(You don’t think it can get worse. You’re wrong.)

I know a lot of people addicted to substances—or who used substances for a long time. I know very few people who ever recovered. And truthfully, I still don’t know how they actually made it out—other than to listen to how they describe it: often a mix of one last sliver of willpower, an intervention from a person, or people, of impact, and mostly, a ton of sheer luck.

The others? The ruined, essentially. For them, life is small, predictable, disconnected, and altogether awful. Their futures are predetermined: death or incarceration. Not necessarily in that order. And the road that leads to either one, or both, is strewn with the debris of one ridiculousness decision after the next.

Two types of people will read this article: those who know (and love) an addict, and an addict. From here on out, though anyone can use these words to help someone they care about, I’m speaking to the addict. If you’re an addict, don’t put this down. You’re just a person reading a paper—there’s no shame in that.

I know you know this, because you’re an addict, and you know everything (a bit of cognitive stagnation—a common byproduct of addiction—basically, you stop maturing the moment you start seriously using), but you’re going to die. Soon, probably (especially if you’re 25 or older). Or end up in jail, where you might also die—or just end up revisiting consistently for the next decade … until, again, you probably die.

You think I’m wrong? Prove it. What have you done to get out of your mess? Truly. I’m not lecturing, I’m asking. This paper is as benign an object as there is at this moment. It’s not judging you, and no one knows what you’re reading, or why you’re reading it. In that way, it’s a mirror. Mirrors don’t lie. What are you doing to not be an addict? To not be a burden on your loved ones? To change your path and the inevitability of the prior paragraph? No excuses. Can you even think in these terms—without excuses? Perhaps not. And that should be proof enough that you’re racing towards the aforementioned destiny.

Perhaps your greatest overall dilemma (though you might think it’s something else) is that you’re running out of time. Even amid the disarray of your life, you think you’ve “got time” to turn it around. In fact, you’ve likely been putting off efforts to turn it around for quite a while, maybe years—telling people like me to back off and stop acting like I know what it’s like to be you.

Consider this: an additional detail you’ve overlooked is that you’re rapidly losing, or you’ve lost, your ability to think abstractly. Your brain has been chemically compromised; your patterns have become habits have become instincts. You live within an irrational mode of operation, which effects a warped sense of being, and a distorted world view.

You’re probably either dangerously close, or already within the grasp, of a reality where you can’t sort things out. You might have come to this realization already, in private. I imagine it’s a harsh one. The science behind it says it’s a point where you no longer possess the mental/emotional ability to save yourself—basically, because your brain doesn’t work like it used to.

You’re in the throws of something I’ve heard described as the “window theory” of addiction—a metaphor I’ve experienced with every addict I’ve ever known (sadly, many of whom have kids being raised by someone else—not always a loving relative).

Set in Motion
When people first start using drugs/alcohol, they’re mostly too young to realize that they’ve set in motion a process of sorts. In this case, it’s a window—the same window we all have at an early point in our lives—the proverbial window of opportunity.

If we don’t get into serious substance abuse (or any type of general destructive behavior), that window stays relatively open and easy to pass through for many years. Even if life doesn’t work out the way people want it to, or thought it would, the open window of opportunity is always there—waiting and ready for that person to pass through it and start again.

But within addiction, something very subtle, very unseen to the user, happens—gradually at first, and then with more speed. The window begins to inch its way shut. The space through which you can pass, and access a new life, a new direction—an escape—decreases. Have you already experienced this on one or many levels—with a person, a job, an ambition—where you’re forced to admit that the window for that chance is no longer what it was?

Frankly, we often forget about the window over the course of our lives, and only find ourselves standing in front of it at certain pivot points and milestones. For those folks who merely need a new direction in life, the window is open, similar to the way it was the last time they considered it. But for addicts, the window works its way shut as time passes and behaviors don’t change.

Something to remember is that time passes the same for everyone, and before long, an addict’s “twenties” are soon becoming late twenties, early thirties. And whereas these times of development and potential transition for a lot of people are relatively commonplace, and even necessary (often filled with possibility because of the open window), such a place can quickly become a battleground, and a dead-end, for an addict.

Two years becomes five years becomes ten years, etc. A trail of burned bridges, destroyed relationships, legal problems, traffic tickets, hospital and rehab bills, little to no resume or work experience, bad credit, significant debt, a corrosive social circle, a mountain of regret and dreams deferred—all of these things merge to produce the type of person who now gazes at a window that is very different than the open window of opportunity they once took for granted. Does the above list look familiar? And how much of it do you think you’re able to accrue before your life begins to spiral out of control? Has it already?

Photo ©David Niblack

The other cruel reality about the closed window is that, like any other window, people can see through it—so addicts often mistake the fact that they can see through to the other side as proof that they can pass through it. But, tragically, what they’re seeing is merely the life on the other side of the window—other people’s lives—a life they now have no access to, but can only watch in desperation, because their personal window is shut.

Again, this usually happens around 30 years of age—sometimes earlier, sometimes a little later. Essentially, the damage has been done at this point; most likely, the addict has ruined such a broad portion of their life that the damage can’t be reversed. The hope for any type of functional future, while not completely lost, is dangling at best.

This is the most important moment in an addict’s life—though all of the years leading up to this point are equally significant in their contribution. Because the next decade is make or break: if they can’t get themselves together in their thirties, the prognosis goes from tragic to terminal.

If there is even the remotest possibility of hope for the addict’s future, they must immediately change their course and remove themselves from the place, the people, the habits, the routines, the substances, and the thinking they’re connected to at that moment. Ask yourself: how many of these elements need to change for you this very moment if you’re going to carve out any type of functional future?

Indeed, survival is the name of the game now. Not recovery. Not rehab. Not hope and change. Not apologies and promises to do better. Survival—i.e., not dying. Because addiction, and the life that comes with it, gets to a point—usually in the late twenties/early thirties—where the only option left, for many cumulative reasons, is not dying. Unfortunately, by that age, most addicts are so entrenched in their habits and the distorted thinking that comes with it, that they associate with this lifestyle more than the one on the other side of the window.

Believing the Narrative
Sounds dramatic, certainly. But here’s what happens to a drug addict when they can no longer climb through the open window.

A shift occurs. They begin to believe in the hopelessness—in the narrative they’ve created for themselves. They begin to accept this perceived lot in life. They come to terms with a reality that they’ve messed everything up and can’t fix it. They adopt the victim mentality—as they have many times before—and they stop trying.

Perhaps you can write this paragraph for me. What happens then resembles basic math. Your inner turmoil grows. You’re broke. No job, no prospects. No transportation. No place to live. You’re surrounded by similar people, similar narratives. You’ve cut off almost everyone you care about—and who cares about you—even though you’d give anything to tell them you’re sorry, you love them.

Soon enough, the depression sets in even deeper—a scorching sense of worthlessness and lack of achievement. The addiction grows. The people around you continue to die or go to prison. Friends and family from a lifetime ago seem to have achieved great things and forgotten you—seemed to have forgotten that addiction even exists.

The channel becomes narrower as the years tick away. And finally, at around mid-thirties, maybe even 40—recognizing that another twenty years on the planet like this will be unbearable—you decide that it’s just not worth the trouble. It will only get worse. Surrender is much easier. The prospect of leaving it all behind becomes much more realistic.

What might sound completely irrational and insane to a non-addict becomes a point of serious consideration for an addict once that window closes. Because there absolutely is a point of no return—where plausible life ends, and the march towards misery and death begins. And you’re not old when it arrives, though it might feel that way. But you know that already.

— — —

Did the last 1,600 words pretty much describe your life? Then do something about it. Stand up, admit to yourself that you’ve made a mess, swallow your pride, and ask someone for help. Real help. Not the usual BS you feed everyone. Genuine help.

Get yourself in a program. Get out of town. Leave the other addicts and enablers in your life in the past. Admit to yourself that you’re battered but not broken—that your window is nearly shut, but not all the way.

And start again. Read those words. Start again. It’s not impossible. You have to be willing to let go of your life on this side of the window. Even if it feels like the biggest, scariest, most complex decision you’ll ever make. And no doubt it will be.

But rest assured, nothing is worse than the moment you realize your window is shut forever. Don’t let it get to that.


— For more information, visit the Drugs & Addiction link beneath the NEWS tab on this website—for continuing resources and articles on addiction. Email info@wearetheobserver.com for additional assistance.

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