Addiction Awareness: It Starts With Personal Awareness

National Addictions Awareness Week is happening this week. It starts with personal awareness. As a man in long-term recovery, I have a fair bit of awareness of addiction and substance use disorders. Sometimes I wish I didn’t need to.

For me, I began fighting my addiction at age 14. That was when I first realized that I was risking my life every time I chose to consume.

It began with alcohol. I was 13 when I had my stomach pumped in the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It was my second time drinking and I consumed so much I blacked out in the back of a police car after being pulled out of a bush on the side of a middle school. 

I say began fighting addiction purposely. I drank again. In fact, I progressed from chugging the way I had, to learning how to consume. Sort of like the first time you floor the gas pedal to a more measured use.  You still drive, you just don’t roll the vehicle when you turn corners.

Just before I blacked out, my face on the cool leather of the backseat of that blue and white police car, my entire world was spinning like a merry-go-round. How could it all have gone so wrong, so fast? A half-hour earlier I was chugging from a Beefeater Gin bottle, loving the feeling of omnipotence. I was invincible. 

And then I was being pulled by the scruff of my collar from a prickly bush by a stocky cop.

Someone with a better grip on addiction awareness might have noticed I was unable to control my intake. Me? No. The fight was on. After the grounding I received after the hospital incident, I understood I needed to go beneath the radar with my pursuit of the perfect mix. But make no mistake.  Every time I drank, or swallowed pills, or snorted powders, I knew I was on the edge.

Think about it. By 13, I knew I was involved in something that could wind me in hospital. That was the low bar. I hadn’t even considered the morgue.

Addiction awareness. 

All through my teens and into my twenties, I didn’t wake up – I came to. Sometimes during the day. Sometimes with people I didn’t recognize. Sometimes they were armed. Sometimes they had kids. Sometimes I didn’t know what country I was in. 

I couldn’t explain why I was willing to be so risky. A decade into my substance use, I was still telling myself that the situation (fill in the blank) was a one-off. An anomaly. It was just a phase. It was something I ate. It was the wrong combination of substances, or food, or even the pop in my drinks. It was never meant to be dangerous. I was just trying to have fun.

My last three years of consuming were the worst. I stopped telling myself it was a fluke I had been beaten up. Or had wet my pants. Or had spent the night in the drunk tank. Again. I had merely rolled the dice and gone at it, hoping this time would be different.

Addiction awareness.

By 17, I was embarrassed with myself. I had been acting out bizarrely, getting in fights with friends and strangers alike. Doing petty crimes, pondering larger ones. My innocence was gone, my moral code pointing wayward. Embarrassment turned to shame. Deep shame. I knew better. I just desperately wanted to find the right combination to feel invincible one more time, without being a complete fool.

I left home and joined the military at 17. I needed a new start. A new identity. The Canadian Forces gave it to me. I had to earn it, and all through boot camp I pushed myself. I endured name-calling, bullying, a harsh Bay of Fundy winter, strep throat, a tear gas shack, 10-kilometre hikes fully geared up with backpacks and rifles. I wanted that new identity that bad. 

I got it. I was posted and trained, trained and posted. From Montreal to Cornwallis, Cornwallis to Borden, Borden to Halifax, Halifax to Esquimalt.

And addiction doesn’t care what province you are in, what job you hold. 

I drank more. I fought. I embarrassed myself again and again. Military police. Civilian police. Broken bones. Drunk. Disorderly. Helpless.

I ended up in treatment before my 20th birthday. I was trying to avoid a longer jail sentence than the weekends I had been piling up. I learned about addiction. I was armed with information. Ten days after treatment, I committed myself to not drinking “that way” ever again. I would drink the right way, I swore to myself.

Addiction awareness. 

Two impaired charges. A marriage. Broken hearts, broken bones. More charges. Suicidal thoughts. Sullen, angry at being called on my behaviours, I walked away from my military career.  Suicide attempts, the progression of addiction.

My life sucked. AND I knew I was suffering from a medical condition known as addiction, or substance use disorder. I knew. I was aware. I was spiraling, thrashing in the shaking death-grip of its sharp teeth.

I had a plan to die. I was going to do it. The rocky ravine at the end of my street would do it. I was 27 and out of answers. I hated you. All of you. I hated me more. 

Addiction awareness.

And moments of clarity arrive right on time. My partner convinced me to make a call for help. I did, and never drank again. 

I’ve been called a drunk, a stoner, a piss tank and a loser. I was a dropout, a drug dealer, a thief, an adulterer. Fighting words, but I knew they were all part of my truth.

Stigmatized, ashamed, afraid and aware. Through it all, I was always told I had all this potential. Promoted, demoted, given second chances.

Addicted.

In recovery I learned even more about addiction. About the medical facts. About the psychological damage I had caused, to me, to others. I had amends to make, and healing to do. I did them.

I used to break into cars for change. I was named Citizen of the Year in the town I moved to just two years prior. I grew up in the foster care system. I went on to take part in raising five wonderful kids. I once got a 26-percentage mark for my year in chemistry. I went on to win awards as a newspaper editor. I have hidden my face from my wife after being released from cells. I have spoken in front of service clubs and once managed a hockey school for underprivileged children.

Recovery.

I am not just my condition. I am in recovery. 

My story is bumpy, messy and has had deep lows and lofty highs. I didn’t want the lows, yet I didn’t understand my part in them. 

I do understand, I am aware today, of addiction.

I do understand, and am grateful for, recovery.

This week is National Addiction Awareness Week. Scientists say one or two in 10 in North America have substance use issues. Do the math. If it is one in 10, that is 36 million. If it is two in 10, that is 72 million on our continent, in our homes, schools, workplaces and yes, on our streets. Many of them suffering, stigmatized, afraid. Alone.

Addiction awareness. Are you aware?