Scraped Knees and Heroin
Having two drug addict parents, variations of the phrase “I can’t imagine what that was like for you growing up, it must have been so hard”, is something that has seemingly been on repeat ever since I can remember. And they’re right in the fact that yes, it was hard, but wrong in the fact that they can’t imagine what it was like. Frankly, I think it might be a lot easier than most people expect to imagine what it is like to love an addict. The joy, the pain, the optimism, the pessimism, the disappointment, and the rest of the whirlpool of emotions that accompany loving an addict can be fairly accurately summarized by a simple metaphor. Loving an addict is like teaching someone to ride a bike.
I think it is safe to say that most people have either been taught or taught someone else how to ride a bike at one point or another. We know what it’s like to watch someone start on training wheels and work their way up to a “big kid bike”, and what seems like an endless struggle in between. This struggle in between is metaphorically exactly what it is like to watch someone begin and continue their journey of recovery.
Many people start their venture to learn to ride a bike with training wheels; a mechanism designed to assist them in learning to ride without them, and to catch them when they fall. Many addicts start their journey to sobriety in some form of rehabilitation, whether it is in or outpatient treatment, being sentenced to complete a sober living program or even medical detoxification. Fundamentally, these programs are all conducted to assist individuals in beginning their recovery by assisting them and supporting them while they learn what it is like to live in sobriety. Often this is where addicts begin to form their support groups or the people that they will look to for advice when they need it, or help when they are falling.
Once someone has steadied themselves riding on training wheels, it’s time to take them off and begin somewhat of a never-ending expedition. They’ll wobble, lose control, fall off, maybe even take a step back and put the training wheels back on. Addicts will go through a similar process. Recovery is a rocky ride, it is almost guaranteed that there will be bumps and swerves in the process. When an addict gets back on their feet by themselves, they have to relearn how to live in a world that they had previously only known how to navigate while high. It won’t be an easy process by any means, and loving them means watching them struggle through this. Sometimes you’ll see them start to wobble and all you can do is hope that they steady themself.
And sometimes they’ll fall, and you just have to hope they get back up. You can’t pick someone up and forcibly put them back on a bike to try again after they fall, just like you can’t force an addict to restart their recovery journey when they relapse. In the first year of sobriety, there is roughly a 2 in 3 chance that the addict relapses. This means that, just like teaching someone to ride a bike, odds are you’ll have to watch them fall countless times, and hopefully get up each time and once more. You feel helpless. You feel like maybe you could have helped them more, steadied the handlebars for them when they started to wobble, gave them a little push when they started to slow down and tip over or asked them if they needed help just one more time than you did.
All too often, they’ll give up. Whether they put the bike in the garage and put off learning, or throw it away. Addicts will fall off the deep end, relapse for weeks or months. No matter how many times you suggest they try to get back on the bike or suggest that they need help, it is to no avail; they have to make that decision for themselves when they are ready, and you just have to wait around for the day that they do in hopes that they don’t push the bike to the very back of the garage, forget about it, and then toss it to the curb on bulk trash day. Or in terms of addiction, you have to hope that rather than putting the bike on the curb, you don’t end up putting your loved one six feet under when they overdose.
Contrarily, sometimes it will click; they’ll get the hang of it. You’ll watch them start to wobble less and become more confident. You’ll worry less, and becoming overwhelmingly proud of them. You’ll watch as it gets easier and easier for them over time. They’re riding steadily, it feels like smooth sailing from there.
Until it’s not. Until just when you think you can let them go by themselves, you see them start to wobble and go tumbling down out of the corner of your eye. Until you get that text saying “have you talked to _____ lately? We’re worried about them” and no, you haven’t. Just when you think you can let them go and not worry, they hit a bump in just the wrong way. Sometimes, you won’t even know. They’ll have ridden just out of your sight and until you find them you’ll have no clue that they’re not still just riding along. You’ll notice they’ve been gone for a little too long, and start to panic until you put it together. Or you’ll notice 20 dollars is missing one day, then 40 the next, while you try to justify it, “maybe I set it down somewhere and forgot about it” because you will do anything to try and convince yourself that they didn’t fall off the bike again after you just saw them doing so well. But more than likely the truth will always prevail, and the cycle begins to repeat itself once again.
Assuming they don’t tumble down, they’ll get better and better the longer they stay on the bike. Similarly, the longer addicts stay sober, the less chance they have of relapsing. After a year of sobriety, the chances decrease to about 50%, and after 5 years, it’s less than 15. But the odds are never 0. Even professional bicyclers will fall sometimes. No period of sobriety guarantees permanence. I have personally watched my mom accumulate ten years of sobriety, just for it to be gone in an instance and watch her go back to square one. Likely for the rest of your life, you’ll be looking over your shoulder to make sure they’re not falling. You’ll see them start to wobble, or notice slightly out-of-the-ordinary behavior and fill with sheer panic, even if they steady themselves. The rider will always be your trainee, and your loved one will always be an addict.
From the excitement that you feel when someone agrees to begin the learning process, to the anxiousness that you feel watching them go off on their own each and every time, to the helplessness that you feel as you extend your hand to them on the ground just hoping that they’ll take it, all the way to the relief you feel when it seems like they finally got it; the emotional rollercoaster is relentless. But, as relentless as it may be, each time they get up, you need to get up with them. How can you expect them to want to try again when you have given up on them? Sometimes it means waiting for them to be ready to try again, or being a voice of reason to them guiding them to try again, or sometimes even pulling them up off the ground and back towards the bike. But what it doesn’t mean is to throw in the towel and wish them the best.
It is hard. It hurts. You’re going to want to scream and cry out of frustration at times. You’ll likely face more disappointment than you ever knew you could handle. You’ll sit and wonder what more you could possibly do. And then you’ll see change. You’ll see them begin to go back to the person you knew and loved before addiction took them over, or before they set out on the exasperating journey of learning to ride a bike. You’ll watch them try and fail, pulling you around an emotional carousel. But every time you’ll remind yourself that this is what it’s like to love someone with an addiction, hope that each fall was the last, but be there for them just in case it wasn’t.