Chronic Illness in Recovery

By Charlotte Grey 04/21/15

Despite five years of sobriety, four bottles of red wine, or a liter of straight vodka a day, are finally catching up with me.


After three years of seeing specialists for undiagnosed chronic gastrointestinal illness, a doctor finally considered that, despite my five years of sobriety, my prior heavy drinking and drug use damaged my body. Four bottles of red wine, or a liter of straight vodka, were a mild variation of my quotidian repertoire, which usually included some sprinkling of cocaine, heroin, weed laced with angel dust, narcotic painkillers, or benzodiazepines. My doctor sent me home that day with pancreatic enzymes, hoping to help me gain back the 25 pounds I’d inexplicably lost.

Instead of judging myself for my reality, I've found healing in giving myself permission to feel. 

A classical ballet dancer and gourmet-food enthusiast without the slightest inkling of an eating disorder, the weight loss baffled me. This medication turned out to be the first start to getting me healthy. I'm also in treatment for intestinal inflammation as a result of severe food sensitivities and suspected ulcerative colitis. Long-term consumption of certain foods causes me joint inflammation, intestinal bleeding, vomiting, bacterial overgrowth, and nutrient malabsorption, which have led to malnutrition, abdominal adhesions, and fatal bacterial infection. Having lived with the condition since age 14, I didn't seek treatment until a boyfriend with Crohn's disease pointed out that he had the same symptoms, and that they weren’t normal. 

The first specialists I consulted ran numbers of tests but found no abnormalities, concluding that my malaise resulted solely from stress. Charting my symptoms for months, I noticed that they acted independently of my moods. I sought second opinions until I found a doctor willing to treat me beyond inconclusive test results. I spent up to five days a week in my doctors' offices, usually hooked up to an IV for medication and hydration since I couldn't orally digest solids or liquids. Crippled by attacks that would keep me in bed for weeks at a time, I couldn't go to work or exercise. I saw over 10 specialists in one year and underwent dozens of diagnostic imaging tests, monthly ER visits, seven colonoscopies, four upper endoscopies, and abdominal surgery. Most procedures required anesthesia, and I leaned on my sober network to help me make informed decisions on my treatment.

In my experience, not all narcotics are medically necessary. Even today, I tell all professionals involved with my care that I'm a recovering alcoholic and addict and that I don't want to take narcotics if I don't need to. I ask each staff member precisely what they plan to give me and why. I refuse non-essential medications, like Klonopin, to relax me before administering anesthesia. I make sure I inquire about benzodiazepines and barbiturates since many doctors don't understand that they’re recreationally used and addictive, even though they aren't classed as narcotics. A gastroenterologist once prescribed me a “non-narcotic” muscle relaxer for abdominal cramping, and since I didn't recognize the chemical name as something I once abused, I took it. Days later, I felt irritable and lightheaded, suddenly craving drugs. I researched online, discovered that it contained Xanax, and told my doctor that I refused to continue it.

As a patient in recovery, I am my own best health advocate. I don't need to adhere to every remedy they advise; I can actively dialogue to find alternatives that align with my physical and spiritual comfort. However, I did also learn that intense physical pain can delay or prevent healing, and that in many circumstances narcotic pain relief can be a medical necessity. 

Recently, I agreed to take narcotic painkillers for eight days for a dry socket following the extraction of my four wisdom teeth. My jawbone and nerves were exposed, leaving me in excruciating pain that prescription-strength ibuprofen wouldn’t relieve. At first, I enjoyed the narcotic buzz and honestly confided that in my sponsor. She suggested that I get to a meeting every day that I could. In meetings, I felt a spiritual peace substantially more profound than what the pills could do for me. I didn’t share; I just listened. I started looking forward to meetings everyday and stopped counting down the minutes till my next dose. Even on a former drug of choice, I wanted sobriety more than I wanted to be high.

The painkillers, though, triggered the physical allergy of alcoholism and for weeks after I discontinued the medication, I fantasized about relapse. That after-period has been the hardest place to stay emotionally and physically sober, so I relied on meetings, fellowship, and service to carry me through the withdrawal. Mentally distracting me from my disease relieves me from that obsession to escape the physical discomfort and buys my body time to detox. These tools don’t instantaneously remove my anxiety, but they do make it more tolerable, even just a little bit.

Another essential tool to keep my sanity has been practicing my spirituality. As a result of daily prayer and meditation, I’ve been able to see the incredible ways my higher power has taken care of me. At five years sober, I was in the ER with a bowel adhesion and in excruciating pain. Minutes after my doctors administered IV morphine, a newcomer visited me. She recently relapsed and was struggling and desperate for sober guidance. It felt like a beautiful gift that in those moments my need to be of service to another alcoholic distracted me from an inevitable physical high. I was given this incredible opportunity to motivate someone to choose sobriety, which really felt like I was talking to myself; the message I got to give this girl was exactly what I needed to hear when the drugs coursing through my veins tried to convince me otherwise. This was one of many incidents whose timing and content seemed too perfectly positioned to be a mere coincidence, and I’ve come to believe that it’s the grace of my higher power actively working in my life. 

At five years sober, I was hospitalized for a fatal bacterial infection from my untreated gastrointestinal problems. My AA network encouraged me to reach out for help if I needed it; all I had to do was ask. Estranged from my family of origin, I relied on AA for support like I did when I was a newcomer. What resulted was a constant stream of daily calls, visits, and texts. I didn’t feel lonely. Post-hospitalization, they brought meetings to my apartment and carried my groceries home. Asking for emotional support, though, was my greatest roadblock.

My alcoholic mind still tells me that my emotions are dramatic, irrational, and that I don't have a right to feel the way I'm feeling. Medically restricted from consuming food or liquid orally for several weeks at a time would throw my already volatile moods into a tailspin. They say in meetings that HALT (being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired) increases emotional sensitivity, which I found to be at the foundation of my irritability. Instead of judging myself for my reality, I've found healing in giving myself permission to feel. Frustration, hopelessness, emptiness, and sadness are as valid experiences as joy and serenity, simply because I’m experiencing them. Honestly sharing my truth with another human being frees me from the shame my disease oppresses me with, and is the first step to choosing to step out of self-pity and into self-love. 

Finally, this past winter, after years of living in denial of the reality of my sickness, I fully committed to my physical recovery. I changed my entire diet to help my body heal. Needing to shop at specialty stores far from my apartment and spend hours in the kitchen meticulously preparing each of my meals have both been major lifestyle adjustments. But when I finally prioritized my health, I started to recover. I took a four-month break from ballet to let my body rest and devote my spare time to doctor’s appointments. Since ballet was my primary emotional outlet, I pursued passions that didn't require physical activity, like photography, writing, and seeing live music. Now, at nearly seven years sober, I'm still working with doctors to find the right balance of treatment. Having dozens of appointments and procedures scheduled in one week feels insurmountably overwhelming, but when I focus on what I can do in the 24 hours in front of me, the to-do list looks manageable, relieving me of mountains of anxiety.

As I've heard in AA meetings, serenity isn't freedom from the storm, but peace from within it. On a daily basis, I decide to focus on the progress my incredible medical team and I have made together. I now need to see my doctors only once a month, take minimum medication, and rarely need IV treatment. I don't miss work and, as of last week, am dancing again. Someone once shared with me that the same boiling water that softens a potato hardens an egg; it's not about the circumstance, but what we're made of. My illness has brought me to cherish the life I once jeopardized by putting drugs and alcohol into my body, and most importantly, has led me to happiness greater than I've ever known was possible.

Charlotte Grey is a pseudonym for a writer in New York.

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