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From Statistic to Sobriety

An Essay on Addiction

By Tucker Robinson

I’m assuming if you’re reading this, at some point in your life, you’ve experienced anxiety in some way, shape, or form. The unwavering tremors, that scalding feeling deep in the pit of your gut, that ever present looming sense of doom, brought on by whatever fear inducing event or situation you’re staring down the barrel of. Although it’s quite common and pervasive within our culture these days, it still seems to be so unquantifiable and undefined. So often have I tried to relate to someone over our shared anxieties and it always feels like we’re speaking two different languages. Regardless, if you’ve experienced something like I’ve just described, there’s a good chance you know what it feels like to have walked a mile in my size 10 Van’s slip ons.

It started, for me, around age four. I was still too wee of a lad with neither the vocabulary, nor the verbal skills to put the feeling to words. But it was always there, unwavering and ever prevailing. At times it felt almost tangible, like I could reach out into the space in front of me and touch it, or could see it lurking over in the corner, ever present and always there. I remember frequently looking around the space I was in, making a concerted effort to read the faces and body language of my peers, trying to gather if they felt the same way I did. At eight years old, I was given a word for this feeling: “Anxiety,” I repeated the word out loud to no one in particular and it felt alien. A name and definition didn’t go far in helping me understand and manage the way that I felt. I was old enough now to gather that this particular feeling was exclusive to me, or so I thought. It made me feel unique and isolated, all at the same time. I overcompensated, I lied, I was defiant, all products of my meager attempts to mirror my peers’ behaviors. Those attempts often ended in being rebuked or laughed at, making that feeling all the more omnipresent. So, I withdrew further, growing constantly more resentful over a guide to life I seemed to have not received. The more problems I had the more I blamed my “anxiety,” which agitated it further and so on. I had almost resigned myself to a life of solitude and suffering, until one day that unwavering always looming sensation was cut short and stopped dead in its tracks.

It was clear and smelled strongly of juniper and pine. The bottle was tinted and green and didn’t look like it could’ve held more than half a liter. But no sooner had I brought the bottle to my lips and recoiled in disgust, did it become clear that the bottle was bottomless, it needed to be bottomless, a well that never ran dry. The disgusting taste was dwarfed by a chorus of 1,000 drums, horns, and cries, that coalesced into a sound of overwhelming relief. All in the midst of a moment, I was able to take 13 years of discontentedness and anxiety and isolation and violently jam it into that never ending bottle and cap off the next 10 years of my life. Because in that moment I knew true freedom, I was everything I wanted to be and didn’t have to change a thing. That guidebook I had never received had been dropped in my lap in the shape of a Tanqueray bottle. I dove headfirst into that bottomless well bathed in enlightenment, blissfully hyperaware that the looming presence had vanished. It wasn’t until much later that I pondered the cost of that freedom, after that well had stripped so much away and reduced me to nothing. There wasn’t a single moment that evening that I considered that night, alone in my room, that what I would find at the eventual bottom of the well would be undiagnosed alcoholism.

It’s October almost 10 years later, the frigid Boston wind blasts through my thin and filthy sweatshirt. Somewhere along the line, my prolonged indoctrination into all things addiction had become a broken way of life. That unwavering, unfaltering presence that had disappeared with a nip of gin now surrounded me. But relief was near, relief had told me it was 20 minutes away over an hour ago, but my choices were limited. I was running on empty, the well had run dry. It had been over a year since my last drink, but I certainly wasn’t free. In some misguided attempt at finding my way out of that well, I had exchanged the bottle for a syringe. I bear the weight of three treatments, numerous detoxes, a family I had pushed away, friends I had deserted, and that unrelenting presence. But in some convoluted attempt at hanging onto my youth, my use always seemed to take precedent and no matter the cost, I would wind up back on this same corner, waiting. I focus all my energy on not vomiting. I am cold. A car door opens, the exchange is quick, but the relief is even quicker. Just the feeling of the bag in my hand makes everything seem alright, even if it’s just for a moment. A moment of freedom is what I strive for, what I live for, isn’t it? Isn’t that how my journey down the well started? I look for a vein and get a hit, my thumb resting lightly on the plunger. I hesitate, tears start to well, teetering on the brink of “just one more” and oblivion. In this brief moment of clarity, I recognize that this journey has been all for naught. I’ve razed my life an in effort to chase away a presence that only stays gone until morning light. But now, when it wakes me from my restless sleep it brings sickness as well. Can I get out of this bottomless well? This presence may have chosen me, but I certainly didn’t elect to live with this presence. Can I change that? If I can, I need to be unburdened to do so. I push the plunger.

I am, to this day, baffled by the concept of addiction. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to put it in a box and define it. Hindsight is certainly 20-20, but the day I coughed and choked on my first drink I thought I had finally found something that alleviated that foreboding presence that followed me around constantly. Up until that day, it had been labeled many things: Anxiety, depression, anger issues, but not once did anyone offer up the idea that maybe it was untreated alcoholism. Why would they have? No one in my life was thinking in that manner, not many people in our country are thinking in that manner. A conversation that could’ve saved me a lot of pain and suffering was pushed aside, for what? In hopes of labeling it something less stigmatized? In an effort to label it something more treatable and better understood? Our culture is prone to looking for an easy answer, even if it’s the wrong one. Right now, there is a silent epidemic tearing through our country and people are still struggling to talk about it. We’ve lost more people to overdoses in the last year than we did American soldiers in WWII. The number of overdoses in our country has actually driven the average life expectancy down. But people don’t want to acknowledge it because there still isn’t an instant fix for the problem as a whole.

It has been over two years since I took my last drink or drug, and the only unwavering presence in my life,today, is gratitude. One of the most significant steps I’ve taken in my recovery so far has been re enrolling in college. My alcoholism and anxiety warped my perspective of higher education. For so long, college was just another way to escape the tight grip my parents had on me and further feed my addiction, another way to make sure that well never ran dry. Which is why I went in the first place. I made it less than six weeks. I think it’s an achievement to fail out as fast as I did. When the mental fog started to clear up as I transitioned out of treatment, someone mentioned college as a potential opportunity in my future. Only this time, I associated it as a place of learning as opposed to a place to drink. That shift in mindset is what has, so far, propelled me all the way up through my Sophomore year. The lessons that have been deeply engrained in me through my program have made a dramatic difference in the way I show up as a student. Free of that presence that followed me for so long, my decisions are now dictated by what’s best for me as a person in recovery, as opposed to my anxieties. I was also lucky enough to stumble into a collegiate recovery program at Augsburg University called StepUP. My success as a student is compounded by a combination of recovery and community.

I mention all of this because I hope that it helps people recognize that hiding under the rough exterior that is addiction is something beautiful. There was nothing that happened in my life that made me an addict, nothing I did, or anyone did to me. I’ve been an addict since the day I was born. It’s something that’s followed me around everyday, sun up to sun down, and my various attempts to escape it, took everything from me. It stripped me of my character and potential and reduced me to a person people lock their doors and hide their valuables around. But through a moment of clarity, a little bit of luck, and a tremendous amount of support, I’ve been able to reconstruct my life into something I’m proud of, a life of counted blessings, a life where there is no more day to day negotiation between responsibilities and feeling good, a life where my hopes and dreams are no longer collateral damage in my struggle for peace. But getting here took a lot of work, personal growth, and self acceptance, the kind of work that needs to start happening on a macro scale in our country. We aren’t just going to all wake up one day to the problem mended and the pieces put back together. Clawing our way through that rough exterior to the beautiful core means work, it means taking a firm stance and looking the problem right in the eye and acknowledging it’s there. The dissemination and distribution of information are our most powerful weapons in combatting the stigma that follows the word “addict.” For every life touched by this epidemic, there is a person with unlimited potential. On the other end of that statistic is a person with hopes and dreams waiting to be realized, and the resources to help them along the way should be a given. There is a wonderful future on the other side of this epidemic, but we have to work to get there.