Addiction and Anxiety – My Poetic Recovery
by Roger Wright
Mama said that when I was born, I cried a lot but instead of cuddling me close to her, she gave me Scotch and sugar in my milk bottles and left me on my own. I don’t recall many times when my mother was affectionate towards me, but I do remember many of the things that she and her sisters said to me, things like:
“You were the ugliest baby that I had ever seen.”
“You were so hairy, you looked like a wolf.”
“Your chest is too small.”
“Your arms are too skinny.”
“Your legs are boney.”
I will never forget the day when I came around a corner in the house to hear my grandfather tell my mother that I was never going to be nothing but a jailbird and a junkie like my father. My mother looked at me, started crying and ran out of the room. Granddaddy wasn’t a sensitive man. One time he took a leather strap and beat me because I couldn’t tie my shoes.
There was a great deal of abuse in my house. I lived with both my grandparents, 4 aunts, an uncle, my mother and two sisters. My older sister was taken by her father when I was six years old. When I was five years old, one of my aunts woke me up in the middle of the night. She took me into the bathroom where she laid down on the tiled floor. She put me between her legs and used me. She took me back to my bed wet, slimy and cold. I did not understand what had just occurred but something inside of me said that it was wrong. From this moment I did not trust women. I found myself afraid, I became introverted. Later as I got involved in relationships, if a woman hurt my feelings, I traveled back to this time and acted like a hurt little boy. Paradoxically, I tend to put women on a pedestal with high expectations that they can never fulfill.
Mental health was always a taboo subject in my D.C. neighborhood. No one talked about how they felt. As a child, one was expected to do as they were told, get good grades in school, and do their chores. As I think back to my childhood, I realize that I lived with and around people with mental issues. My grandfather could preach up a storm in church, but when he came home he drank. One of my aunts would drink until she was cross eyed. When taken to the doctor by her sisters, she was warned to stop drinking. My mother and her sisters would lock her in the house but she would escape disappearing for days. When she came back, she would be completely blasted insisting that she was not drunk. She died from cirrhosis of the liver.
We moved out of granddaddy’s house. This began the pattern of moving all the time. I had a difficult time making friends I was fearful of what people would think of me and afraid they would not like me. Ashamed of how I looked, I didn’t want to go outside or be seen in our new neighborhoods. Every neighborhood we moved to in D.C. was the same, full of strangers. I would prefer to watch television after school and avoid the outside world. I desperately wanted to be accepted, but I avoided reality. I constantly tried to do things for my mother’s approval. If she sent me to the store for something, I would run as fast as I could just so she would say “you went to the store already?” But that statement alone did not provide the security I desired. Sometimes I would ask about my father, which would upset my mother. She would lash out at me. Asking my mother about my history became a terrifying experience.
My mother had boyfriends that beat her. I wished for my father to be the hero and save us. But that never happened. Sometimes, her boyfriends would hurt me as well. I was slapped for no reason which created a very intense anger inside of me. I would go to my room, sit on the floor and cry in my silent rage. I hated my mother because she let her boyfriend hit me and I hated the boyfriend for hitting me. By the time I was sixteen, mama decided to put me out of her house and I went to live with my aunt in Tacoma Park, Maryland.
My aunt said that if I was to live in her house, I needed to get a job. When she left the house in the morning, I had to leave too. I would leave every morning without any food until the evening when she came back from work. With no money, I began my search for work. After a couple of weeks, I finally found a position at a fast food restaurant. The first evening at the job, the manager was showing me around the store and describing my duties. I suddenly felt overcome with fear. My heart raced as I attempted to listen but I tried to act as though everything was alright. My head felt hot and I started to sweat. Dizziness overwhelmed me and the next thing I knew, my legs buckled. When I was awakened, I was told I blacked out and they had called my uncle to pick me up. I had a gash in my chin from hitting it on the counter by the meat cutting station, where I would have been working. As my uncle and I walked home, we were both silent. No one talked to me, no doctor was called.
Going to school turned out to be the better option for me and my aunt enrolled me at the local high school. I was afraid of the people at the new school, so I immersed myself in my school work. Soon I became an honor roll student. Eventually, my mother allowed me to move back home, but with this change in security I didn’t have the same drive to succeed at school. Her husband and I had a mutual dislike for each other. I could see the contempt on his face every time I walked into the house. He treated my little sister and me very differently. Street life became more attractive to me. I made friends but they were broken people, like me. Again, I found myself seeking others’ approval. My new friends did things that I didn’t like to do: snatching old ladies’ pocketbooks, breaking into peoples’ houses to steal electronics dealing drugs. I was fearful of these people and of doing these things, but I was more afraid of showing or talking about my fears. I wanted to be accepted. Trapped between fear and anxiety, I would drink and use drugs to cover up my feelings.
One evening after a day of “hustling”, my best friend gave me a speedball. This was a mixture of two uppers which included some raw cocaine injected directly into my veins. The effect was immediate. Suddenly, all of my fears disappeared. No longer did I fear I was inadequate. No longer did I feel insecure or afraid that others may not like me. Suddenly, I felt in tune with the world around me. I wanted to feel this again and again, so I chased that loving feeling that I had from using drugs every day for years. My life spiraled completely out of control. Prison life, living on the run, drugs, homelessness, unemployment and more broken relationships became my life.
As a homeless man, I felt a great sense of shame most of the time. I was hiding in plain sight because I had nowhere to run. When it was warm, it wasn’t so bad. I could find a place to sleep in a park. But, when it is cold I wanted to get into a shelter. The lines were long so I would try to get there early enough to get a bed for the night. No matter how filthy it was, I would endure the rancid odors for a warm night’s sleep. Raiding hotel ashtrays for cigarette butts, I also learned where to go for food- places like churches or homeless help organizations like So Others Might Eat (S.O.M.E.). S.O.M.E. even had a treatment facility.
After years of living this way with several bad trips, blackouts and hospitalizations, I went into drug treatment. The staff told me that if I came into this program, I would never be able to drink again. The psychologist explained to me that I had formed an emotional connection with alcohol and drugs. I would have to endure a period of grieving like I had lost my best friend. As I was experiencing this loss, I began attending the 12 step program. I was afraid to talk about my experiences. I felt confused and I would break out in a sweat when people looked at me or asked me to share in front of the other members.
I began to write a lot and one day an alumnus of the program came by and offered to take some of us to a poetry club. I had never been to a poetry reading. It was a transformative experience. Writing became a tool for exploring who I am, how I feel about life situations. It was an outlet for what I felt inside as well as a means of recreation and recovery. I learned to accept my fears and go forward. I earned to allow myself to let out the anguish of my experiences. I am not perfect and I do not need to be. I accept that I have mental issues and I need help to navigate life, but I know that I can develop coping skills so that I do not have to fall apart at the first sign of trouble. I recognized how my mind copes with my insecurity and the resulting anxiety. I simply acknowledge it, pray for peace and calm and move forward. As I begin to understand myself and my capabilities I find a new appreciation for myself. I was taught to practice self affirmations and disregard my negative thinking habits. I spend time talking with people with whom I have developed close friendships.
The twelve step program literature says that we help people who were scarcely more than potential alcoholics by sharing our stories. I have written many poems about my addiction, helping people understand the challenges of addiction, alcoholism and anxiety. I have had jobs, lost jobs. I have been in relationships, lost relationships. I have dealt with death of loved ones and all kinds of joy and pain without going back to my old behavior. My favorite accomplishment is The Variety Show that I started. At this venue, I have to face my fear and anxiety constantly. I know there are others like me that need some place to share their gifts in a supportive environment. And in this environment, I share my experience, my strength and hope through poetry, songs and creative storytelling.
There have been times in my life when I had to hold someone’s hand to help them get past the initial fear of sharing and I have watched people blossom into great performers on the stage that I had built. Nothing is more satisfying to me than when someone comes to me and says that something that I had said or written helped them to overcome some issue they were having or opened their eyes to help them understand what a loved one was going through. One lady even told me that she could not grieve the loss of her son until she heard me describe an episode of my active addiction. These things cause me to believe that I have value in this society. I have recently celebrated twenty-two years of sobriety and I am grateful for all the things that have happened in my life. I would never have found out who I am, what I am capable of or a real purpose for my life had I not gone through what I have experienced. At the end of her life, I actually caught my mother bragging to her girlfriend about her son who had gotten himself together. And although she has passed, I hold on to that as a source of my strength. I have a great work ahead of me and my addiction and anxiety will not stop me.