I came to substance abuse relatively late, although I now understand I had addictive patterns of behavior my whole life. As a young victim of emotional and sexual trauma, I developed coping mechanisms that allowed me to survive childhood, but they later kept me from having fulfilling, intimate relationships as an adult.
I seemed successful; like many addicts, I was a perfectionist and overachiever. I became a pilot, earned several degrees, had a successful career in public policy and politics, and even ran for Congress. Later, I developed a new career writing music for choirs.
But then, I moved from Washington, D.C. back to Florida, where I grew up an only child to take care of aging parents and a multigenerational, family business. I also went back to school and had just finished a degree in music composition when I was introduced to crystal meth during a sexual encounter. I was 54 years old.
That was the spring of 2010. I wrote almost no music after that; creativity seemed to be blocked. Although I never became a regular drug user, I struggled with episodic or binge use coupled with sex. I became HIV-positive, developed other physical problems, was forced to give up flying, had several rounds of treatment, and underwent countless hours of therapy. In the spring of 2019, I surrendered completely to a process of recovery, entered my last treatment program, and have been sober since.
In the absence of music composition, I found some continued, creative expression in playing piano and in writing about my experiences. But, in 2015, I discovered art therapy. Doing art, I realized the extent of childhood sexual abuse I had long minimized and suppressed.
I picked up art again in the summer of 2019 as part of treatment. I did a couple of pieces quickly, but there seemed more to say, as I sensed visual art had the capacity to express and integrate, in a nonverbal way, my new emotional insights.
I took those two projects and transformed them: a collage went through two more evolutions before I considered it done. Another exercise I tore up; after arranging the pieces in a three-dimensional collage, I took a picture with my phone. This opened the door on a whole new area of creativity that harkened back to early childhood drawings long forgotten.
For many months, I drew or created collages almost every day. Even now, I find no week goes by without some form of visual expression. In the beginning, I deliberately did not write about my experiences because I had long depended too much on my left-brain strengths of language and linear narration. Shutting that down temporarily seemed to allow, perhaps even to force, a deeper process of healing integration through daily meditation and art.
I can now write and speak more of these experiences. I am grateful for the treatment and counseling that gave me a very good understanding of why I was vulnerable to chemical addiction and how that fused with underlying intimacy disorders. I am also grateful that Buddhist and 12-step programs allow me to step out of those old patterns of behavior and into a new life of recovery.
This piece, the steps, represents both the methodical process and the intense, inner transformation I have seen in my own life and in that of others. This process has taken away the power of old abusers and allowed me to act, not react, to live as I choose, not as I was compelled.
Recovery is letting go of things that don’t serve me and embracing a higher self I never knew I had. I hope all who suffer the trap of addictive behaviors and substances will find that freedom.
It is there.