Saturday 28 September 2019

Addicts and Those Who Love Them. Part 2 - Love.

The Love Bit.

Love is what we aim for, but loving the lovable is easy.  The test is, how can you love the unlovable?

Words from the Brighter the Light
exhibition, partying drugs
and addiction
How can we unpack this business of love.  In this context, loving someone who is monstrous with addiction, is an idea too far.  It depends too on who you are, who your addict is, and what your relationship is.  For example, a thin, ragged, pale and dirty young man asked an underground train carriage that I was in, in Central London, for some change so he could go to a hostel for the night.  I beckoned him over to me, asked for his name - Steven - and I gave him money.  Bless you, I said.  We all knew in the carriage that it was going straight to a dealer.  I got some pretty annoyed looks from the other passengers, but I do not believe any of us can even begin to understand how bad Steven's life is.  The act of giving him some money is all I can do.  What he does with it is none of my business, that is judgement, and no addict has a better life than any of us in that underground train.  The Bless you came without thinking; this young man could have been my own son.  Could have been any of our sons. I would want someone to ask my son his name, bless him and give him the money he asked for.

I loved that young man despite never having seen him before, and still find myself sending him love from time to time.  Here is the rub.  I can love that young Steven all I want, because I have nothing to do with him, I do not ever have to deal with him, and I can project any manner of blessings onto him, because my love for him is easy.  There are no consequences for me whatsoever.  In fact, if I am not careful, I can love myself a little too much for doing that, so I have to be careful.

From the Brighter the Light exhibition
Here is another example.  A mother I met, in her fifties, spoke of  her addicted son and herself as if they were all that were left, holding up against the blank indifference of the world outside.  "He's all I've got", she says.  "Everyone has given up on him, and everyone has given up on me."   But she hadn't given up on either of them.  Her son had been in prison many times, had a crazy addiction and deep underlying mental health issues, and when she could, she gave him space in her house.  Each time he trashed her house and was removed by the police, she knew it was the drugs and despite her despair and her fury, she continued to look out for him and argued with everyone who stood in her way.  She was angry, lost in a hopeless battle, alone, determined and not very lovable herself - but here is love in action. Classic co-dependency, you may say.  Yes, and I was impressed by the sheer power of this mother's love for her only son.  She was loving the unlovable.  She was wonderful.

Here are just some things we believe about love.

  1. We all need it.
  2. It's good for us.
  3. You have to be careful, it can hurt.
  4. You either do, or you don't, feel love.
  5. We can withdraw it if the going gets tough.
  6. It's conditional.  You show me first that you mean it, and I will show you I mean it.  
  7. It's conditional.  You behave badly, don't treat me well, I will stop loving you.
  8. If you don't deserve it, you won't get it.
  9. Unconditional love is for idiots.
  10. It's rare, and not for me.
Many of us base our idea of love on fear.  That there is not enough, that we can't have any, that it will be taken away.  The ten points above are from a place of fear, from a feeling that we are not enough.  We have to negotiate with the outside world, because we fear we lack the right, lack the equipment, to deserve love.  It is conditional, and if we do find it - love amongst friends, or lovers, or family, we can be so afraid of being unworthy that we sabotage it.  And then we are sad, and proven right.  Love is too hard, and hurts too much.  It can become all about power and control.

Here are some more things about love that we believe and hope are true.

  1. It feels wonderful!
  2. Someone, somewhere, will/does/can love us.
  3. It conquers all.
  4. It makes us look and feel gorgeous.
  5. It can take us by surprise.
  6. Sometimes we have no control over it.
  7. It is worth it!
  8. Love brings out the best in us, we learn forgiveness and kindness etc.
  9. It opens us up, we learn about ourselves.
  10. It is difficult to describe - it can make us weepy with happiness.  
It is said that love is not a noun, it is a verb.  One has to do it.  And one step further than that, one has to be it.  But what holds us back, trips us up time and time again, is ourselves.  We choose our love from the first ten points, from a place of fear and lack.  We long to believe that the second ten points are true, which sometimes - to our great surprise - they are.  Practising love, looking at love, living love, comes after we have taken time to work on loving ourselves - and it is work, because our social narrative tells us that self love is selfish and toxic.  Wrong.  We are confusing self love with narcissism and self absorption. Taking time to work on ourselves, to understand ourselves and get to know who we are, what we like and dislike, and really listen to ourselves may well make people challenge you, but maybe you are not willing to be so indispensable any more.  Maybe you, taking time to learn to love yourself, is offensive to some because you are stepping into your own power.  Well, go ahead.  Love is a paradox, both simple and complex, and well worth working on.  Imagine you really liked yourself, imagine you loved yourself - well!  Imagine being open to love in your life because you were strong in the love for yourself!  Not self absorption, not narcissism, not those things that isolate you and centre around power and control - but actually listening to your own needs, and giving yourself a bit of loving attention.  Wow.

Back to addicts and those that love them.  

From the Brighter the Light exhibition
Loving our addicts brings pain.  We are often lost in a nightmare world of collusion, fear, reaction and cover up.  We do not know how lost we are in an addiction world until, perhaps, we find help.  For ourselves.  And this is the hardest thing of all.  Our whole focus is centred on the fact that our addict needs help, and we who love them have tried so hard, only to have it trashed and used against us.  When we do, eventually, ask for help we are distressed to hear that we cannot help our addict unless they want to help themselves.  Oh but!  we say, my addict does want to stop!  They do want help!  But because we are there in the relationship to take the edge off things for them, the addict has no intention of getting help.  Saying these things keeps us in the loop where we are useful.  

Our notion of love has become twisted, toxic and harmful - mostly to ourselves.  Our addict has checked out long ago, their fix is their love.  The drink is their love.  Whatever.  We are lost, our addict is lost, and love does not work.  It does not even touch them.  What are we to do.  And now, we do not trust, care for, or understand love.  We certainly have none left to give, and even if we did, we would be so far down the list as to be no longer visible. 

Love does work.  But we need to reclaim it.  We need to reclaim it for ourselves. If, as they say in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous - but it works for all addictions) we are powerless over our addictions, then we are powerless over our addicts too.  We need to let them go.  We must learn to detach, and to detach with love.  How so, we say, if we do that, they will die.  We think, if we let go, we are the only thing between them and a bad death.  We learn, sometimes with relief, that we not only that we must let them go, but we can let them go.  And then we start to work on ourselves.  Our addicts will do what our addicts will do, drink, take drugs, and nothing will get in the way of that.

I learned, when I let my addict go, that I was not responsible for them.  I learned that their first love was their fix, not me or any other person.  I learned that my addict would need to reach their lowest point - rock bottom they call it - before anything could be done.  And I learned that by covering up for them, getting involved in their life, trying to rescue them all the time, I was delaying their ability to get so low that they could make a choice.  I was colluding, I was lost in a co dependent relationship, and I was not helping anyone.  Detach, I was told, but do it with love.  Always with love.  A wise lady said of her journey, that when her drunken husband fell out of bed yet again onto the hard floor, she understood that she does not have to break her own back trying to get him back into bed.  She was letting him begin to experience consequence.  She was detaching, but the love part, she said, was that she found a blanket to cover him on the floor.  

Loving ourselves when we love an addict, is the only way.  We need to be strong and we need to re-understand boundaries.  Our addict is destructive and it is reasonable to let them go, really go, off somewhere to continue to use or drink, without us.  It is both the hardest and saddest thing for us, but the relief that we don't have to live in that madness any more, is astonishing.  Because we love our addict, we need to be strong, wholesome, supported and boundaried.  They may never come back, but that is their choice.  And if they do, we have something to help us with their recovery - self love, self respect, boundaries, love and wisdom. 

A meeting had been arranged through a friend, I was going to see my addict.  My addict had reached their bottom, had managed to come off the drugs, and had asked for me.  For a while, I had refused.  I have been here before, I said to my friend.  I will not do it again.

No, said my friend.  I have spoken to them, this time it is different.  Please go.  In the end, I had reluctantly agreed. 

I had walked away, detached with love a year previously, and sought help to cope with what felt like the worst kind of betrayal.  The withdrawal of my love and support.  I learned about addiction and mental health, and I learned that I was not to blame.  I had understood finally that only my addict could decide what they were going to do, and that I needed to do the same for myself.  Love, or the lack of it, had nothing to do with what had happened.  My love was unconditional, but I needed to wise up, be strong, recover, get educated and let go in order to be of any service.  And I also had to prepare myself to receive that call, if it ever came and that it could come, that my addict was dead.  

I was very scared as I arrived at my addict's door. It was scruffy, as I remembered it, with damage from a forced entry some time ago on the wood, when the emergency services suspected an overdose. 

I knocked on the door.  I heard  shuffling inside and it opened slowly.  My addict stood, the gloom behind them filled old rubbish bags, flies swarming and dirt on every surface. The smell was awful.  My addict stood, thin, grey, unwashed, derelict and filthy.  Hello, I said, and my addict looked at me.  Despite the dirt, squalor and smell, their eyes were present.  You are back, I said quietly.  We can do this.  You are back.  Welcome. 

From the Brighter the Light exhibition

Monday 16 September 2019

Addicts and Those Who Love Them. A new project.

The helplessness of a hand after passing out.  Charcoal and pastel on paper.
 I took a risk.  I created an exhibition of paintings and words about my experience of addiction and showed it in August.  I am not an addict, but someone close to me is, and I used their story to describe how it looked and felt to witness a downhill journey, to be helpless and hopeless and unable to intervene.  The exhibition looked excellent when hung, the paintings told the story of this one person's journey and though I say so myself, the artwork was very good.  Two friends, Marie and Michael, both of whom had experienced their own addictions, added their own artwork to mine, and I was grateful to have something from the horse's mouth, so to speak. 

Creating the artwork, writing the words, was hard to do.  It felt as if nothing could ever describe the bleakness of the world of addiction that I had seen.  I began to feel the same hopelessness in my studio while painting these images, as I had felt when actually there and watching the madness happen.  But my friends and I went ahead and showed our exhibition.  People were very interested and came along with their own stories, experiences and opinions.  There were many discussions and sometimes, I felt as if I were justifying myself for opening this subject up to scrutiny.  Of course it is unpleasant, and of course it is shocking, and I have no answers.  During the exhibition, I just wanted to say - Look!  This is what I saw, this is how it is, it is really like this.  The words I used to describe how I felt, they are real. 

And now, the exhibition is over and packed away and I am left wondering what to do next.  I have barely scratched the surface, there is so much to say and do.  As an artist, what is my response now? 

What I have not found a way to describe is the bleakness of an addict's life.  I am talking of the addict who has stopped being able to get by and fool people.  The addict who has lost family, friends, help, a place to live and all sense of perspective outside their drug use.  I saw how the addict has no reason to exist except to find the next hit to feel normal and if they don't get the hit, the suffering is indescribable.  In between the hits, the need to eat, sleep, wash, communicate is almost lost.  I watched the crazy mood swings from the agitated sometimes hysterical lows before the hit, to the stumbling semi conscious disconnection as the highs hit home.  I saw a brief stabilisation of the mood swings before the drug wore off and the agitation began again. 

Words from the first exhibition
Mostly, I had to accept that the person I knew had checked out a long time ago.  What had taken their place was a monster who would do anything, say anything, to get what they needed.  Sometimes the person I knew would be there underneath it all, and sometimes that person would ask for help.  It soon became clear that the monster was in control though, and any help offered would only be accepted if it could be used to get the drugs. 

The loneliness of this life, the degradation of this life, the squalor and dirt and crazy lack of self care, of hygiene, of self respect, the catastrophic lack of connection to reality and isolation from any love, kindness or consequence is difficult to describe.  Sometimes I visited this addict in their flat.  If they were able to answer the door, I'd go in.  If not, I'd go away.  Inside, every window was covered with filthy material, the darkness and gloom lit only by the television constantly on in the corner.  Underfoot, old food, cigarette buts, broken crockery, rubbish, detritus and medicine packets scrunched as we walked over them.  The grime and mould growing on the old food and washing up in the kitchen smelt almost as bad as the powerfully reeking rubbish bins overflowing onto the floor and walked around the room.  In the darkness, in the corner, sitting on a sofa covered by a blanket with dirt and burn holes from forgotten cigarettes, this addict would go over and over how bad their life was, and how no one would help and how they could not get their drug, how they needed it, how badly they were being treated, how it wasn't their fault and how everyone was conspiring to close off all avenues to get this drug.  Listening to this addict become more and more angry and agitated I knew from bitter experience that if I stayed too long, it would become my fault and I would become the focus of ways to accompany my addict and make people give them the drugs they needed to stay alive.  Once, though, before the agitation became manic and confrontational, I had to go and the addict started to cry quietly saying, don't go.  I'm so lonely.  It was heartbreaking to leave this traumatised and possessed person in such a state but I went, I knew how it would end, and the monster that lived in this addict would crash back into their brain, and I would be a target again.  The ranting about the unfairness of everything would lead into a wild and demented search for someone to give them the stuff they needed.

Detail from first exhibition. 
From a painting of  an overdose
Here is what else I need to find a way to describe in paint for the exhibition.  All the ranting, the unfairness, the paranoia, all the madness was true.  It was unfair, all avenues to help were being shut, it wasn't their fault, and there was a conspiracy to prevent them finding their fix. 

This was an addiction to prescription drugs, prescribed for years without anyone checking, the dosage increased when this addict said the current dose was no longer working.  When finally the addiction was noticed, the shutters came down, the dose was lowered and the medical profession withdrew support and eventually, withdrew the drug entirely.  Here is another thing I have learned.  You cannot reason with an addict, and you cannot punish an addict.  This is the point at which this addicts behaviour became extreme, out of control and distressing.  It was now total survival.  Whatever worked to get the drugs, worked.  There were no consequences, there was only what got the drugs.  The addict was barred from surgery after surgery.  Hospital after hospital refused to help, and written on this addicts records were notes not to believe them, not to help, not to get involved. 

I saw something of how we treat addiction.  I saw that there is nothing much in place for them, there is almost nowhere for them to go, there is not much understanding not much care and very little interest.  Addicts are today's equivalents of lepers of  times past. Monstrous, insane lepers that we cannot have in our midst.  And watching this catastrophic journey into a crazed, nightmarish stalemate, I am left with the question - what are we to do?  What on earth are we to do?  If an addict is on the streets, living a nightmare until they die and perhaps they want help but have no money to pay for anything, what do they do?  What is there then and there to help at that moment, what is in place?  I saw nothing at all to help the addict I knew.  This addict could not attend a meeting.  This addict could not think beyond the paranoid panic that his next fix could not be found.  This addict could not agree to anything, this addict would sell their mother's kidneys to get a fix.  This addict could not make a phone call to a helpline and wait for their call to be answered, if this addict had a phone it would be sold to get drugs.  If, however, you can pay for it, there is help.  There is rehab.  If you cannot pay for help, like so many who have no one and who hustle for money to keep their habit going, there seems to be a large black hole of nothing.  There seemed to be a complete societal and political lack of will to deal with the dirt and mental illness of out of control addiction.

Words from the August exhibition
It is all of the above that I want to describe in my next exhibition.  You see how hard it will be, but I am sure that I will do it.  One thing that I have decided, is to call the exhibition Addicts And Those Who Love Them.  I am taking time out now to work on this new exhibition.  The old one, that I showed in August this year, is too personal to the person whose story it tells. I don't think I want to do that now.  I want to open it up to other addicts and those that love them, and tell their stories.  But before that, before I start to paint, I want to understand more about addiction and what help is available.  I know nothing except what I observed during the journey of the addict that is close to me.  I want to know because another thing about addiction is, that it can happen to anyone.  You and me included.  Anyone.

Love is important, it is true.  Loving the lovable is easy.  Loving the unlovable is a nightmare.  What little experience I have of addiction tests this loving business to the limit.