“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi
I know this sounds like a peculiar comment to make, but if I’m honest, it is a truth I have kept hidden for years. My sister and I both had a traumatic childhood–filled with abandonment, emotional, mental, and physical abuse.
The agony of wondering why we were never good enough to be loved by our parents, coupled with never being able to gain approval from our grandmother who took us in, resulted in soul-deep wounds. The kind of scars you don’t see, yet they are always decaying, changing the way you feel emotions, process stress, or act in certain circumstances. This type of injury leaves you riddled with pain, guilt, and inadequacy.
This sort of emotional distress, according to Shahram Heshmat Ph.D., can lead to self-medication and loneliness, two of the most common reasons a person embarks down the potentially life long path of drug addiction.
Drug addiction is a disease that makes doing things like earning money, having stable housing, and functioning in society even more challenging. It doesn’t seem like there is much to envy there, yet I sometimes wish that I could self medicate all the pain away or that I didn’t feel so lonely.
“One of the hardest things was learning that I was worth recovery.” – Demi Lovato
I wonder what it feels like to deaden the pain or have my mind turn itself off, just for a little while. I imagine that in these moments, the person using drugs is finally able to escape the reality they exist in every single day. The voice of low self-esteem, whispering to them that no one can “actually” love them, and anyone who does is lying. The touch of guilt, grabbing hold, and shaking them until they admit that “of course” it was all their fault.
That inner critic illuminating all the flaws, safely hiding in the dark; those reasons why nothing you do is ever good enough. I know that repeated trauma altered my brain chemistry (I have cPTSD) and that there are people who genuinely do not understand what it feels like to live with all these thoughts.
“Following a traumatic experience, the brain produces fewer endorphins, one of the chemicals that help us feel happy. People with PTSD may turn to alcohol and other mood-enhancing drugs, which increase endorphin levels. Over time, they may come to rely on drugs to relieve all of their feelings of depression, anxiety, and irritability.“
Instead of relying on narcotics; perfectionism, and control became my coping methods. These drugs of choice only fed the demons who told me I was worthless. It didn’t matter that I graduated from college at 17 with an Associate’s degree (because I wouldn’t stop biting my nails after my grandmother demanded it of me).
I wanted to earn a Bachelor’s degree (but that was expected from me, and only from the schools she approved of). Searching for the achievement that would complete me became such a driving force in my life that it turned into an addiction itself.
The high produced by accolades was able to put distance between the person who suffered all this misfortune, and the face I presented to the world. As far as problems went, this seemed like the perfect dilemma to have: I have been married nearly two decades, with two beautiful children.
I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business and will complete my Master’s of Science in Management and Leading Teams at the end of March. It is perfect…except for the fact that when I look around at my peers, I feel so incredibly lonely.
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” – Mother Teresa
This is a recent development for me, or at least it is something I am recently choosing to acknowledge. It all started when I began to have issues with my teenage daughter.
Every argument we had escalated, resulting in a heated reaction that didn’t match the discussion, leaving my daughter disconcerted and bitter. I began trying to explain to other moms why her choosing to ride with her friends to dance events instead of with me crushed my spirit and made me sob uncontrollably.
They didn’t understand, and I found myself elaborating on my past, only to see pitying glances. The more I talked (and wrote) about these things, the more I realized the people around me hadn’t experienced trauma like this. Most couldn’t even fathom the stories I would tell, asking things like, “Did that really happen to you?”. Or they would say well-meaning things like, “You would never guess you lived through all this!”.
I came away from conversations like these feeling like maybe it wasn’t as bad as I remember, or surely I would be much worse for the wear. I began to feel like I had done something wrong by succeeding in areas I should have failed. After all:
- Only 2.5 percent of children who grow up in foster care graduate from a four-year college
- Only 8% of the U.S. population has a Master’s degree (I can’t find any information on what percentage of this group have high ACE scores)
- Adults suffering from cPTSD have difficulty maintaining relationships
For the first time in all my life, I felt like I didn’t belong with the group of people I had tried so hard to emulate. I was an outsider, too “broken, chipped, or glued,” as my grandma would say of everything in her house that we ruined.
I had surrounded myself with a group of peers that had mostly idyllic childhoods and came from well-respected parents.
The people like me, whose mom’s were strippers that would get so high at the club they couldn’t recall where they had left their child, were doing drugs. The people like me, who had no contact with their father from age five until adulthood, were likely in jail on drug charges.
The people like me, who were beaten with fly swatters or shoes, had already overdosed. The people like me, who developed trauma bonds, were looking for love inside a needle. The people like me, who succumbed to the lure of self-medicating to evade the loneliness, sat in NA meetings trying to get healthy.
“The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” – Margaret Thatcher
At one point, not too long ago, I was speaking with my sister about an argument that she had with our grandmother. She stated that she was struggling and craving the feeling of freedom that drugs brought her.
I told her how proud I was of her for getting this far in her recovery, and that maybe she should go to a meeting. She made an off-handed comment about how “the people she used to do drugs with understood her and didn’t judge her.” I didn’t realize how much jealousy I had harbored in my heart until she said this.
We are all broken
“You can’t defeat the darkness by keeping it caged inside of you.” – Seth Adam Smith
So, I suppose, that I am not envious of the drug addiction itself, but rather the sense of belonging that she was able to find with the people who intimately understood her anguish. I was always angry at her for taking the “easy way” out, while I fought and clawed my way to respectability and normalcy.
Yet, I have begun to realize that it takes incredible bravery to stare her demons down every day. I tried to distance myself from the truth and create a new reality. In doing so, I never honestly dealt with any of it, and it spilled over into every area of my life. Much like an addict, I thought I had it all under control, and no one could see I had a problem.
But we can all find strength from the broken places
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway
I have been trying to find alternatives to my methods of self-medicating, and I hope that sharing them with you will help you find a healthy option that works for you.
- Meditation – I struggle with this one, as I find it hard to “be still” for any length of time. “The Calm” app is a great tool to get started with practicing mindfulness and breathing.
- Exercise – There is a lake near my house that I walk around every day. It gets me outside and feeling connected to nature, while simultaneously increasing my endorphins.
- Nurture a hobby – Since getting out of recovery, my sister has rekindled her love of sewing. She has always been interested in fashion, so now she makes purses. While I read…and write.
I find it harder to combat the loneliness, but volunteering and giving back are great ways to feel like you’re not alone. I felt most fulfilled when I taught swim lessons and coached a swim team. Organizations like CASA and Big Brothers, Big Sisters, are always looking for people to help endangered youth.
Maybe you don’t feel ready to help anyone else yet, and that is ok! Find a meeting near you and connect. Reach out to your sponsor or a trusted friend who loves you. Or maybe a sibling who has missed you.
“You can’t defeat the darkness by keeping it caged inside of you.” – Seth Adam Smith