Words of Hope and Fear

Approaches to solutions for problems are often confused with solutions themselves, especially for the misfits of society.

Especially for the people that the ‘normal’ world defines as abnormal.

Nobody wants to emotionally invest in the problem people, these misfits or the abnormal. It takes work to attempt to solve something that doesn’t actually need you involved nor unavoidably affect you. People don’t typically run into the house down the block if it is on fire to save the people they have never talked to.

If everyone outside of addiction looking in didn’t think a solution was immediately available to an addict, then everyone outside of addiction would have to face some more uncomfortable truths, and your typical non-addict (depending on what that even is) doesn’t much care for discomfort. This is particularly true when something like addiction is so close to being relatable for those outside of it. It may even force outsiders to examine themselves and be honest with themselves for a moment. Society, however, wouldn’t function as it currently is set up if lying to ourselves was more difficult, or if being true to ourselves was encouraged.

It really sucks coming to this reality from the other side, the side of the afflicted and receiver of the avoidance. One of the harshest realities that the outside world doesn’t really know about, and those combating addiction don’t know about until it is too late, is that often, treatment programs do not work. I’ve only been in mine for four months, and I’ve watched countless folks relapse or graduate just to return or even leave early. One of the biggest reasons this occurs is because programs exist in the shadows and on the fringe of society. They are outside of the direct gaze of the millions of non-afflicted. And, if a malady for an easily-ignorable portion of society known as addicts is, well…easily ignorable, then it will absolutely be ignored. And it will be treated with superficiality at best.

Homelessness, substance use, poverty or racial-based segregation. These are things that the majority of people who aren’t experiencing them are able to ignore, because if they weren’t able to ignore them, then these problems wouldn’t be so rampant. But then again, if these problems and peoples weren’t so easily ignorable, they might actually get fixed, and those that benefit from them wouldn’t have so much power.

This brings us to the main component of this piece, as mentioned in the beginning: Approach, specifically via the language used in the approach. The approach to this problem and the assumptions of solution are maddeningly poisonous, and it starts not necessarily with the outside world of ‘society,’ but with the internal functions, assumptions and approaches. It starts with the treatment programs themselves.

Treatment programs have wonderful components, but they also have a long way to go, and in this instance I am talking about the differences between what it takes to solve a problem and the actual solution, the goal, the final step. The process and the end result are wildly different, but often lumped into the same mindset, especially when we use the language of ostensible support we often do.

Treatment Programs are a huge part of addiction, and are often seen as the step to getting better. And it often is. Don’t get me wrong. I am a beneficiary of the success of a treatment program, or at least it was the short-term answer to my long term problem, spurred by the fear of finally being faced with losing everything. It was an excellent step for me. But rarely are we talking about what is happening within the little nuances of treatment programs, and even more rarely does the outside world know much truth about it. It isn’t a laundry machine, where clothes go in spoiled, dirty, and come out the original, clean and lovely garments you bought. It is more like a carwash, where you go in one end, and out the other a new, shiny exterior, but the inside of the car, the part that actually matters, didn’t change much. It still has stains, scratches, cigarette burns and holes in the upholstery, dark things hidden in dark corners or under seats. Those things take time and effort to fix. And sometimes, they cannot be fixed at all.

We treat addiction with a sad smile and everyone saying it’s going to be fine over and over. You’ll come out better. This is great that you are doing it. It is a preconceived notion of a beginning linked directly to an end, without any thought of the middle. Without any thought of either the journey that middle represents or the idea that there could be any other outcome at the end than fairytale delight.

One of the primary examples of this middle, the process of combating addiction, is language and the expressions we use.

This language tends to be positive, syrupy, and have a very sad but sanctimonious undercurrent. From the outside world, it tends to look like this:

  • Oh, I had no idea. I’m so sorry (which of course means they were not actually your friend, more of an acquaintance.. If your friend says they had no idea you had an addiction problem, they didn’t pay a damn bit of attention to you, or only hung out with you because it gave them an excuse to also drink.)
  • Good for you. (Typically, said flatly, or with a slight lilt. It mainly signifies either incoherence, inability to understand, or veiled disdain. Unfortunately, hearing someone has a problem often turns others off to that person, as if addiction was contagious and passed through physical contact or proximity)
  • Oh sweet! (for some reason I got this one the most, and it truly demonstrates the jump to the end and to the positive assumed outcome, with zero thought to what it will take to get there, if one ever even does)

From the more internal world of those within recovery, such as the staff of a recovery organization or others that are intimately involved, it can look like this:

  • Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. (pity is helpful, but a maternal figure is typically not what is needed at the time, with apologies for gender role assumption. An emotional spiral doesn’t need to be nurtured into further spiral)
  • Well, we are here to help! (this one can come off as disingenuous, which is why I include it. It is more honest and forward looking, but it has to be said correctly, and often isn’t. The problem with this is that as the receiver of this encouragement, we don’t know what actual help is. We are stumbling blindly through an experience of shock and change, and have no idea what kind of help we even need, so throwing ambiguity at us only allows our minds to wander and jump to unrealistic conclusions.)
  • You’ll get through this. (this is the most poisonous one. Because it sparks hope without any understanding of what it is going to take. I cannot tell you how powerful it was to hear this in the beginning of my fear-induced recovery adventure, but it made me feel better, which made me skip to the end where I graduate and have a loving family and am successful. I had no idea what it would take to get there, and if I ever would (still don’t), and it covered the process up entirely. Hope can be poisonous as hell, please don’t inject us with that.)

Now, all of these expressions can do two things that the giver of them doesn’t intend, but intention is fickle at best. And the below explanations are why these expressions can be very harmful.

First off, you set someone up for a higher likelihood of failure by invalidating their current state.

Addiction treatment isn’t fun. And this often awful, embarrassing, stressful venture includes interaction with staff and friends and everyone that is involved in one way or another. It’s not everyone coming together and holding hands and bowing their heads and the support system offering a safe place or a need you suddenly find you have but can’t fill. It’s lonely, it’s understanding that those horrid things that seemingly only happen in movies or to wealthy people or people sitting around us in our group are real. They happen in real time, sometimes right off the bat, and to me. To us. I know several people who lost their children legally, their home, their partner and their car in under a week. They lost health insurance the moment they hit hardcore withdrawal and needed it the most. They had to call their children and tell them they weren’t going to be home, had to give up their dogs and had to find a new couch to live on or a treatment center to check into just for a bed to sleep in. And they all had previously very normal, often successful lives. It’s real. It really happens to people like myself, and it’s quick as lightning and cuts so deeply that often, not sometimes, you can’t stop the bleeding.

That’s why these expressions are met most often by a weak smile and an abrupt end to the conversation from the addict. We don’t want to hear fairy tale platitudes, we want those around us to understand how terrified we are of losing everything so completely, going to jail, having to find a new place to sleep that night, or all the above.

Patting a back and expressing prognostications of a better future just makes the current state more real because you are reminding us of how far away we are from that. And it sets us up to be ignorant of the fact that our ending might not be good, and nothing hits harder than the unexpected.

That’s called hope. And Hope is poisonous…

Secondly, and more impactful and thus harmful, you give someone hope. Hope is poisonous and so much more related to fear than most people realize because most people don’t have only hope to lean on when everything else is on the line or gone.

Fear and hope when you are in recovery are the same thing.

This is because hope without fear means you have nothing or little to actually lose. You hope it doesn’t rain today because you either stay as you are, neutral, or you don’t gain. There isn’t really a loss of something essential that can happen. It rained on your party? Ok, it didn’t cause you to lose anything, you just didn’t gain an awesome, sunny party. You walk away the same you with the same things and the same situation.

Hope with fear means you do have something to lose, and that hope is the only positive way you can lie to yourself to make yourself feel better and forget, even for a second, that the chances you will lose your children and your home are likely. Imagine hoping that the mail will come tomorrow, and in that mail is the check you need to pay your mortgage, or you will lose your house. But tomorrow is Sunday. No mail. You hope beyond logic that a mail person is doing a Sunday run, but you know they aren’t. But all you have is hope to lean on or you will dissolve into despair. Monday is too late. That’s what addiction does to hope.

Giving someone this type of hope is really, really damaging. I remember realizing one day that all the people at my group were only a small step away from where I was. I was an inch from losing everything and being just like “them.” Egotism aside, my hope for my recovery and my family still being there was tenuous and extremely fragile, and often still is, but I never really thought about it being that until that moment in group when I realized I was almost exactly like the situation I thought I was above. Hope fooled me into thinking I would solve this and move on, into thinking I was better now and everything would be fine. It wouldn’t be. It still isn’t, and the slam of that hitting me hurt so badly and deeply. Very few people have felt fear-induced panic. It’s horrible. Its a galvanized mindset so strong and so manic that you make decisions with complete disregard to your health or to logic. You run through razor blades just to get to the other side, knowing that at least there might be something on the other side, regardless of how many cuts you have or blood you lost. You end up nearly killing yourself just to get rid of that feeling. This is a metaphor for most, but maybe can help someone understand how strong fear that is shrouded in hope can be.

That’s why saying these things to someone new to recovery and sobriety does so much harm. Because hope is the only thing that we can grasp when we are frantically drowning, and hope, like fear, isn’t often tethered to anything, but it’s worse than fear because we need it to be real and think it will be realized and convince ourselves of a possibility of a reality that isn’t real. Hope takes fear and puts it behind a curtain with a wildly enticing silhouette . You can make it out if you squint, and your imagination runs wild with the lust of getting to that outline of possibility and second chances. And when you rip the curtain down in mania it’s false and ugly and smiling in a terrible way, and it’s too late for you to put the curtain back because you ripped it off in your manic episode of trying to get to what you thought was behind it without considering that it could have been anything else..

That’s what hope does. Intentionality drives the poison that fills the dart of your words of comfort. And then you shoot this dart of hope into us and we slowly collapse.



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Derek Martin

Addict, professional, partner, father. I love things we are supposed to love and that I choose to love. Conflicted, recovering.