I remember being in treatment when one day my counselor explained what we were about to do that day. We were instructed to walk up to a dry erase board and write down names of people we had lost to addiction related deaths. It was a very emotional day and at the end my counselor added several more names and followed up with “I hope I don’t have to put your name on the board” to our entire group. It was a very somber moment for all of us.
The longer we stay clean, the more deaths we experience. There are those in recovery that die clean. One of my first mentors in recovery, an older gentleman who had been clean over 20 years, died clean. He was one of the first people to believe in me. Every time we spoke he would ask me how things were going and I believe he really meant it. He wanted to know. He invested time in me despite the fact that he had seen countless newcomers come and go throughout his time clean. He still made time for me, encouraged me and believed in me. His death rocked me. I had 11 months clean at the time and had already experienced people close to me die from the disease. He died with it. His life was celebrated after he passed and it was a really powerful thing. Dying with the disease and not from it makes you a hero. Still though, I grieved. I had to go through the wide range of emotions that we do when someone we love passes away. Now, I think of him often, as if he were helping to guide me during times when I need help.
I’ve been clean over five and a half years now and I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve met in recovery that died addiction related deaths. I couldn’t begin to count. The first one is still the one with the greatest impact. He was a friend prior to recovery and we started this journey together. To say I was crushed when he passed would be an understatement. What I am beyond grateful for though is that people in recovery walked me through it. They got me to express my feelings – something I had never really done before. They got me out of my head and got me to look at the bigger picture – what was his death going to mean to me? I could stuff the feelings and let him die in vain or I could take something away from it. Doing that has saved my life numerous times now. Even still today, each time someone that I have a personal relationship with in recovery dies a disease related death, I ask myself that same question : “What can I take away from this? How can I keep them from dying in vain?”
A lot of times I don’t feel much when I hear about people in recovery dying from the disease. I can get cold easily and say ” They knew better.” Our 12 step literature spells it out clear as day. We read at the beginning of every meeting and those readings tell us what happens if we pick up. Our 1st step makes us face reality in a way that is difficult to deny. Sometimes I get angry over disease related deaths. I think about the family and friends left behind. I think about what has been robbed from the loved ones. Sometimes I’m angry that the now deceased just wouldn’t do what they needed to do to stay clean. Sometimes disease related deaths hit me like a ton of bricks and I’m stuck thinking “I will never see them again. They will never get to reach their full potential”. Every death I hear about impacts me differently and it usually has a lot to do with both my relationship with that person and what’s going on with me at the time. The one thing I always do is allow myself to feel the feelings. To deny my feelings or try to stuff them down is what I did when I was using. Today, I don’t want to operate like that.
I’ve seen a lot of miracles in recovery. People living lives beyond their wildest dreams. Reconnecting with loved ones, making things happen that they didn’t ever think they would. Recovery gives us the opportunity to do things with our lives we never thought possible. I wish that everyone stayed long enough to find this out for themselves. I wish people that are in recovery didn’t venture out only to find themselves backed into a corner and pick up. That’s just not the case though. We will always have to experience death in recovery. It’s up to us that have stayed long enough to reap the rewards to make this way of life look attractive and to support struggling members. That much we can do. People will ultimately make their own choices and we can’t change that. We can help the ones that want it and learn from those that we’ve lost though.