Who am I, really?

By Karen Collazo   

The hardest aspect of life after treatment is the grieving process. I rarely encounter this concept in recovery literature, but I once heard a fellow addict put it succinctly during a late night NA meeting: You must allow yourself the process of grieving for the loss of your former self. These words struck a powerful chord with me. It clarified a big issue I have been struggling with: How do you grieve the loss of someone you never really knew? Up until a few months ago, my sense of self was grounded in a web of deceit and uncovering my real truth has placed me smack dab in the center of an isolated and dark wasteland. During active addiction, I ensured my survival by deftly manipulating my reality and over-rationalizing my behavior – to the point where I don’t know what is real and what is not.

For instance, I used to think I was good at my advertising job because I had never been fired before and found myself climbing up the ladder. Every new job came with a new title, more responsibility and a bump in pay. This was the mark of success in my book. However, now I’m not so sure I was ever really as successful as I thought I was. I have recently become acutely aware of the fact that I did quite a bit of bouncing around during my 15-year career. I never held down a job for more than two years. Usually, I left as soon as my gut told me that it was obvious to everyone how incompetent I was, but before any of my employers could take any real action. In this way, I managed to escape the experience of being rejected. At the time though, I was convinced that I was the one doing the rejecting for very valid reasons, like: I need to diversify my experience, the agency culture is just not for me or I’m ready for more work-life balance. This whole time, though, I was only beating them to the punch – to save face.

These last few months, I’ve been encumbered by revelations like this. It’s a heavy load that keeps getting heavier and is weighing me so far down, I feel as though I’m trying to crawl out of a pit of quicksand. The sack on my back continues to grow with each old belief that unravels before me, proving it difficult to grieve the loss of someone who is a stranger to me now. I wish it was as simple as letting it go; it would make recovery a lot less painful. Instead, I’m stuck at the beginning. Each day, becoming more defeated as I discover things about Karen that make me cringe. Therein lies the true conundrum: How do you move past your loss when it’s all just so unbelievable?

When you think you know yourself and come to find that you really don’t, a dangerous shift in perception takes place. Everything comes into question. It’s like finding out that your husband has been leading a double life and maintaining a second family in another state. You pick apart the past for clues that should have been obvious warning signs. You lose faith in your own memory and your ability to interpret the present. This is exhausting. It makes it extremely difficult to make any decision. It overwhelms you. The past becomes a sham and you worry that perhaps you still can’t be trusted. When you are this vulnerable, you risk not being able to get to the why. And knowing the why is how you develop compassion for yourself. Compassion is the key to knowing.

It has been said that grief is not about forgetting, but remembering with less pain. The process of recovering from drug addiction extends beyond learning how to cope without drugs and live a new healthy and meaningful life. It also involves becoming intimately acquainted with your pain for the very first time. And once you’ve faced what hurts, you have to learn to be completely and utterly okay with it. For someone who is still struggling with denial, that simple act seems insurmountable and too great for me to survive. 

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

By Karen Collazo   

The night before I left The Orchid, I paced back-and-forth in my apartment anxiously anticipating the moment I was to step out the front gate of the treatment center and enter the real world. In treatment, you learn and grow in the safety and comfort of an isolated self-esteem boot camp. You’re afforded the luxury of practicing morale-boosting drills, as a means to reverse the negative thinking that led you to abusing drugs in the first place, without the outside influence of life on life’s terms. I knew that once I returned home that was when the real work would begin.

We were all sitting in the TV room of the apartment complex, doing our morning round of “Goals and Gratefuls,” when my therapist announced to the group that this was to be my last day at The Orchid. I nervously addressed the room with a tearful speech of gratitude and expressed to the women how I was forever changed by the experience because of each and every one of them. I said I could never repay the women for teaching me important life lessons and wished them all the best of luck. I remember singling out Rachel, Mandy and Ashley – three of the ladies that I had developed a very strong bond with.

Rachel was from Illinois. She was an attractive young mother of three with a newfound addiction to Suboxone. Like most of us, she was terrified to be her true self and got high to be able to fulfill the role she had carved out for herself – one that was based on everyone else’s expectations. She was a prisoner to a life she didn’t want, unable to break free from the weight of what turned out to be self-imposed ideas about what it meant to be a good wife, mother and daughter. She had a crippling fear of hurting others, a kind soul, was extremely encouraging of everyone and was always quick to remind me of how beautiful of a person I was. Rachel taught me to accept myself for who I truly was, regardless of the negative beliefs I had adopted over the years.

Mandy was from Virginia. She was smart, gorgeous and caring; she often looked after some of the younger girls at The Orchid. Her father had been her best friend and when he passed away, unable to cope, Mandy turned to alcohol to help with the grieving process. We connected the way only two women who have lost their parents at a very young age ever could. Anyone can sympathize with an event like that, but unless you’ve experienced it you could never truly understand what it is like. Mandy had a lot of conviction. She carried around meaningful amulets that worked as reminders of important people and events in her life – giving her the strength to go on another day. She reminded me of how important it was to have faith. This was something that I had lost long ago.

Ashley was a very witty girl with an amazing fashion sense. Everyday she took particular care of dressing up and donned stunning makeup, which had the caliber of a professional makeup artist’s work. Ashley was very quiet in group activities and always receded to the background, in the shadow of other more vivacious characters. But one-on-one, she had an incredible sense of humor. She reminded me of how debilitating a lack of self-worth could be. She was a sweet girl who was deserving of love and happiness, although she didn’t believe she was worthy of it.

I felt such a strong connection to these women, because they embodied a little piece of me that I didn’t even recognize existed. Before I left, I gave each one a token of friendship to remember me by. During my stay at The Orchid, I learned a lot about myself. Some of the issues that were exposed were not necessarily new news, but I was alarmed to uncover the impact they had on my life. Most importantly, I learned to accept that I had a disease, but that I was not just my disease. Coming to terms with this fact, allowed me to break free. It was okay for me to be traumatized, in pain and broken. These things didn’t make me less than. Experiencing heartache wasn’t going to be the end of me.  And denying this out of fear was a betrayal to my genuine self. When I finally told the truth to someone else, I revealed lies I had lived with my whole life – allowing hope to spring again. There is nothing as liberating as being faced with a new reality that makes sense of your past and frees you from the hurt that you have caused yourself. Now, I was free to deal with the pain that was not totally in my control. Now, I was going to be able to grow from my past experiences, instead of remaining stuck in a self-inflicted purgatory. Now, life was in sharp clear focus.

After we said our goodbyes, Erin approached me with a basket filled with sweets. The night prior, all the women had rummaged through their kitchen cupboards for cookies, cakes, chocolate and candy to create a mini gift basket for my sendoff. It was a very touching moment, especially because it included a handmade card with lovely thoughts of encouragement. But the best gift I received that day was the ability to give a fellow addict the strength to admit to the group that she was not only in treatment for alcohol abuse, but for cocaine addiction as well. Nicky had been so ashamed of this fact that she had hid it from everyone for a month. She told the group that because I had been so open during my time in the program, she finally found the ability to admit this aspect of her disease. This was the most inspiring gift of all. It was proof that I was significant.

The last thing I did before leaving The Orchid was to leave behind a bottle of Chanel Coco Mademoiselle perfume in Tina’s locker. A few days prior, a group of us were standing in line waiting for access to our meds, hairsprays and perfumes, when Tina got a whiff of my Chanel as I dabbed a little on my wrists. She told me that in her 50+ years, she had only owned one bottle of perfume. It had been given to her as a gift and she had cherished it so much, she kept it long after the contents had run out. I asked her if she wanted a little and her eyes lit up like the sun at high noon. Soon, I found myself spraying all the ladies in line, who were all so excited for the chance to feel beautiful if for just that one moment. As I collected my things on my last day, I asked one of the techs to place the bottle of perfume and a note in Tina’s locker. The note read:

Dear Tina,

Thank you for teaching me some of the most valuable lessons I learned while being here. You are amazing and courageous, and I’m honored to have been trusted with your story. I leave you this gift because every woman deserves to feel beautiful, especially you.

Love, Karen.