Keep fighting. The human instinct to survive is stronger than you could ever imagine, writes Louise O'Neill
The reports that former child star, Demi Lovato, has allegedly decided to enter rehab are old news now. I’m not interested in dissecting Lovato’s overdose, besides thanking her for being so honest about her experiences and wishing her well.
What I am interested in is how Lovato’s story perfectly illustrates how volatile the process of recovery can be. She has gone to rehab, later relapsing.
She fought to become sober, and then started using again. It is a cycle familiar to addicts, but one which fails to comply with the triumphant narrative that we are used to when discussing addiction.
Example: The cocaine addict who went to rehab for eight weeks and has been clean for 30 years. The alcoholic who woke up one day and promised his wife that he would stop drinking – and remained sober until the day he died.
The woman with bulimia who seeks treatment and instantly stops binging, much to the delight of her family.
It’s not that these stories are false. It is, however, important to note that that this kind of first time ‘success’ is relatively rare. For most people, recovery will be a series of false starts and broken promises, a one step forward and two steps back kind of experience.
If you tracked your progress on a graph, it would probably look like a series of wild spikes at the beginning, soaring highs followed by gut-wrenching lows. It can be messy and non-linear, and I think it does all of us a great disservice to pretend otherwise. Addicts often carry huge guilt about their behaviour.
When we decide that we want to recover, and we fall at the first hurdle, we feel as if we have failed. If we had more will power, if we were stronger, better people, then we would have stayed clean. It becomes harder for the people around us to keep the faith each time that we relapse and re-enter the cycle of recovery. We, the addicts, can sense that.
We sense that the third, fourth, fifth, tenth time that we say “it will be different this time”, that their belief in us diminishes just a little.
And with each new attempt to ‘stop’, it also becomes that bit more difficult for us to believe in ourselves. Maybe full recovery is for other people, we think. Maybe we will just have to get used to living this half life; one of secrecy and shame. Maybe this is all we deserve, anyway. My parents asked me to see a therapist about my eating when I was 17.
For the first few months, it worked. I remember going for a walk with my mother and telling her “this is it, I know it”. Then life got in the way – I fell out with a friend, school pressure over my Leaving Cert mounted – and I starting using food as a way to numb out all the pain again.
I was hospitalised with anorexia at 21, going to St John of Gods with so much hope that it hurts my heart to think of that young woman. I imagined myself leaving in 12 weeks, completely ‘fixed’.
It worked, until it didn’t anymore. For years afterwards, every morning I would swear that it would be different today, today was the day everything was going to change for me. And then the savage hunger would appear, talons sharp, demanding to be fed.
“One last time,” I’d say to myself, feeling utterly powerless to resist.
“This is the last time.” And, make no mistake, there were periods where I was ‘better’.
Seven months here, nine months there. The symptoms lessening to a degree where they became infinitely more manageable – a meal skipped once a week, a few too many bars of chocolate purged every six months or so. It wasn’t ideal but it was manageable.
I wasn’t expecting 2016. A year of success, yes, but a year of feeling exposed and lonely and vulnerable and afraid and heartbroken.
The relapse that accompanied was so inexorably life-altering, I thought I would probably die and sometimes, that death seemed preferable. Examining that period of my life more critically, it’s apparent that the media loves the performance of recovery.
We are not particularly interested in each other’s fragility, we do not want to hear about the recovery that has been characterised with countless falls, dragging ourselves back up to standing, swaying, with our bleeding knees and scraped knuckles, ready to trudge on slowly.
All people want to hear is about the quick fix, the easy answer. But there isn’t one, because life isn’t easy. In 2017, I asked my parents for help. I spoke with a specialised therapist and an online coach and a nutritionist. I made my recovery and my health the most important priority in my life – more so than my career, or even my relationships.
Life is far from perfect now, but it feels real. And it’s mine. I worked hard for it.
Today, I don’t want to be anyone’s hero, or to presume that I could ever be the voice of all people who have addictions, nor would I want to. But I do want to stretch my hand out to those in pain and say: You can do this.
No matter how often you fall, no matter how many times you have to try, I know that you can do this.
If you are reading this column and you are struggling with addiction - please know that everyone’s path to health is different. Yours might be an overnight moment of realisation, or it might take a longer, meandering course. Whichever it turns out to be, please don’t give up hope.
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