The Power Blog: Recovery – Part One by Tom Messplay

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Power of Humans blogger Tom Messplay shares the third in his multi-part series chronicling his battle with alcoholism. In this candid unedited post, Tom describes the steps in his recovery process.  We thank him for bringing to light a disease that affects millions.  For the first posts in his series click HERE.

The Power Blog: Recovery-Part One by Tom Messplay

The recovery program I was in consisted of 2 weeks from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM each day except on Sunday when we were done at 2:00 PM. known as partial hospitalization, followed by 12 weeks three nights a week for 3 hours each, known as intensive outpatient program (IOP) followed by another 12 weeks or as long as needed once per week for 2 ½ hours.

In the partial program we would meet in a large group setting of 40-50 people in recovery from a variety of substances. It fluctuated as people would drop out or move on to the next stage of therapy. We would begin each day with readings from the AA Big Book and another book of inspiration. After the readings we would do “check in.” We would discuss how we slept, how we felt, what withdrawal symptoms we were experiencing and to what degree, i.e. cravings, tremors, memory loss, anxiety, difficulty with motor skills, and we would end with stating if we had relapsed. We would then go around the room again and discuss what we did in the past 24 hours, i.e. attend support group, obtain a temporary sponsor, contacted my sponsor, or contacted a person in recovery. The next topic was what went well the previous evening, what fell short, what we needed to do to continue our recovery, identify what we wanted to get out of treatment that day that would help us with our recovery efforts that night, identify a goal to obtain that night, and later in the day, what we learned that day and how we would apply those skills after we left treatment that day.

After the “check in” process we would have a group presentation or various breakout sessions. This included yoga, meditation, presentations by the Chaplain, nutritionist, personal trainer, holistic medicine, challenges we would face, the stigma of addiction, relapse prevention, mental health, physiological changes from addiction, etc. I found all of these helpful and incorporated most of them in my ongoing recovery program. At the conclusion of the session it was time for lunch break. We had 45 minutes for lunch in the hospital cafeteria. During lunch we had the opportunity to get to know each other. I was not opposed getting to know others as I was in detox.

After lunch we would break into a smaller group setting of 8-10 people. Our check in during the small group was very similar to the large group session. The biggest difference was in a smaller setting people more easily opened up about how they were doing. This setting also allowed others to ask questions and offer suggestions to others. For the first few days I was so focused on myself I didn’t pay too much attention to what the others were saying. As I started to pay more attention to the others it did strike me how sad many of the stories were. Some were there for legal reasons, others were attempting to salvage a marriage, or parental rights, others were just trying to put their lives back together after years of addiction, some were there to keep a roof over their heads when parents gave the ultimatum of getting clean/sober or being kicked out of their homes, and some were trying to break away from co-dependent relationships with spouses/significant others/parents. I was there for fear of losing more control of my drinking than I already had and damaging my family and jeopardizing my career. Regardless of the reasons for being there everyone was full of great sadness, remorse, fear, and hopelessness, all hoping for a better life.

In my small group I was the oldest. The youngest was a 19 year old heroin addict. The group was comprised of alcoholics, heroin addicts, and prescription medication addicts. I wondered how the youngest ones had gotten to such a terrible place in their young lives. The reasons became clearer as I heard more of their stories. There was one girl age 22 recovering from heroin addiction who was also in an abusive co-dependent relationship. She couldn’t go home because her parents were themselves co-dependent heroin addicts. She couldn’t find anywhere else to go. She had destroyed most of her friendships so she had no one to turn to. There wasn’t space at any of the women’s shelters. I wondered where are these women supposed to go? Her only option was to be homeless. What kind of choice is that? I offered to have her stay with us until she made other arrangements. The therapist got some help for her to find somewhere to go. Unfortunately, she found nowhere to go so she went home to more emotional and mental abuse.  She didn’t show up for a couple of days. When she came back she informed us that she had relapsed and used heroin the previous couple of days. She was devastated. My heart sunk after seeing and hearing what had happened.

I always considered myself to be a compassionate person. However, during my experience in rehab my level of compassion went up dramatically. My heart broke listening to the struggles of the others. My exposure to the life of addiction allowed me to see addiction is an entirely different light. I always thought that I understood addiction but it became obvious that I really had no clue. I may have read and heard of addiction but I really didn’t fully understand until I walked in those shoes. I started feeling guilty taking up space in the group since there are others who could have used it more than me. After group was over I stayed behind and talked with the therapist. I told him I didn’t belong there and how the others had it so much worse than me. He started asking me similar questions to those asked during my original assessment. He then asked about my experience in detox, the mental and physical withdrawal symptoms I experienced and was still experiencing. After some discussion he made me realize that I did belong there. Everyone’s addiction, rock bottom, and recovery are different. That does not mean it is any less difficult from others. When I left I thought I should be really depressed after our talk. Instead though I felt very good and had a positive outlook. On my drive home I realized that I felt so good because I knew I should be there and that I was doing what I needed to do to recover.

Towards the end of the first week I was feeling pretty good and I felt like my coping skills were improving. My wife and I went for a walk in downtown Waukesha. My son is a bartender at the bar I enjoyed frequenting. I thought it would be safe. I was with my wife and I was going to see my son who wouldn’t serve me alcohol. When we arrived we sat at the bar and talked to our son. Within a few minutes all I could do was stare at the whiskey bottles. My mouth started to water, the cravings became intense, my hands started to shake and my anxiety shot through the roof. We left immediately, but it took 2 days to recover from the experience. When I went to group I told the group what I had done. The therapist sat there with his mouth hanging open and looking at me with a look of shock.  When I was finished the therapist asked me what I thought I was doing, and that I was way too early in my recovery to do that even though I had support and was in a safe situation. He continued asking me if I am always going to be putting myself to these kinds of tests. He said if I did I was asking for a serious relapse. He pleaded with me not to do that again. Based on how I felt after I went in the bar I readily agreed.

I moved into the second week feeling pretty good. My coping skills were getting better and all that I was learning was being beneficial to my recovery. I was still experiencing post-acute withdrawal symptoms. I had periodic tremors, memory loss, physical dexterity problems, anxiety, and cravings. I was told by a doctor that those symptoms would subside over time and will last as long as it takes for my brain to heal from the damage of years of alcohol abuse. I continued to feel sorry for the others in the group. Those that started with me seemed to be progressing at different paces. Some moved on the IOP stage. The newer members were pretty much at the same place I was when I started. On Wednesday, two days before this stage of rehab was over I was feeling depressed and just not myself. We broke for lunch before going to small group and I made my way to the cafeteria. I was almost there and I started to shake and began to cry. I headed back to the building where we had group and sat under a tree and had a complete meltdown. I totally lost all control of my emotions. I sat there for about a half hour and could not regain my composure. I went into the building to find my therapist. I found him eating lunch with another therapist and as soon as he saw me he got up and took me to his office. I continued with my meltdown while he was asking what happened that gave me this response. I started to regain some control and he was looking through my file. He counted the number of days since I checked into detox. He told me he thought he knew what happened. It was not uncommon for someone to react that way at this point in recovery. It was more of a reaction to all that had happened since I began recovery and all the emotions just rushed to a head leading to the meltdown. I was relieved to hear that explanation. It did help me gain my composure just a few minutes before group started. When we started he asked me to start and explain what had happened. It did help to talk and the support I received from the group was tremendous. Two days later I was finished with that part of rehab. It was rather bittersweet. I had gotten to be comfortable with the group and therapist. I was happy about being done but apprehensive about the next step. We had a ceremony at the end of the day that occurred whenever anyone was moving on. I picked a stone out of a basket and it was passed around the group and each person wished me well and mentioned what they had learned from me and what they felt was going to help me to continue progressing. It was very nice and ended the experience on a very positive not. It was Friday and I had the weekend before I started the intensive outpatient program. It was a great weekend spending time with my family.

The IOP was centered on education. We covered all aspects of addiction, the how’s, why’s, etc. We also went in-depth on recovery, relapse, coping skills, and learning to live life without our substance of choice. We did a lot of worksheets, read every night from a variety of sources. There was a great deal of the therapist setting up situations that could threaten our sobriety and we would discuss how we could avoid or remove ourselves from the situation. This lead to discussion on what we needed to purge in our lives and what we needed to include in our lives to help in our long term recovery. It actually was very beneficial. After 12 weeks I was invited into the next program that was reserved for those who they felt had a high likelihood of success. They wanted to give us more group therapy to help us succeed long term. What I also realized a few weeks into the program was that the main reason for me to be there was to help others in the group who were not as well off as I was. I was fine with that because I knew that helping others would allow me to help myself. I was in the group for about 9 weeks and I found that I was becoming depressed after the evening ended. I couldn’t understand how I would feel good going and depressed when I was leaving. It finally occurred to me that most in the group had been through a recovery before but was not able to sustain it. Some had been in the group for two years. I began to think I would be like them and never progress. I did not want to be there two years later. One night after group I was feeling very depressed. On my way home I stopped at the liquor store that I frequented. I sat in the parking lot just looking at the doors and going from wanting to go in and then talking myself out of it. After half an hour of torturing myself I left but was very wound up. On my way home I turned onto a short not very wide road that was only about ¾ of a mile long. When I got on the road I began traveling at a very high rate of speed. I continued until I achieved the emotional high I needed. I realized that even after all the therapy I had gone through I was still in the grips of alcohol recovery and that I had a long way to go. I slowed down and headed home. I told my wife about what I had done and she made me promise to call her if I found myself in a similar situation. I decided not to mention the incident in group as I was afraid the therapist would consider it an attempted suicide event. The last thing I wanted was to be hospitalized for a psych evaluation for being suicidal. I was not suicidal I just needed to achieve the feeling I had been missing since I quit drinking. I finally decided I couldn’t continue so after 10 weeks in the group I decided it was time to move on with my life. Sitting there talking about recovery and listening to others struggle in recovery after years of sobriety was doing me no good and was actually making me feel hopeless and depressed.

I felt a great sense of relief after I dropped out of the group. My spirits were high and it was nearing Christmas. I wanted to move on. I knew there were difficult times ahead. I also knew that with the amazing support of especially my family, and friends that I had a great chance of successfully moving forward.