By all accounts, I should be dead.
by Count Grackula
My name is Grackula and I’m an addict. You might never guess it if you saw me (just don’t look too closely at my arms), but like Vlad the Impaler (aka Count Dracula), I’ve got a soft spot for impaling. Unlike old Vlad, though, my penchant is more for impaling myself, with a loaded hypodermic needle in the crook of my arm, than for mounting priests and peasants on wooden stakes. No, mine was a “victimless crime” — if anybody, I harmed only myself — or so I told myself…until I finally sobered up long enough to notice all the wreckage in my wake.
Nonetheless, I’m what you might call a “high-functioning” addict. For the most part, I made it to work on time, earned promotions and bonuses, paid my bills, and maintained what I thought were healthy relationships with other well-respected and self-respecting individuals. I graduated early from one of the country’s top universities (paid for, in great part, by merit scholarships), won awards and continue to earn esteem from my friends, colleagues, and community members. I “give back,” in time, money, volunteer work and emotional support, whenever I can — which, I daresay, is more often than most in this generally individualistic and selfish society. Sure, I’ve got some abuse, trauma, and neglect in my background — my childhood was far from ideal — but who among us doesn’t have such baggage?
I’m also a member of what some might call a “model minority” group. I’ve had more than one dealer in more than one city ask me, “What the hell are you doing, man? You’re not like my other customers! You actually got shit going for you.”
I never knew how to answer that question. I just knew that I liked getting high, and when I was high, I didn’t want to come down. I just know that I used to do a little then a little wouldn’t do it so the little got more and more. Then I needed it just to be normal, just to get to work and fulfill my daily responsibilities…and then it took over my life.
It didn’t happen overnight, like it does in the movies. I first shot dope in 1995, during the time of “Heroin Chic.” Twenty-five years ago, people…twenty-five years. By all accounts, I should be dead (and many people will write exactly that in the comments; my spiritual practice encourages me to seek compassion even for those people, so I will). I’ve lost more friends than I care to count along the way, but somehow, I’ve never even overdosed. Not once.
I pride myself in my honesty, but this, my drug abuse, is the one skeleton in my closet. I once even had a girlfriend — we dated for over two years — who was a drug counselor at the time, and even she had no idea. (The girlfriend who grew up with a heroin-addicted dad knew right away…but even she stuck around for too long before she finally abandoned ship for her own sake, and goddess bless her for that.)
But I’m not here to talk about myself or my addiction, I’m here to talk about what it’s like to be sober in the time of COVID-19.
I first caught wind of some kind of virus that was spreading in a city in China while I was in residential treatment. We patients had surrendered our cellphones upon arrival, and the facility subscribed to no newspapers, so our contact with the outside world was severely limited (for many, good reasons). Sure, there were televisions we could watch during free time, but the remote control hogs tended to tune those either to sports or to music videos, and few people in treatment had the interest or desire to watch the latest, trivial updates about Trump’s impeachment (a futile exercise that would likely inflame passions — no matter one’s political inclinations — with no plausible, positive, meaningful outlet). We received mail from our loved ones in the outside world, but that tended to be photographs and updates and messages of support, and we were allowed to make phone calls (from booths wired to landlines — not from our cellphones) for fifteen minutes each evening, but those tended to consist of pleas to send more cigarettes — there were never enough cigarettes.
It was from staff members that we first heard of this virus, but they weren’t even sure of it’s name. “Corona maybe? Like the beer…” The talk was limited, and it was vague. I heard a rumor (since proven untrue) that students in a dorm at Texas A&M had fallen ill.
My treatment center is in a rural part of Texas and the staff there are overworked (12-hour shifts) and underpaid, with long commutes, to boot. I am not surprised that they weren’t keeping up with the latest news-hype on subjects that mostly concern big city dwellers. I was a little concerned about living in tight quarters (dormitory-style, with shared bathrooms and kitchen utensils, not to mention all the door handles and furniture) with some folks whose hygiene I might question, but there was only so much I could do. I used the many (non-alcoholic, lol) hand sanitizer dispensers mounted on the walls and counted down the days til my release.
One great blessing (among many) I received in residential treatment was that one fellow patient, whose time there ended just as mine was beginning, honored me by passing me a book called Refuge Recovery, which outlines a Buddhist path to recovery that’s distinct from the 12-Step programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous) in many, meaningful ways, and asked me to take over facilitation of the Refuge Recovery meetings in our treatment center. I was flattered that he chose me, but also taken aback — I didn’t feel so confident in my knowledge of Buddhism — not enough to “lead” others — and I had never even attended a single such meeting! How could I lead?!
Fortunately, the book was helpful enough, and honestly, the teachings of the Buddha are so simple; we just want to complicate everything. The main lesson is that all things in this universe are impermanent — change is the only constant — and pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We create suffering when we don’t accept the impermanence of all things — when we attempt to cling to pleasurable sensations or to repel painful sensations. So, we have to just honor and make space for our feelings — whatever they may be in the moment — feel them and let them go, because this (whatever “this” may be), too, shall pass. That’s it!
And intoxicants just dull our awareness. When we attempt to dull, suppress, repress, or change our feelings, even temporarily, they just return with even greater power (the crash that follows the high, the hangover, the need for more more more). Not too complicated, but it’s working for me, and I like myself much better these days. I find myself able to cope with “the world on the world’s terms” much better than when I was using substances. (A side benefit to not having access to the news or my phone for 30 days is that I find myself much less drawn to those things that just distract me from my present moment and often fill me with despair over things which I am powerless to change. It’s not that I want to be like an ostrich and bury my head in the sand — I just think our profit-driven, 24-hour news cycle is more noise than signal. Insert Serenity Prayer.)
Since leaving in-patient treatment, I’ve been participating in an intensive outpatient program at a local non-profit. We have individual therapy, group processing sessions, and an educational portion (better coping skills) for a total of eight hours, spread over four nights, per week. Additionally, we are expected to attend at least three outside support groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Refuge Recovery, and/or SMART Recovery) per week. It’s a tall order, in addition to our jobs, but it is called “intensive” for a reason.
The non-profit that offers this IOP owns its own building, and in that building, they host some outside recovery groups (like those I mentioned above). About three weeks ago, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they suspended hosting those groups but continued hosting our IOP sessions. After all, we are paying clients, they have a different responsibility to us.
As much as I felt sympathy for those groups that lost access to space they had been using, I was glad that fewer people would be coming and going through that space, touching door handles and washroom faucets and whatnot. At the same time, I knew that staff were seeking HIPAA-compliant online venues on which to move our sessions. Two weeks ago, all services were moved to online venues. We have one portal that we use for our one-on-one sessions with our individual therapists, and for groups we use Zoom. This has been both a relief and a bummer. A relief because it relieves the stress and tension not just of commuting to and from the space, but also because it relieves the stress of passing or receiving an aggressively contagious bug; a bummer because we lose something when we’re not present in the same room.
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Another great boon for me is that it has freed me to attend so many more support group meetings online! Last week, I attended my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting since leaving inpatient treatment. There were something like 130 people on the Zoom platform, from all over the world! Every continent except South America and Antarctica were represented in that meeting. Some people sat at their desks, others were on their couches, on park benches, beside their swimming pools, and others were driving around in their cars. Some ate while others fiddled with their phones. A man in South Africa sat on the curb beside his car — sunny afternoon where I sat, nighttime for him — a couple blocks from his parents home where he was living after wrecking his life, but so grateful for the community we shared. People from all over the States, from Sweden, the Philippines, and Australia offered experience, strength, and hope to one another. At one point, the moderator had to remind folks that they were indeed still at a meeting and they should be mindful of others and put on a shirt.
There was at least one “newcomer” in that meeting, and as we say in all recovery groups, “The newcomer is the most important person.” That person shared their gratitude and wept, and I reached out to them in a private chat and shared some of my own experiences as tears welled up in my eyes, too.
I attended a Refuge Recovery meeting hosted by a person on Long Island, with about nine participants in total, I think (also on Zoom). That was so nice; I left feeling grounded and with my strength and resolve restored.
And I got to attend my first-ever SMART Recovery meetings. SMART Recovery is more science-based than some of the other support groups. In there, people shared information about what’s going on in our brains, on mending our neural pathways and creating newer, healthier pathways and habits. Stuff like brain chemistry and the mind-body connection. Much less faith-based than AA or NA. The first meeting was a Zoom video meeting, the second was a Zoom chat-only; I found the video meeting much more useful and meaningful than the chat, and I look forward to checking out more SMART Recovery meetings.
For me, this great shift from in-person meetings to online meetings has mostly been positive. Sure, we lose something by not sharing space, but we also don’t have to hug strangers (one of my least favorite aspects of 12-step meetings). I especially like that I can attend more Refuge Recovery meetings than were available to me, previously, because that program resonates with me the most. I am an anarchist, and I do not (as AA and NA require) accept that I am powerless over my addiction. As Boots Riley says in the song “Ride the Fence” by The Coup, I believe that “Power is the most effective anti-drug.” As an anarchist, I do appreciate that recovery groups are decentralized in their structure (each group is autonomous), with rotating leadership, and provide a space for individuals to offer each other solidarity and mutual aid.
At the same time, I feel compassion for “the addict in need,” whom we honor at the end of all meetings. I regret that not all people who may need support have access to the internet and/or the devices to connect. Even as I feel so grateful to be sober, especially in this time of great crisis and suffering in the world, I feel sadness and compassion for addicts who are suffering and creating suffering for people who may be socially isolating with them. (Expect domestic violence, child abuse, murder, and suicide rates to rise in this time — direct and indirect results of this global pandemic. Say a prayer for those folks, even if, like me, you don’t believe in god.)
I will leave you with a song — Lou Reed’s “Heroin” — but not that sad, mopey, drugged-out version from the time when he was in active addiction in the Velvet Underground. I prefer his live recording from 1974, after he’d kicked his habit. It is positively joyful — it could conceivably be a Grateful Dead version (sorry Lou, that comparison probably made you spin in your grave). I’ll leave you with a hopeful tune by Pharoahe Monch — the big 90s rap phenomenon who disappeared for almost two decades, spending time as a homeless heroin addict before reemerging in 2015 with a brilliant new album — too.
But first, here are the resources to connect to online, English-language meetings for those who need or want them (make note of the different time zones and do the math. Here’s a map of global time zones, too).
ADDENDUM: In the time I took to compose this, two deaths occurred in my “model minority” community. One young man died of an apparent overdose (the autopsy will take four to six weeks, but his family knew about his struggles) and a young lady died of cancer. While my heart goes out to both grieving families, while I acknowledge I owe a debt to the young man’s family that I can never repay (long story), I am a little angry with my parents and other community members for gathering in groups to grieve. This may be very selfish of me, but we can’t bring those people back, and when I hear my father say things like “The best protection is just to chant the lord’s name,” I am filled with rage. When I hear that, I hear utter disregard and disrespect for the brave and selfless healthcare professionals who are placing their own and their families’ health and lives in harm’s way to serve suffering individuals. Sigh. This too shall pass. Much love, compassion, and support to all beings from Count Grackula.
SECOND ADDENDUM: I am aware that Noah Levine, author of Refuge Recovery and founder of both Dharma Punx and the Refuge Recovery support groups, has been outed as a sexual predator. In this era of “Cancel Culture,” though, I am choosing not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” I am grateful to Levine for surrendering the copyright to the Refuge Recovery book to the non-profit which helps administer the groups, so that he no longer directly profits from its sales.