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Building a Recovery Toolbox

Imagine that you are battling a mental health issue (problem, disorder, challenge). You see a therapist, receive medication, and find healthful ways to live your life. Now add in a second disorder. And then, top that off with an addiction! Many people facing these complex mental health challenges learn to hide their struggle from public view. Is facing this kind of ordeal inevitably overwhelming? Or can it sometimes be an inspiration to hone every coping mechanism and recovery skill you have ever learned? Vickie Griffiths, JBFCS’ JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) Program Coordinator, tells one woman’s story about dealing with multiple diagnoses, and aging, all while fighting to stay sober.

“Ida” lives in a continual struggle with anxiety and addiction. She’s not sure which came first—her love of escaping, or the pain she felt from repeatedly anticipating the “worst-case scenario.” Either way, living in recovery from such disorders doesn’t make it easy to lead a calm, orderly life. To help herself, Ida developed a “toolbox” that she can rely on, full of techniques and skills for how to navigate stressful situations. Being in recovery means learning to build and stock such a toolbox, the way that most “normal” people do to overcome life’s many stresses.

Ida’s recovery toolbox has replaced her alcohol and drug use, escapism, and other destructive behaviors. It has helped Ida develop a habit of steady mindfulness. Faced with life’s stresses, “the burning building” as Ida calls such situations, she is now able to look in her toolbox, assess the threat, and figure out how to get out of danger. But to do this, she still must deal with her mounting anxiety and dampen her desire to “use.”

Ida does not want people to look at her with pity, as a “sad story.” In fact, Ida feels that she and her family have been blessed with many miracles. She and her husband found in each other the love and support they lacked in their own families of origin. They have now been married for more than 30 years and have three adult children and five grandsons. Ida’s husband has had his own problems with addictions (he’s been clean and sober from one for 37 years and for 24 years from the other). Along the way, they have overcome many stumbling blocks including a range of serious illnesses, family conflict, estrangements, even deaths. But they persevered and built a loving, happy home and extended family.

However, a new challenge has recently emerged, perhaps the most difficult they have had to face. Ida’s husband has been diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia, a terminal and, as yet, incurable condition in which the front part of the brain literally disintegrates. Life expectancy from diagnosis is, on average, two to eight years—and it’s not a pretty path. Accepting her husband’s fate raised Ida’s anxiety level sky high. So did telling their children. Through it all, Ida told herself she had to keep sober. She started digging through her toolbox to see what she already had and what she would need to develop. She went to daily 12-step meetings, making staying sober a priority. And she also had to work on helping her partner maintain his sobriety in the face of this new reality.

When Ida’s anxiety rises, her first reaction is to want to not feel, to not accept the distress of the situation, to find a way to avoid what is actually happening. “Not feeling” means taking pills and drinking. But resorting to past “solutions” wasn’t an option Ida would allow herself. No matter what, Ida was determined to remain clean. She and her husband have long been a team. Now, the partner “left standing” must remain mindful and in charge, to stay healthy and survive. Ida vows to “strengthen her backbone,” and feels that taking on this greater responsibility will help her do so.

Not that this is at all easy. Even simple communication can create chaos when dealing with a loved one who has FTD. Communicating when feeling anxious adds its own pressures. And when both parties feel the escape of addiction tempting them, success is definitely not guaranteed. So, for Ida, “administering her own oxygen first” (as the flight attendants always remind us) has had to take precedence.

And, of course, there’s laughter—the all-time best healer! Ida came home from work on a sweltering 90-degree day to find her husband wearing his red flannel pajamas, with all the windows closed. Ida, of course, had to use the facilities. But her husband sees her and bursts into tears, screaming, “Larry is dead!” Ida immediately freezes like a deer in the headlights. The thought of a cold margarita passes through her brain, but she stiffens her newly developed backbone—she must remain calm in order to keep her husband calm.

She reaches into her toolbox (which she has taken to calling her “makeup kit”) and the first skill set says: “Find out the facts.” She asks, “Larry my brother or Larry the fish?” Her husband answers, “Larry the fish.” She takes a deep breath and walks to the fish tank. The filter in the tank looks funny. Apparently, Ida’s husband decided to clean the tank, but something in his deteriorating brain led him to replace the plain cotton filter with Ida’s makeup remover pads, which had the unfortunate consequence of poisoning the fish and frog. To add insult to injury, Ida’s bladder couldn’t hold out anymore and she’s now standing in front of the fish tank in wet pants, looking at floating fish and a clogged filter. She reaches once more into her healthy toolbox and pulls out “Go to a meeting.” Anxiety and addiction must wait. A meeting, and the laughter of fellow addicts hearing this incredible story, will soothe both the anxiety and the lure of addiction.

Daily, Ida learns to stock her toolbox with new skills and techniques. The sad fact is that her husband won’t get better and feeling sorry for him or herself isn’t going keep either of them sane or sober. The only way to do so is with a toolbox that includes spiritual fitness, 12-step meetings, and therapy. Ida realizes that she’s not alone and she needn’t ever feel alone.

What’s the worst thing in the world, right now? That Ida wet her pants? That her husband is dying from a terminal illness and she must watch his slow demise? No, the worst thing right now would be to pick up a substance and let the stress and anxiety of the situation win. Later that week, Ida’s husband was able to acknowledge that his dementia caused the mishap. His sense of humor remains present; a great gift! A few days later, she heard him whisper to their dog: “Stay away from the fish tank. It could be deadly.”

Ida’s toolbox/makeup kit grows more effective every day. Her husband is doing as well as can be expected right now. He’s still working and trying to live as normal a life as possible. Neither Ida nor her husband is alone. The support of their family, 12-step meetings, therapists, prayers, and meditations make each day livable. As people age, their circumstances change. Mental health issues and addictions are often joined by increasing physical fragility and, in this case, terminal illness. But strong backbones can stay straight, and people in recovery can walk the straight path. And we can learn when to stay away from the fish tank.

Vickie Griffiths is currently completing her CASAC training and is an OASAS/CCAR Certified Recovery Coach, also a CCAR/NY.

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