids should be taught that prescription painkillers and street heroin are the same thing, because that is the truth. They should know that when they pick up one of those little blue pills, they are doing pharmaceutical grade heroin, and their brain and body interpret it as heroin. If they swapped that blue pill for a bag of dope, and ingested it in the same manner, they would experience the same high. These drugs are the SAME.

I did a lot of partying in high school, and spent many Friday nights drinking, smoking weed, rolling on E, and blowing lines of coke off of my math book. I partied pretty hard and so did a lot of my friends. Not a single one of us became addicted to any of these drugs. Not a single person became a felon because of these drugs. Everybody still graduated from high school and went to college. The behavior was dangerous, illegal, and extremely risky. I don’t condone it, and I don’t recommend it, but that is the reality of life for many high school students in America. They party. They have a good time. They still succeed in school and play sports, and they still go to college and become productive adults. The vast majority of people I did recreational drugs with in high school are all doing just fine today as adults.

The people who are not fine, are the ones who picked up the painkillers. While a handful of people did experiment with the pills and were able to move on, most of the people I know who got caught up in prescription narcotics in my graduation year of 2006, are still dealing with the ramifications of that choice today, in one way or another.

I didn’t understand that these drugs were different from all the other drugs I tried. I didn’t understand that this wasn’t a party drug. I didn’t know there was a physical dependence, meaning that I would get physically ill from withdrawal, and that it would happen whether I was mentally addicted or not.

We need to focus on the difference. We need to highlight what separates opioids from recreational drugs. I know this is an unpopular opinion. I know that no parent out there wants to think of their kid playing beer pong in their garage after school while parents are at work, or smoking weed in the woods behind the house. This is reality. You know this, because when you were a kid, you probably experimented with drinking and some recreational drugs yourself. You know in your heart there is a good chance your kid will experiment. You need to make sure they know the difference between smoking a joint and taking a opioid medications (which probably seems less harmful to them than the joint).

Ideally, kids would stay away from drugs and not drink until they turn 21. This is not reality for most young people. This is why we need to focus on highlighting the dangers of hard drugs vs. recreational drugs. We need comprehensive, fact and science based drug education that illustrates these differences. We need to work on harm reduction, and we will be much more likely to see positive results.

Think about this when you talk to your kids about drugs. Remember that when you misrepresent the dangers of some drugs, you undermine the danger of other drugs. Don’t undermine the danger of opioids by putting them in the same basket as marijuana and beer. Opioids love it when you underestimate them, and they have become the star of their very own epidemic based solely on the public underestimating their danger. Tell the truth about drugs, and the unique differences between them. This allows kids to make informed choices, and leave the propaganda behind.

The Gateway To Nowhere

The common belief that marijuana is a gateway drug is the myth that will not die. It literally makes no sense when you actually think about it. Is it true that many drug addicts smoked weed early on in their lives? Yes, absolutely. But most of them also drank before that, because alcohol is available in most American homes and weed is not. If there is such a thing as a gateway drug, it’s alcohol, not marijuana. Let’s not forget that alcohol is actually drug.

What about harmless medications like ibuprofen and antibiotics and cough syrup? Do these drugs not make us accustomed to using a substance to solve a problem from a very early age? Think about it. When you’re a kid and you’re sick, you parents take you to the doctor and they give you some medicine to make you feel better. This sends the earliest message that drugs are a solution to the problem of feeling sick.

So what happens when you become a teenager and you feel sick, mentally? You don’t fit in, or you’ve got too much on your plate, or you’re bored? Maybe you’ve got a good case of mental illness going on, some early depression or bipolar disorder, like I had. You are feeling unwell, sick, and just plain wrong. Again, your parents might take you to the doctor, who prescribes more medication to make you feel better.

At this point you understand that substances can change the way we feel. So when you start to stumble across different substances, you inherently want to try to use them to change whatever feelings you have that are making you uncomfortable.

The reason alcohol and marijuana are the first illicit drugs kids often try is simply because they are the most readily available and easiest to access. People don’t move on from marijuana because marijuana made them an addict and now they want more. Studies show that only about 9% of marijuana users because addicted to the drug.

The vast majority of marijuana users never move past weed. Qualification is not causation. Saying marijuana is a gateway to heroin is like saying bicycles are a gateway to motorcycle gangs. It’s very likely that every member of a motorcycle gang started by riding a bicycle first, but not every kid who learns to ride a bike becomes a gangster. The same is true with marijuana use. The vast majority of smokers never move on to hard drugs, despite the fact that most hard drug users did use marijuana early on in their addictions.

What causes people to move on from marijuana to harder drugs is the fact that something is still broken and they are trying to fix it. Just like when your doctor gives you a medication, but you’re still feeling sick, they give you something else to try. If I’m still mentally ill, still lost, confused, alone, depressed, and uncomfortable in myself, I might go looking for a stronger medication to fix my problems.

The scary thing now is the prescription pills themselves, particularly painkillers and benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium, are becoming the true “gateway drug”, meaning the first drug someone picks up. They’re in medicine cabinets or mom’s purse. Easier to get than alcohol or marijuana. Much more discreet and simple to hide. Kids are skipping right over marijuana and doing the whole process in reverse. I’ve met heroin addicts who didn’t try marijuana until after they were already addicted to painkillers.

For many years, heroin addicts have used marijuana as a way to treat their addiction. They are often uninsured and cannot afford to be on a Methadone or Suboxone program, or they simply don’t want to use opioids to treat and opioid addiction. So they turn to weed as a drug that works to reduce cravings, relax the mind and body, and fill that gaping hole left by heroin. This has been going on since the beginning of heroin addictions and became popular in the sixties and seventies as an alternative to Methadone treatment. To this day, many Methadone clients still use marijuana to help regulate themselves. I believe as Medical Marijuana gains more of a foothold, it will eventually be used to treat opioid addiction legally. It will exist in medical maintenance programs the same way we treat Methadone and Suboxone today, I guarantee it. When it happens, remember that you heard it here first.

For many people in recovery from heroin addiction, marijuana was not some evil gateway drug, but actually helps to keep them off the hard stuff as they come full circle. Some studies suggest that half of all adults in America have tried weed at least once, and we all know that half of Americans are not drug addicts. If it truly were a gateway drug in the sense that it directly leads to harder drug use, then way more people in this country would be using hard drugs. The vast majority of people who use marijuana whether recreationally or medically are NOT drug addicts, just like the vast majority of people who drink socially are NOT alcoholics.

The question becomes, what do you do if your kid is smoking weed? My suggestion is to treat it the same way you treat drinking. If you don’t think drinking is a big deal, then you shouldn’t think marijuana is a big deal either. If you don’t want your kid drinking underage, then you should discourage them from smoking weed until they’re an adult. While I don’t believe weed will turn your kid into a drug addict, there is some science that illustrates that drinking and smoking weed while the brain is still developing can be harmful. What the true repercussions for that are, we really don’t know. I bet half of you reading this blog right now have smoked weed before and you’re not a drug addict, and it didn’t ruin your life.

We need to keep our concern on opioids, because you don’t need to use weed to become an opioid addict. It’s not like if we stop kids from smoking weed that by default we will stop more serious addictions. It just doesn’t work that way. Marijuana is just a distraction from what is really important, and that is preventing the misuse and over prescribing of prescription painkillers.

If your kid gets a prescription for a narcotic, that’s what you should be worried about. I’ve met countless addicts who got injured playing sports and wound up on pain pills, later becoming addicted.

You may think about locking up your liquor cabinet when your kids are teenagers. That’s all well and good. But if you’re trying to reduce access to harmful drugs in your own home, don’t forget to lock your medicine cabinet, too. The real dangers are in plain sight right next to the Tylenol and you don’t notice because you’re too busy worrying about whether your kid is drinking or smoking weed, two drugs that are the least likely to cause an addiction and that most people use with little to no consequence.

Now for some people, marijuana is a problem, just like alcohol is for alcoholics. That small number of people who are negatively affected by marijuana need help, just like those of us who are addicted to other more dangerous drugs. I’m not trying to say that it’s 100% harmless to everybody and that we all should be lighting up every day.

What I’m saying is, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

©Copyright 2016 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

Fate and Faith

In Angel’s Arms may be a new venture, but addiction is not new to me. In 2006 I became addicted to prescription painkillers. A year later, I was a full blown needle using heroin addict. The learning curve is far from steep when you’re an addict, however for the families it is quite the opposite.

I was in my first stretch of recovery that I got introduced to a non-profit organization that helped parents of addicts deal with their child’s addiction. My mother had found them by catching a chance segment on a news channel she rarely watched, and the owner of the company helped to guide her as she learned the ins and outs of opioid addiction.

The woman who ran the organization learned everything she knew the hard way, by dealing with her own son. She started to develop plans and protocols for parents to put in place, and showed them how to leverage their child into making the choice to get help. As the years went on, and I continued to relapse, my mother started making her own rules and finding her own ways to deal with me. Eventually, we broke away from the organization which was in another county and started doing the work ourselves in our own town.

From these experiences I learned what parents needed to know to understand the beast that is addiction. I learned how to talk with them, to coach them, so that they could be the force necessary to save the life of their child. As an addict myself, I had something no one else in the previous organization had, which was the ability to work the problem from both sides. I could work with the parents and the addict themselves, because I was one of them.

Even after years in recovery, I still am one of them. I always will be one of them.

It has always been my dream to make a living coaching families, providing youth drug education, and by speaking publicly about living life as a mentally ill, drug addicted millennial. Instead of pursing that, I buried it. I started a handcrafted soap company, which was a creative outlet. I went to cosmetology school because I believed that I wanted to pursue a career in the field and expand my business. I got normal jobs that were just okay. But no matter where I went, I found someone who wanted to talk about addiction. My soap customers, my classmates, my coworkers, and even the strangers who sat in my chair. This disease has touched so many people, I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything that didn’t somehow bring me back to addiction.

Then in the fall, I noticed that I was becoming ill. I was vomiting daily, I was dizzy, and I was short of breath. Exhausted by the simple act of bathing and dressing myself. I had to take a leave of absence from school. I could no longer work, not even for myself making soap. I had nothing but time on my hands. None of my doctors could figure out what was wrong with me. The Saturday night before Thanksgiving I gave up and went to the Emergency Room. I spent the entire week in the hospital.

I became a human pin cushion, having blood drawn multiple times a day. Various tests including three ultrasounds, an MRI, and an endoscopy. Still no answers. They stop all my psychiatric medication. Still no improvement. Finally, they send me home with no answers. I follow up with the clinic and my liver enzymes continue to get worse. I am currently waiting to have a biopsy of my liver after the holidays. My body is broken, but my mind is right. I know what I’m supposed to be doing now.

None of the great doctors at Yale New Haven Hospital can tell me what has caused this liver damage. And I speculate that the biopsy won’t tell us either. Because I think fate is what caused it. Fate wanted me to slow down, way down, to a dead stop. It wanted my brain to keep working while my body sat still. Fate wanted me to remember what I truly love doing, and find a way to start doing it. As long as I am sick, I cannot work a regular job. But I can still do the job I love the most, which is helping to coach families whose children are dying from the deadly disease of addiction. I can still guide them, inspire them, support them and direct them. I can still teach kids about the science of drugs and the brain. I can still speak publicly to my peers who may feel as lost as I once did.

Some people call it God. The God of my understanding is simply the manifestation of fate. The hand of God to me is really just destiny moonlighting under a different name. And regardless of what you or I call it, it brought me right here. Right back into the work I’m meant to be doing. Right back where I belong. So as the new year approaches, I’ve got a new plan to get back into my old work.

And when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.

©Copyright 2016 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

©Copyright 2016 In Angel’s Arms and Lauren Goodkin

The Disease of Addiction for Dummies

If I had a dollar for every time someone suggests that addiction is a choice, not a disease, I’d be very wealthy. Because addicts are the source of their own illness, it’s easy to see why people have a hard time accepting addiction as a real disease. It is true that there are choices involved in the decision to start using and the decision to stop using. However, none of that disqualifies it as a disease.

Type Two Diabetics make the unhealthy choices that lead them to their disease. However, no one is trying to claim that the disease isn’t real. You can be the cause of the problem and still have a medical condition. Just because it is your fault doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Diabetics also make the choice to recover. They seek medical attention, they monitor their blood sugar and they use insulin.

Addiction is no different. We make that choice to start using drugs. But let’s remember that in the opioid epidemic, thousands of people only took the drugs that were prescribed to them by their doctor for a legitimate reason. Due to the abysmal health education in this country, the average person may not know the risks. It’s even less likely that they understand that prescription painkillers are just lab made, pharmaceutical grade heroin. If this was more widely understood, I bet a lot less people would be accepting prescriptions for OxyContin for their headache or sprained ankle. These are serious drugs that were developed for serious problems. The reason they are being prescribed left and right for ridiculous ailments has to do with the reckless greed of Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin. I will elaborate on that sorry situation in a future post.

So even when justified, addicts have made the choice to start taking drugs. Legally or illegally, it doesn’t matter. With the genetic predisposition in place and the correct environmental factors at play, the addiction takes hold. Withdrawal is not a choice. The pain of true opioid withdrawal is proof that the devil is real. The need to stop this pain is a choice in the way that a starving person chooses to eat a sandwich.

Getting clean is also a choice. We have to decide we are ready to change our lives. But that choice alone is simply not enough for most of us. Diabetics choose to get well, but they still need medical assistance in most cases to change their way of life. The same is true for addicts. Medical detox, in-patient treatment, and out-patient clinics all play a part in our journey of recovery. Just like most conventionally sick people, we cannot do it alone.

It is undeniable that there are choices involved in addiction, but that does not invalidate the fact that addiction is a disease. It is recognized by the Center for Disease Control and the Surgeon General. Doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and nurses will tell you that it’s a disease. If you don’t believe these people, who are you holding out for? What expert are you waiting to hear from before you’ll finally concede that you are not, in fact, smarter than all of these experts?

There are four very important attributes to addiction that indicate that it is a disease:

  1. Progressive: If left untreated, it will get worse.
  2. Chronic: It doesn’t just go away. It is long term, and persistent even with the help of treatment.
  3. Genetic: Addiction runs in families. Science tells us there are genetic differences in the brains of people predisposed to addiction.
  4. Fatal: Without intervention, most addicts will die from complications of the disease. Whether it is an overdose, a drug related crime, or liver or other organ failure, this disease kills.

Given all of these facts, some people out there still don’t believe addiction is a disease. Keep in mind there are also a disturbing number of people out there who believe the earth is flat and that the moon landing was faked. There are conspiracy theorists for anything and everything controversial. Even years from now when science has blown this debate out of the water, there will still be people who refuse to accept it. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will not only stand by their ignorance but double down on it.

The problem with this is that these people can be the partners or parents of addicts who are in need of support and understanding. Getting and staying clean is so much harder when you have people who are supposed to be close to you undermining your illness. So much of recovery happens emotionally, and having that support makes the fight a little easier to win.

So if you love an addict, put your pride to the side. Get behind them and help them fight this disease the same way you would if it was any other illness.

The battle rages on and trust me, we need all the help we can get.