Milestones in Recovery

By Mark Ronan 09/11/16

There are certain milestones which have obvious significance—the last drop of methadone, the first job clean—and some seemingly insignificant ones that take you by surprise.

Milestones in Recovery
Sometimes you reach one unexpectedly.

This morning, I was woken at six o’clock by a car horn beeping on the road outside my house. There are certain milestones you pass on your road to recovery which have obvious significance. Sometimes, they are dates or anniversaries that at the time impress you when you consider their formerly inconceivable status—days, weeks, months and years glide by where previously minutes and hours were eternities. Sometimes, the significant milestones are important events rather than dates on the calendar, their significance lying in the what rather than the when—the last drop of methadone, the first job clean, going back to school, the birth of a child, meeting someone good for you, and being free to go with it. All these markers on the road to recovery pass slowly and—looking back—steadily, eliciting a continuing sense of dumb, incredulous reverence as you move more and more from the person you were to the person you are becoming.

The milestones pass slowly but they build up, and at some points along the way, you may consider your recovery not in the present continuous state—a state which will inevitably, either from the urge to go forward or to go back, feel like an albatross beginning to chafe—but rather in the definitive past tense of “recovered.” Complacency, however, is the mortal enemy of the “ex-addict” and pride comes ever before the fall etc., etc... There are certain milestones, though, which do allow you to tentatively toy with the idea that you are over the worst and may in fact have actually made it to some kind of safe ground.

These fortifying points of reflection on the progression of your recovery may or may not be sparked by the passing of obviously significant milestone events like the ones mentioned above. In fact, it is not too difficult to imagine—or to call to mind some anecdotal examples of—how significant anniversaries or events in one’s recovery, by their very significance, can potentially place a nervous and fragile recovering addict in a kind of flight or fight frame of mind. The big dates and doings of “normal” life which others tend to notice and comment on (overwhelmingly encouragingly) can be, as well as sources of personal pride and encouragement, both daunting and destabilizing. Shit’s getting real and that can be scary for someone who has been living their life as an emotional eunuch.

There are, on the other hand, superficially insignificant milestones on the road to recovery which take you by surprise, even after years of living drug-free. Little moments which are sprung on you out of the blue and which, therefore, don’t come preceded by the attendant levels of anxiety which an obviously significant milestone on the horizon (say a five or ten year anniversary of sobriety for example) always carry with them to some degree. These insignificant moments are, in actuality, anything but. They are insignificant only insofar as they generally go unnoticed by others around us. They are our own private, personal milestones—signals not to others but to ourselves that we are getting better.

This morning I was woken at six o’clock by a car horn beeping on the road outside my house. I lay there listening to the engine idling and the rain lightly peppering my window, and after a short pause I heard the gate to the apartments across the road close, followed by the car door and its engine rising and fading until it was just me and the rain. In terms of insignificant milestones, it probably doesn’t get any more trivial than this little vignette. This mundane slice of everyday life, however, had anything but the feeling of insignificance. With the noise of that car horn I was transported back, over ten years, to when I still lived in my parents’ house and was working in construction (industrial painting to be precise). I recalled cold, wet and dark mornings when my colleagues would pull up outside my house in the company van and beep for me. I remembered vividly the feeling I had on one particular morning when the van pulled up.

That time, I was already awake when it arrived. I heard the distinctive rumble of a diesel engine approaching, coming to a stop and idling, followed by the sound of the horn, too loud due to the earliness of the hour and the narrowness of the lane behind my house. I pulled up the blind and waved out to the van to forestall another, perhaps even more insistent and intrusive beep. Then I turned back to what I had been doing. I had my works out but hadn’t yet opened my bag of gear to tip it onto the spoon. As I left the window and sat back down at my desk, I remember having the sense of operating on a kind of autopilot. I remember thinking of wrapping up my works—as I hadn’t yet opened the bag and I wasn’t particularly sick as I had had a hit only a few hours previously before going to bed—going straight out to the waiting van and having the turn-on later, probably in the toilet on site at the ten o’clock tea break. I had this thought as I was mechanically sitting back down and snipping open my score bag with the little scissors I kept for that and for cutting my filters. I had this parallel thought of deferring the hit until later as I was simultaneously going through the physical motions of preparing the shot. I thought about it in the detached way we think about things that we are never going to do—like when you’re on a tall building and you think “jump,” only with a lot less attached emotion or adrenaline than that. Being done, there is no pause. I cooked my shot and, as I recall, put it into me with relative ease and efficiency, considering it was a cold morning when the veins are usually reluctant and uncooperative. I then packed up and headed down to the van.  

Thinking about this episode this morning, in the short time between the car’s beep and its departure, I was struck by an enormous sense of gratitude at where I am now. The thought of getting out of the bed, there and then at that hour of the morning, to shoot up smack (a thought which previously had been about the only thing that would get me out of bed at that hour or any hour) brought with it a sense of mild surfeited revulsion which I don’t recall ever experiencing before. This morning, I felt that I was no longer just kicking a can down the road with my recovery but that I had actually arrived at a point where, even though I am free to choose, heroin has lost its appeal. This morning was a milestone because I was reminded of what an all-consuming burden a drug habit is. This morning was a milestone because it reminded me of the freedom to pause I now enjoy. This morning was a milestone because I got out of bed at six o’clock, not to have a turn-on but to write my story—not because I had to but because I wanted to. This morning was a milestone and it was a significant one.   

Mark Ronan is a Dublin, Ireland based writer. He quite heroin in 2007, quit methadone in 2008 and is the father to two sons with his wife Amy. In 2010 he returned to education, receiving a BA and MA, and this month he begins a PhD in pre-modern concepts of addiction.

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