Heroin, Cigarettes & Food: Protecting against Relapse.

Via Lynn Shattuck
on Feb 13, 2014
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Photo: Aimanness Photography

Philip Seymour Hoffman died,” my husband said a few Sunday afternoons ago.

“Really? What happened?” I asked. He shook his head.

“I don’t know.”

A few hours later, while my kids danced around the living room, I caught a headline on the TV that sat on, waiting for the Super Bowl to begin.

I saw words like: heroin, recovering, substance abuse, needle.

I feel it first around my heart, but the news settles in my stomach, bitter and undigestable.

These news stories are always eerily the same: a concerned friend, family member or police officer discovers the celebrity. They are dead, alone in their apartment or home or hotel room.

This story, the story that is Cory Monteith’s story and Layne Staley’s story and now Philip Hoffman’s story—this story is my family’s story.

When I was 24, my 21-year-old brother died in his apartment from a combination of heroin and alcohol. It’s been almost 15 years, and yet there is still a piece of me that doesn’t believe that it happened to us, to my brother.

My brother was creative, sensitive and just barely an adult.

And every time I hear that someone as gifted as Hoffman or as golden as Monteith was, is gone and gone to addiction, it breaks me a little bit. It presses on my scars, leaving them raised and red and tender.

Addiction-related deaths are not quite accidents, and they are not quite suicides; they hover somewhere in between, in the heartbreaking land of what ifs and whys.

But what struck me most about Hoffman’s story was his sobriety. He’d reportedly enjoyed 23 years of sobriety. When I hear of someone with that length of abstinence, I think he’s out of the woods. I think she’s got this thing.

Hoffman’s sobriety lasted longer than my brother’s entire life.

Of course, as addicts, whether it’s to food or heroin, none of us are ever really ‘out of the woods.’ None of us ‘have this thing.’

Some of the people I love the most have impressively long periods of sobriety, while others, like my brother, have died from their addictions. It’s humbling to think, as some addiction literature states, that even while we’re abstaining from our addictions, that addiction not only lingers, but grows. It’s like a snow globe placed on a shelf, the white flakes settling into the base. Dormant, but ready. Still gathering snow. Shake it a little, and a blizzard breaks out.

I learned this the hard way in my late 20s when I decided to smoke a few cigarettes after having quit years before. I knew it was a bad idea, but once that glint of craving was in my head, once I decided I wanted that wispy poison in my lungs, I was in trouble. I made rules about it—I could only smoke when I was in Vermont at my grad school residency.

Soon, the rule was to only smoke when I was outside of the town I was living. Only when I’m drinking coffee. Only in my car.

Only when I’m awake.

Pretty soon, I was sucking in a pack a day, more than I’d ever smoked in the past. The period of abstinence from cigarettes did nothing to stave off the current addiction, except to remind that I was capable of quitting. Which I did. Over and over and over.

I thought I could control the addiction, but it was already controlling me.

It’s been several years now since I’ve had a cigarette, and I know better than to think I can have just one and call it quits. I’ve learned with my food addiction that if I can stay away from the foods that trigger the cycle of craving, I don’t have to deal with as many cravings. I can let the snow settle.

But sometimes the cravings appear out of nowhere, tricking my brain into thinking that a cigarette or a joint or a large pizza are just the thing to help me feel better. That any of those things will make whatever hurts better is an illusion, a faultily lit neural pathway, a wrong turn down a one-way street.

In my 20s, a friend described the torture of staying away from heroin. We sat on a cold slab of concrete, smoking cigarettes and chatting. He said, “The thing is, I could be 40 years old with a wife and family, and I’m still going to be thinking that nothing feels as good as heroin.” He never made it to 40.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why some people with addictions survive and thrive and others don’t. And why some, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, seem to survive and thrive for long periods of time, and then relapse. Is it grace? Fate? Luck?

Oftentimes, I’ve heard people talk of the slow drift from the things that kept them sober, their recovery muscles gradually atrophying, until one day the craving appears and their defenses are down. The snow clouds their vision. They indulge, eventually avalanching into a relapse.

A blizzard breaks out.

I like to think that by staying close to the things that get us better—recovery meetings, supportive friends and family, exercise, a belief in something bigger than our own mind, and a healthy dose of fear of the addictive substances—we can stave off relapse. That by putting as many positive things as possible between ourselves and that glittery craving, we can stay safe. We can shelve our addiction.

But I don’t really know. And that scares me.

Have you struggled with addiction? How do you protect yourself from relapse?


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About Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. She blogs about parenting, imperfection, spirit and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.


25 Responses to “Heroin, Cigarettes & Food: Protecting against Relapse.”

  1. Erica says:

    great article, Lynn. Im ex mega coke abuser and still struggle with cravings– food and alcohol are weaknesses, too. I write and write and write to keep it under control. Its the only thing that helps. Well that and yoga.

  2. Cat says:

    So aptly written.

  3. Thank you for this post, Lynn. We all have our addictions…mine are sugar and far too much tv. My sister's was alcohol and because of that I can relate to your experience of the loss of a sibling. When I hear of anyone caught in grip of a "blizzard" I feel the heartache and scars, hating to see the suffering continuing in others. It seems serendipitous that I came across this article today, as I just posted on the journey of healing through these pains (http://mudlotusarts.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/sister-she/). Best Wishes to you. -Angela

  4. lynnola says:

    Thanks, Erica. Glad you have writing to help. Peace to you. <3

  5. lynnola says:

    Hi Angela. Thanks for your comment. I can totally relate to your vices. I'm going to go check out your blog post. Take good care.

  6. Summer Thmopson says:

    I loved this Lynn, I love all the amazing things you write. I miss him too and I think about him all the time. I wish I had been a better friend to him. He really loved you and I think he would love that you've used this tragic thing to help others deal with their grief. You're a very amazing and strong woman 🙂

  7. anne symon says:

    AA meetings are the only thing that work for the long haul…I've tried many ways and now have 12 years clean and sober!

  8. lynnola says:

    Summer, thanks so much. It's great to hear from you. You were a good friend to him. I hope you're well. <3

  9. lynnola says:

    That's great, Anne! Meetings are so helpful– being around others with similar stories who are committed to getting better is so helpful.

  10. mauraboland says:

    This is the elephant in the room, for people with long term sobriety. For some reason, others think you should be immune from thoughts of drinking or doing drugs. Or that we build these steady foundations, and become spiritual giants. No, I am sorry to say we are human and flawed…But yes, clearly life becomes much better when you put together a sober life.

    After many years, I can tell you that it is hard to keep going to meetings. I don't as often as much but I go to meetings. Because, when I came in to AA if no one was there that had any long term sobriety I would of high tailed it out!
    Why do people with long term sobriety stop going to meetings?- It is different for everyone. I have decided recently, and not due to anyone's death but a bout of consciousness to be even more of service. Because in doing service with others, I am reminded of what happened and what could of been…

    I walked in to those rooms over two decades and have not drank or gotten high..And everyday I say upon awakening- Once and Alcoholic, always and alcoholic..

  11. Sinuhet77 says:

    Thanks for sharing. I just have to say that your last few sentences surprised me. Of course it is the positive things that make addicts stay safe but the problem becomes when negative externality enters your life. You become fully exposed and falling right where you came from. I think that would bring us into PSH situation.

  12. jenniferswhite says:

    Lynn, I sat down to write something like this—I even talked about Cory Monteith. While I've never struggled with drug addiction, I've lost several close friends to heroin. But, Lynn, I'm glad I didn't finish that article—because yours is perfect in every way.

    You captured the sadness—the way it feels physically in our bodies and where it hits. You honored those we've lost while still remembering that they are fallible human beings. This is so eloquently, lovingly, articulately done. Just…great job. (And thank you.)

  13. lynnola says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think sometimes, life gets so good and/or full that meetings aren't the top priority anymore. It's not good or bad, it just is– but I agree, everyone benefits from people with long term recovery showing up and giving back. My best to you.

  14. lynnola says:

    Jennifer, thank you so much for your kind words. I am a big fan of your writing and am in awe of how prolific you are. Thanks again~ your comments made my morning. <3

  15. Andrealee says:

    Thank you Lynn for writing this. My boyfriend is an addict, he is very early in recovery. My life feels like it is in ruins, but awareness that I'm not the only person affected by this helps. Every day is different, but today is especially painful. Reading this helped me, thank you.

  16. TracyB says:

    Thank you for this topic. I have been sober since December of 2012. I go to AA meetings at least 5 times per week. I hear about people with long term sobriety going back out. Some make it back and some don't. Some people get sober for a short time and relapse. Some never maintain any type of sobriety. Many die. I need to remember this. Alcoholism/Drug Addiction is such a deadly disease. Cunning, baffling and powerful, but it is also patient. I hope to always remember this. So I will continue going to as many meetings possible and following the AA program. Thank you again.

  17. Rick A. says:

    An excellent article, I used for 31 yrs. I tried many times to get clean with no real success. I attribute my failure to not attending meetings and not working on myself. I just got one year clean on Feb. 6th. I always thought that if I put the bottle and drugs down I would be ok. I was wrong, abstinence only works for so long. I have found that drugs and drinks are not my problem. I am my problem and the drinking and drugs are just a symptom of addiction. I write every day, I attend meetings regularly, and am actively involved in chairing meetings and helping new members. I had to get rid of my old circle of "friends" some of whom were family. I realized that the only power I have over drugs is the power of choice. If I chose to take that first one, I give up my only choice and any chance at life, and the choice to take the first one starts well before I am near any type of substance that could cause a relapse. It all starts in my mind, addiction is a thinking disease. So when I notice my mind going in the wrong direction I reach out for a more experienced addict to help… The therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel… Thank you for the article…

  18. Angela Loupe says:

    The only thing that ever kept me clean was by giving it to Jesus over & over again until I lost the desire. I never quit the massive amount of things that I was addicted to on my own. I wasn't strong enough. But I knew that they would claim my life. So, I cried out to Jesus over and over and over again until Jesus answered. Read Luke 11 & Luke 18. If you can manage to be importune (KJV) (in my opinion, another word for faith), then you can be freed from anything by the grace of God. <3

  19. lynnola says:

    Thanks for writing, Andrealee. Holding good thoughts for you and your boyfriend.

  20. lynnola says:

    Yes, it is a patient disease. Congrats on your sobriety. My best to you!

  21. lynnola says:

    Thanks, Rick. Great comments– I agree that addiction is absolutely a thinking disease as well as a physical one. Glad you are reaching out when needed.

  22. lynnola says:

    Thanks, Angela, for your comment.

  23. brenda m. says:

    great article. lots of mention of going to meetings. I want to add that the true power comes from working the steps. people that only attend meetings rarely get or stay sober. sobriety and a new life is not gained through osmosis. it really doesnt matter the longevity of someones sobriety as much as what they are doing to maintain it. the obsession to drink/use will be lifted but it can return if we let up on our spiritual path. go to meetings, yes, but dont just warm a chair. get a sponsor, work the steps and then guide someone else through them. this is how we keep what we have been freely given. good luck and best wishes to all who struggle or have struggled with this powerful disease.

  24. Lynn says:

    Great points, Brenda. Thanks for your comment.