I was flying across the country today and the program guide in the inflight magazine listed an action movie I’d been wanting to see. But it turned out that the movie was Dolphin Tale, the story of a dolphin that was injured and required her tail to be amputated because of infection. The story also focused on the people who helped her survive and named her Winter. I was disappointed and almost turned it off, but it caught my attention. I was crying by the time the movie ended. Just goes to show how what we want isn’t always the best thing for us.
To say the story is inspiring is an understatement, and what was most touching to me was the connection that human amputees had to Winter. I was struck by their bravery and Winter’s, and by the tenacity needed to get up every day and face the world without all of your parts.
Then I realized I meet such people every day because addiction is like an amputation. The patients I see in recovery get up everyday and face the world with a part of them missing.
Most people only see addiction from looking at behavior, but from talking to people with the illness I’ve long ago come to realize that the symptoms of the illness are independant of drug use. Most of my patients can identify the missing piece was missing long before the first drug, and they can all recall with great clarity the feeling of getting that back with their first use.
For them, recovery is getting up every day and voluntarily going without a part when they could readily go get a temporary prosthesis. True, the prothesis wouldn’t work for long, but it’s an amazing temptation when your brain knows what will make everything easier, even if only for a little while.
But recovering people aren’t, as they say, “a glum lot,” but actually quite at peace with the situation. There’s a line in the movie where one of the human amputees is depressed because he can no longer do the one thing he always wanted to do. Morgan Freeman’s character tells him, “Well, you’ll just have to pick something else to want to do. Luckily, there’s about a million things to choose from.”
That’s the attitude I see in successfully recovering people. They’re not depressed because of what they can’t do, but are grateful and glad to have the rest of the world to choose from.
A lot of peple will have difficulty seeing addiction as a disability or like an amputation. Many may feel offended that I’m likening people with addiction to people who have lost a leg through no fault of their own. Well, such is my experience, and this is my blog, so I guess you’ll just have to be angry. But, in case you have an open mind let me share with you some of the things I’ve heard from patients:
“I never knew what ‘have a nice day’ meant until I had my first cigarette.”
“My whole life, I knew I could never measure up to other people, and then somebody gave me a pain pill, and I felt normal for the first time.”
“I’d just sit there thinking of nothing and getting nothing done, paralyzed by my own brain. Then I found speed.”
“Nothing made any sense at all. I couldn’t concentrate. It was like everyone was speaking another language and they were all mad at me for not understanding. But when I drank I could understand them and respond to what they were saying.”
“The first time I felt part of the world around me was when I took my first Lortab.”
Most people get to be with other people, fit in, understand and feel part of the world around them. Most people can concentrate and remember and feel joy in daily living. But if there’s not enough dopamine tone in the midbrain, these things are missing. They’re not missing because the person wants them to be missing or because the person did something to make them go away. These things aren’t missing because the person is bad or weak or missing some element of character. These things are missing because of a deficit in the brain, a physical problem, a thing that is missing.
I forget sometimes what bravery and determination it takes for my patients to get up every day and face the world. I forget the fortitude it takes to redirect one’s brain to the parts of the world that are available and happliy focus on them. I’d still like to see that action movie, but I’m glad today that the universe had other plans.
© Howard C Wetsman MD FASAM