Friday, February 28, 2014

The Probation Era

The #350 runs down Airport Blvd and makes a stop at Austin Community College Riverside campus. At that point, most “normal people” get off and go on their way. The route continues to Del Valle, carrying the dregs of society returning to their halfway house, meeting someone getting out of the correctional facility or making their probation appointment. That’s why I was on it...probation.

Last week was my final meeting with my probation officer at SMART, and for that reason I paid closer attention to just how dreary and awful Del Valle is. It is all shattered concrete, dirt and weeds. You won’t see a manicured lawn there, no suburbs really. There’s nothing but shady convenience stores, trailers, county lockup and broken dreams. I can’t imagine considering a halfway house there a fresh start. But hey, I was a resident in the SMART program there for 5 months, so I can’t really say much about an alternative to jail. Considering how ugly Del Valle is, I’m glad SMART didn't have much of a view of the surrounding area. 

While in the waiting room to see my p.o., I ran into one of my counselors from the program who asked how I was doing. He said, “You know, I still mention you in class, not by name of course, but about how you were always honest and called people out on bullshit. And also how you vocalized that you weren’t sure you liked me that much.” I replied, “I’ll get back to you on that, Scott.” He smiled and said, “Well, it’s a good thing I’m not here to be everybody’s buddy.” We shook hands. I'm still not sure if I like him.

A few minutes later, I was buzzed in, and I walked into the office of my probation officer Gabe. He let me know I had another perfect breathalyzer report, meaning I had blown into the device in the required time frames last month, which were between 5am-8am, 5pm-8pm and 10pm-12am. The breathalyzer has a camera on it and records a picture of me taking each test. This means Gabe could, if he was bored enough, could scroll through 90 pictures of me a month (see Ghosts of Breathalyzers Past).

Gabe: “Every time one of my people try to explain why they missed a window or failed a test and come up with excuses, I use you as an example. I say, ‘See this report? It can be done!’” Great. I’m blowing the curve for other drunks on probation. It’s like grade school all over again.

We run through the standard questions I get every month. Have I had any contact with law enforcement? Have I used any drugs or drank alcohol? Am I on any medication? And then he concluded our meeting by asking, “Are you ready to maintain your sobriety all on your own, no monitoring or breathalyzer?”

The question gave me pause. I was pretty sure I was ready to be done with all the bullshit. I was definitely sure I was tired of all the money I had to pay and the hoops I've jumped through. Was I ready, though, to be sober once I was legal to drink?

By the time this is posted, I’ll be done with it all. I have been on probation for 7 out of the last 10 years, and during the 3 years I wasn't I was arrested for public intoxication 3 or 4 times (I can’t remember which). I was a heroin addict for 3 years while "on paper". I drank constantly during both stints of probation, regardless of having a breathalyzer on my vehicle both times (I wrecked both of those vehicles, by the way, because why half-ass a downward spiral). I was able to continue to do what I wanted to because, for the most part, probation just wants you to pay them and not get into trouble. In fact, some people will tell you that their probation officers let them slide on failed drug tests just because they were up to date on their payments.

This is a nice contrast to me doing everything I was supposed to last year but having to still have supervisor hearings because I couldn't afford a payment one month. Never mind I was in a sober house with a job and staying clean...I owed them money. Never mind I had to get on food stamps for 6 months...I had to pay. But hey, most people who don’t pay their fees are using the money for their habit/habits, so I don’t really blame them doubting my sincerity.

For the past year, I actually followed the rules. I've been clean and sober almost 18 months now. So am I ready to continue this “all on my own”? Hell, I've been clever (stubborn) enough in the past to drink and do drugs around all Travis County’s tests, monitoring devices, meetings and classes. If I wanted to, I would have probably found a way this time around, too. I just didn't want to. I’m done. I have been doing it on my own already...with support from friends and family, sure...but when I’m alone...when I have a window of opportunity to stray...on my own.

Time for a new era.

“Yeah, man. I'm ready.”

"Last visit ever to Smart Start," he said for the third time.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"Once an Addict, Always an Addict"

"I don't know, I was young, I drank too much, you know, so I stopped. You know what I mean, it's not really complicated. I had no interest in drinking in moderation. And I still don't. Just because all that time's passed doesn't mean maybe it was just a phase. That's you know, that's who I am." - Philip Seymour Hoffman, interview with The Guardian, 2011

Hoffman's death hit me pretty hard. I've been thinking about it for two days now, and what really stabs me in the chest about it is that 20+ years of sobriety he had. That dwarfs my 17 months a bit. Recently I have been feeling that I have had my own sobriety and past figured out, and that it will be smooth sailing from here on out. I've been wondering if Hoffman felt this way in the past... and for how long did he think he had it under control. That interview from 3 years ago sounds like he was still aware of who he was when it came to consumption of alcohol and drugs. I guess it is easy for some of us to get caught up again and lose our way.

I have been thinking about what I wanted to say in this entry. I've been reading comments and articles online about this, and there are plenty of people with their opinions... with their assumptions. I want to avoid speaking for all addicts or for any other one but me. Not everybody is the same, even if many of us go through the same patterns in addiction.

Since we will never know the whole story, I can only go by what I've read of interviews with Philip Seymour Hoffman. It sounds like his main drug of choice was alcohol when he was young, and he dabbled in other drugs as well. You drink, then start doing anything that was available, sure. At some point in 2012, he started taking prescription pills. I have yet to read what kind and whether or not they were prescribed to him. Within a year, he had gone from scripts to snorting heroin. So he went to detox in May 2013.

I wrote a little blog, Rehab Can Kill You, about Cory Monteith overdosing after completing treatment. I mentioned that rehab is dangerous if you pick up afterwards because you lose your tolerance when you take a 1 to 3 month break. Detox is another beast altogether. 10 days helps your physical addiction, but unless you do something about your thinking and behavior, it really is just "taking a break" before going back at it. Hoffman obviously picked up again at some point, and his heroin use escalated to using needles.

Looking at that timeline, he wasn't a heroin addict at 22, and he didn't relapse on booze in his 40's. The old recovery adage is that once you're an addict, you're always an addict. There is no cure, they say. Well, not everyone says that. Chris Prentiss offers "the cure" for $88,500 a month at the Passages Malibu Addiction Treatment Center. Every time a commercial for it airs and he smugly says, "I was an addict, now I'm not", I want to cockpunch him through the TV. Apparently, his view of a cure is drinking carrot juice by a koi pond while he gladly takes 3 grand a day from you. He sells recovery like a time share.

I hope I never find myself in the same position Philip Seymour Hoffman was in... where I know I'm back in the middle of the shit again but I don't want to put my career and family on hold to go back to treatment. One news article said, "Hoffman had struggled with addiction for years." I wonder how true that is. Did he struggle with having a drink at Hollywood parties for the majority of those 22 years, or was it smooth sailing for the majority of the time? Did he take vicodin for a legitimate issue and that triggered his downward spiral? Maybe more information will come out, or maybe we'll never know.

I find myself in the middle gray area when it comes to the concept of addiction as a "disease". I prefer to think of it as a mental disorder since really it's all in your head after you kick the physical addiction. I say onstage that I like to call myself a "retired" alcoholic and junkie as opposed to a "recovering" alcoholic/addict, because it better represents that I am still pro-drug and pro-booze. I'm the Charles Barkley of drugs and alcohol... big fan of the sport, can't play the game anymore. I like the idea of being retired because it sets in my mind that if I was to try to "play the game" again, I would immediately try to jump back into the professional level and it would kill me.

The problem I have with using the term "recovering" is it implies that you will eventually be "recovered", but it is used by AA/NA people permanently...they never consider themselves recovered. Recovered doesn't mean cured, in my mind. From my point of view, I have recovered. I'm on a healthy path, and in a month I'll be off probation completely. I don't owe them any more money, and I can pay all my bills. I've been productive at work, and I'm writing and performing better than I ever have. That sounds "recovered" to me. Labeling myself as a perma-addict and walking around with my guard up consumed with thoughts that I could use any moment sounds miserable. If you have to go to meetings and constantly work the 12 steps because that's how you get through the day, then do what you have to do...I just hope you're happy. I couldn't do it. So I had to convince myself otherwise. I'd rather consider my ass retired and do something else without being obsessive about it.

HOWEVER... I have to keep the balance in my head and not forget who I have been. Things are great now, but when shit goes bad, I can't escape my problems with drugs and alcohol, because there is no reset button. If I take anything into my body, I'll be right back to where I was on my last blackout. All I can do is keep working on my self-awareness regarding old behavior patterns, enjoy my new life and don't drink or shoot up, ever.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is a reminder to many of us that no matter how long you've been sober or how well things are going in your life, we can't use again... even if it's a different drug we didn't previously have an issue with. Even if that drug is legal.