First Twelve Weeks in Recovery—Helping the Nine

Devan sits in group day after day, so still and quiet you’d never know he was there. Second week in it dawns on me. I continually don’t ask Devan to share. It’s like he emits a strange force-field that actually makes him invisible. He’s there on the couch but you can’t really see him. Your eyes pass over him without questioning him, as if he’s a part of the furniture. His ability to emit zero-life-force-energy is remarkable. It’s as if he’s a Jedi Master who waves his hand and says, “Look away, counselor, I’m not here. No need to ask me any questions, move on. Ask the next guy. Look away, counselor.” I call him on it. “Devin, how to you manage to avoid getting asked to share? How do you do it?” A big, sun-splitting grin creeps across his face, eyes suddenly lighting up with recognition, he arising from his internal camouflaged bomb shelter for a brief minute. “I learned it in grade school,” he says. “I just knew how to get teachers to not see me, to move past me, to pass over me as I lie quiet as a mouse. I got pretty good at it.”

No kidding, I think. He skillfully emits a force-field that quietly delivers the message, “Don’t bother me. Don’t approach me.” And wildly enough he can morph into the color and contour of the couch so he’s virtually indistinguishable from it—he’s become a part of the furniture. And even trickier, he can shape-shift into the client that looks like he’s doing just fine. It’s amazing (unlike the Type Eight who’s a bull in a China shop). In fact, he’s the master of “I’m fine.” (In recovery-speak that means ‘I’m F—uped, insecure, emotional and neurotic!’) He’s lost his family, his kids are broken-hearted over him, he doesn’t have a job, and he’s over there on the corner of the couch looking as chill as anyone possibly could. (We say the Nine gives ‘good face.’)

His outer expression looks like he’s appropriately engaged, listening to others, exuding facial expressions that look like he’s paying attention (not overdoing it of course, that would draw attention, but not totally checked out either, right in between where he gains no notice), adeptly not reflecting anything that might draw ‘counselor attention’ to him. No, let’s keep the counselor skillfully chilled out too. You see, he cultivates an enticing ambiance around him that has everyone nodding along in ‘spiritual bypass’ mode when it comes to him, all feeling hypnotically at ease with his I’ve-charmed-you-into-relaxing-and-over-looking-me, presence. Yes, he’s gotten everyone to disassociate from him the way he disassociates from himself! Except, with a little awareness you see that he’s a little too nice based on the terror of his situation, and so accommodating even the angels are on red alert. But he gets away with it because he can emit a kind of soothing, honey-like psychic emotional substance that wordlessly says “I-support-you-counselor-dude, I’m your friend—no problem here—all is well in my private Death Valley, in my swamp of poisonous snakes, I’ve even charmed them into relaxing and sleeping, even the vultures are passing me by for better, juicer meat”—such that he numbs you with it.

Well, it’s trickier that than…he can sooth you with his numbness. That’s his other Jedi gift: he emits that calming, hypnotic, sweet as sugar, sit-back-and-relax energy through his instinctive center and swear to god you get lulled to sleep and complacency, and you like it. He’s found your numbing button and he’s pressing it. (Of course, this is a gift of his instinctual intelligence wherein he’s learned to survive in traumatic situations and not draw dangerous attention or circumstance to him.) And next thing you know he’s left rehab, a wave of pleasantness coating your most recent perception of him so you didn’t notice the impending signs that he was leaving, that he’s slipping away. He was so likable, you think to yourself. In retrospect, like waking from a dream, it dawns on you that’s he’s been gone ever since he arrived in rehab as he’s hidden skillfully and seamlessly in your fast-asleep-perception, and only the next day do you barely notice he’s not in group. Where the hell did Devan go? Hey, did anyone see him leave?

And what drives Nine’s passion to stay hidden behind their invisibility cloak? Fear. Utter, vulnerable, raw, I could die if I’m seen, fear. If I’m seen, located in space, I will be annihilated, cut off from all that I love. Like the terror Sandra Bullock exuded in the role of an astronaut in Gravity, nearly cut loose from the mother ship and sent spasmodically out of control into deep space, nothing to hang on to but her lifeline as the terror of her impending death and end of contact with all she loved, family, children, home, hung in the balance. If that fear doesn’t freeze you with a bone-chilling wish to not be seen and to stay invisible, I don’t know what would.

So I (the Nine speaking) lie low, below the surface of my life, a stone underneath the surface of the stream, life gliding over me, you not noticing me. In fact, I don’t notice me. I’m so good at hiding, you don’t notice me and I don’t notice me, so no disturbance occurs inside or outside me. I hide out, go for cover, trying not to be affected by anything because being noticed means losing all security, safety, and peace that I imagine I’m in possession of, regardless if it’s only my imagined, delusionary peace found between my ears. Which is it. It is…it is…it is!

Problem is, this ‘I-protect-myself-by-disappearing’ phenomena is the exact, precise thing that calls his addiction to him, wakes the slithering snake up, because in the fog of this dream undigested and unrecognized emotional disturbance located in his real, lived life, located in the interior of his being—fear, anger, shame, vulnerability, powerlessness—can only be held at bay outside of his awareness for just so long before it merges with the vampire force of his addiction, and wakes it up such that suddenly, out of the blue, three years sober, the Nine finds himself drinking himself to death not knowing how he picked up the booze in the dreary alcohol aisle of Shop N’ Save. How did that happen? I don’t even remember picking the bottle up! Truth is he was mesmerized watching a euphoric-recall video of his addiction life (all the good parts, that is) that crept into his mind-stream in the midst of his fog of numbness, and unwittingly seduced him, saying, “Time to drink, time to shoot up, then you’ll feel relaxed and at peace; then you will feel as if you are home.” As the Type Nine later describes it, “Entering my thought stream like an old friend, erasing all memory of the terror and horror that awaits, I sipped on the euphoric recall of past drinking and drugging experiences and down I went, into the forgotten abyss of my repetitious suffering. And weirdly it felt good to sink into annihilation, like dropping into the arms of an old friend. How can hopelessness feel good? How weird is that?” It is a song, a hypnotic movie, a videotape that is always willing to meet him, that seeks him out.                                                                          

So the work is cut out for the Nine, from the standpoint that he has been residing, hibernating, building a secret garden of pleasure and comfort in his imagination while his “lived life” where real family members have lost faith in him, where his children grieve deeply for him, where his contact with reality has been avoided by the next moment of shooting up with heroin or dousing his life force with other painkillers. Everything has been reversed. His real thoughts and real suffering that brought him into addiction treatment feel like ‘unreal’ thoughts, dreamlike thoughts having no substance or capacity to ‘touch’ him. His imaginary life where pleasurable scenes and euphoric recall images of all his fun moments drinking and drugging play like a nonstop movie in his imagination—these feel real to him. (An example of this dream world addiction is found in the movie Requiem for Dream, most especially in the role played by Ellen Burstyn. Her imagination becomes what she experiences as ‘real.’)

He has learned to fix his attention here on his imagined life, to mistake this fantasy safe-zone, imagination-world as the ‘real,’ where he is anesthetized from his life-suffering until he can’t avoid it. Take the drugs away, drugs that fuel the inflamed imagination-retreat he has unwittingly created for himself, and he is left with no defenses except his capacity to withdraw, to pull an invisibility cloak over himself, and simply hunker down in hiding mode. And in that moment he is gripped by terror, the terror that he is unprotected and could die, simply by being here. The terror that what he imagined as real is nothing but. It is at this perilous point of awareness—in the cradle of emptiness in new sobriety—seeing that he’s sunk into a snake infested world of illusion—recovery begins. From this tender and most vulnerable place, those around him must be his anchor of reality until he begins to make friends with reality. (Fours also struggle with this imagination disease.)

In the first weeks of recovery when discomfort arises, dragons of annihilation at every turn, his suffering will arise unedited. His defenses will not work. Either he cracks open into reality, or he dives back into familiar suffering. It will take a monumental effort for him to simply say out loud what he is experiencing, and to stay with the realizations (Surely this is difficult for everyone!). Remember, his internal survivor script is to do nothing that causes conflict or suffering for others, and nothing that allows him to be seen. And yet, here on this cliff of death where he dangles off the overhang, he must be seen, must be heard, cannot stay mute. Yet the Inner Critic voice will screech through his brain, “You are nobody special and you better keep it that way.” When he starts to speak up and tell his truth, his Inner-Critic-fire-breathing-dragon will blare, “Who do you think you are? You’re taking up the breathing space of others simply by being here. Shut up!” And often he will. Or, as Bill-from-Chicago would say, “When feelings arise I feel so incredibly tired I could fall asleep on the spot. All energy drains from my being. I instantly forget what I was feeling or thinking. I go blank.”

His habit of retreating into non-reality awareness is a powerful magnet as is his habit of blurring all things of discomfort into unrecognizability. Feelings? What feelings? Marty says it this way:

“When I was in early recovery and you asked me what I was feeling I felt like I looked down into a deep well of foggy murkiness. I was upset, was feeling something, but the minute you asked me about it, it immediately became so indistinct and unclear, would fog up into a cloud of confusion, that mostly I’d say, ‘I have no idea.’ And I meant it. In actuality, I felt a vague formless discontent that if I rested in it too long, would suddenly ascend from this fog in the form of unnamed anxiety, like a snake slithering up my spine. I’d immediately shut down and slip into my delusion-space where comforting dreams could settle me down. Learning to feel inner distinctions around my feelings took a long damn time. My first task was to simply stay sober, keep showing up, and find someone to lean on, who could guide me, because I felt like I had no ground underneath me, and no inner sense of knowing what was real. My feelings and wants and needs, well, ask me about this and you’re asking me to speak a foreign language. I simply had to hang on with faith that at some point I’d come out of the fog. I didn’t realize I was in a fog until I started to get glimpses of real feelings. I needed my counselor, my recovery friends, to teach me to identify my feelings.

Often they’d see and sense that I was sad and they’d note it for me, bringing my attention to my voice, saying, “You sound so sad. I hear it in your voice. Can you hear yourself as you speak?” Or bringing attention to my facial expression, they’d say, “Your eyes are moistening. You look sad. Can you feel sadness in your face, or your throat, or your chest? What do you notice?” I had to practice attuning to these details, sensing into them, inch my inch, allowing myself to open to what was going on inside me. It was extremely weird and difficult because I had so many buffers built in to keep my emotional experience on a very thin band of existence. No highs, no lows, just a gray zone that kept me safe, so I thought. Widening that band of feeling experience, well, I needed people to notice and teach me the language, teach me how to identify what was going on inside me. Slowly I learned to lean into the terror that I was going to be abandoned if I felt anything. Little by little I learned that it is safe to be here as I am, with the feelings I’m experiencing, with the desires I possess.