Serious mental health issues go hand in hand with serious substance abuse problems. It is an accepted fact in the mental health community. By some miracle, I have steered clear of the morass of drug and alcohol abuse and the long slow slide into addiction. Except cigarettes. I could eat cigarettes, I swear it. And I know that smoking is a nasty habit, and a very dangerous addiction. I fully expect to die of some disease caused by smoking. I’m okay with that. If I die of smoking, remember that I loved to smoke, remember that I used cigarettes to manage my anxiety, and remember that I said that I own those consequences, both the foreseeable and the unforeseeable.
But my mental health team is never worried about the cigarettes. They worry that I might be drinking, or smoking crack, or shooting heroin. Because substance abuse and schizophrenia are damn near like Siamese twins. If we throw a party, I might get drunk. It has been known to happen, but I’m talking about 3 or 4 times a year, not 3 or 4 times a week. I have had a long and glorious track record with psychedelics, but my body is no longer a fan, so I don’t eat acid or mushrooms anymore. And I never even used those drugs in a big huge way, except when I followed The Grateful Dead around for a while, but drug experiences while following The Dead are sort of like drug experiences in Brigadoon-great while it lasted, but no real world implications.
But I have watched the other patients over my years of treatment and group therapies. I have seen their struggle with substance abuse. I’ve seen them get clean, get sober, fly right for a time, and crash right back into the gutter. Amazingly addicts have taught me a lot about my own journey. I have learned that when my own life goes thundering off the rails that first and foremost I need to forgive myself. Then I need to earn the forgiveness of those I have harmed in my self-destructive cycles. Then, and only then can I stand up and start over at square one to rebuild my life. Addicts always come around to facing down their addictions, it is an amazing thing to watch.
I know that being in relationship with an addict is awful. I lost one of the great loves of my life to heroin. I know the lies, the broken promises, and the sordid dirty needles of living with an addict. I know that an addict will go to a NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting just to make a dope connection in a new town. But that same addict can hit rock bottom, skid through the gutter, do the strong hard, and awful work of regaining trust, fight the demons of withdrawal for the billionth time, and get back on the right track.
I thank my myriad shining Gods daily that I do not have to battle substance abuse along with fighting schizophrenia. I really really do.
But the addicts in our lives are a terrible, but precious gift from God. From the addicts we learn the strong, bitter lessons of trusting someone again after they have behaved in an untrustworthy manner. From the substance abuser, we learn to listen to the stories of an invisible war. We learn the art of compassion, and the art of letting go. From dead junkies, I learned how to behave at the funeral, how to identify a body, how to address a police detective, how to grieve with every cell in my body. It was truly an addict that forced me into a corner where I learned and accepted that unconditional love can really heal any horror. I don’t care who your God is, from gentle Jesus to raving Kali to the intellectual glimmer of Humanism, your religion still tells you to forgive, to help the less fortunate, to turn the other cheek, and to love thy neighbor, and if you struggle with the teachings of your religion, then make friends with an addict, they’ll take you all those places that I can not.
Sadly, we live in an addicted age. The social pressures upon us here and now are so great that many many souls seek the escapism of substance. From the middle aged woman with her boxes of chardonnay to the crack whore to the mid-Western kid bombed senseless on meth. And I’m not saying that addicts are heroes, and I’m not saying that addicts are victims, really I am not saying those things. In the throes of addiction, the user is a terrible person with a terrible and dangerous problem. Any sane and sensible person will avoid the addicted person at any cost.
But as spiritual persons, we need to expect more of ourselves. And most of us know an addict of some kind. So when the drunk or the junkie that you know comes to apologize, at least listen to them. If you can forgive them, do it. If you can’t forgive them, tell them why you can’t, and offer them a road back to your forgiveness. And try to be aware that people who are addicted are often fighting with a mental health issue; if they are not getting help, urge them to get help and do what you are able to facilitate them getting help. I can’t think of a single God who loves best His children when they are hard-hearted to the downtrodden. So try to forgive, try to accept and try to love them. That is a good way of doing God’s work, and we both know it.
My nurse friend gently, ever so gently nags me about my cigarettes. I don’t get mad or resentful when he does this. I know he is doing God’s work, too.