At one point in time I found myself sitting in a circle of strangers and announcing—out of obligation—that I was an addict. It was my first day in an adult recovery intensive outpatient program (IOP), and after filling out so much paperwork that I felt like I needed a beer afterward, I sat in one of the three unoccupied seats in a surprisingly large room. As introductions made their way around the circle, tears teetered on the edge of my bottom eyelid. I was so overwhelmed by the realness of the situation that I didn’t notice I was next; and so I hastily said, “I’m Chenille, and I’m an addict” because I’m a people-pleaser and I thought that was what I should say. I wanted to say nothing at all—to not be acknowledged—but my discomfort with being rude resulted in a type of lie. Fifty-two vulnerable and unfamiliar eyes filled with curiosity and shame and guilt pointed in my direction and expected me to say something because they just shared and it was my turn to do the same.
I made the appointment for the initial assessment because sometimes I hurt so much, or I was so apathetic, or I was so defeated, or I was so frustrated, and I habitually used some kind of substance to check out. Later, I was told I lacked “coping skills;” but it wasn’t until the third day in that it clicked: I was in an addiction recovery program because they thought I was an addict, and not because I was a high-functioning depressive with bipolar disorder, and they didn’t have a specific program that fit my situation. And so I suddenly became an addict.
In the coming weeks I continued to introduce myself as an addict because I didn’t want the other group members to feel uncomfortable by my intrusion (because I wasn’t like them). It was fucking audacious and my intentions were misplaced, but the bonds I formed had a genuine level of truth. Regardless of our story, there was not a shroud of security for any of us. We all stood naked in front of one another at some point. Without warning, a counselor seized the opportunity to dismantle our rationale and reveal the shortcomings masked by our drug of choice. They snipped the threads of alcohol and opiates that stitched together broken pieces of our Selves, and left every excuse and fear and insecurity on the floor. And then they taught us how to put our Selves back together. And our families back together. And our lives back together. They gave us the tools, and we had to heal ourselves.
Sometimes I assumed other identities—human, bipolar, Chenille—none of which were acceptable to the counselors because they weren’t ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’. To them, I needed to understand and accept the fact that I had “a disease caused by an allergy to alcohol”. It was separate from having bipolar disorder. It was physiological—not a character flaw.
“If you’re not an addict, then what are you doing here?”
There’s no sensation like the nudge of questioning squints as you have an ongoing identity crisis in front of a group of people who have accepted their flaws and are waiting for you to realize your own. I asked myself that question repeatedly while I was in the program and caused distress and confusion in my relationship as a result. My partner didn’t think I was an addict, and was convinced that the counselors were missing the entire picture because they were trained to pick out characteristics in a person and chase down those traits like a hound dog on the scent of a rabbit.
To say that I didn’t go back because “I’m not an addict” is such a simplistic retort that it feels like a cop-out. I had been going for several weeks, so why didn’t I go that morning?
I didn’t go because I knew I wasn’t guaranteed to graduate from the program in the anticipated four weeks.
I didn’t go because I was giving up on feeling frustrated and confused.
I didn’t go because I didn’t deserve the pieces of Selves that I was given.
I didn’t go because I felt like a fraud in AA meetings.
I didn’t go because I had to become a mental contortionist to fill in the blanks and check the boxes to complete the homework.
I didn’t go because I didn’t have a spiritual awakening like Bill.
I didn’t go because I can walk away.
I didn’t go because I started meditating again, and paying attention to the air.
I didn’t go because I took off my spiritual earmuffs and could hear again.
I didn’t go because I was being honest.
The reality of the situation is that I could have increased my dosage of lamotrigine, found a therapist, and the rest would have sorted itself out. But none of that would have forced me to stop, crawl outside of my feelings, and reconnect with the world around me. Modern medicine can help me feel balanced, but not centered.
I didn’t go that morning because I had learned the lessons I needed to learn, and—for me—the program was over. It had fulfilled its purpose.