My Brain After Drugs

“This is your brain on drugs” – that famous public service campaign brought to us by Partnership for a Drug Free America – always made me chuckle.

Of course MY brain wasn’t being fried by recreational drugs and booze! I was just doing what everyone else was doing. Maybe a bit more but still doing ok at school. I got really good at denial – to myself and others.

I first noticed I was having trouble holding things, and my hands and feet were numb, around 1994. I would trip a lot and break things. I had been drinking very regularly since about 1972, adding in other drugs since 1976, and by the early 90’s had begun hiding that I was having blackouts occasionally. I didn’t tell my doctors about my use of course – so a few MRIs that showed white matter hyperintensities later and I got an MS diagnosis.

Those “bright spots” increased over the years – because of course I was still drinking very heavily and not discussing it with my physicians. Since I wasn’t admitting how much I was consuming to them, it became easier to not acknowledge it to myself.

When I first got clean and sober I felt like I had dodged a bullet – or maybe a barrage of gunfire! My liver enzymes were back to normal within 60 days and my Doc from rehab referred to me as a “miracle”. I firmly believed I was going to be ok – that my brain would be OK. I had every reason to think that … it’s what everyone told me. You stop drinking and your brain heals … except that’s not really how it works. What normally happens is that a healing brain creates work arounds. Neurological rerouting basically. Unfortunately for me my brain had been doing this for years. Heavy drinking and drug use during adolescence already requires a lot of that neurological elasticity – I didn’t have a lot of spare brain tissue to reroute by the time I got sober!

The other factor for me is the endothelial lining of my veins and arteries … and in all those little microvascular vessels that feed the brain. Mine are lazy. Made less energetic by the years of poly drug use. I imagine that lining as saggy pantyhose. There – but doing a half assed job! I seem to have inherited a propensity for this problem, which booze exacerbated. So poor profusion at a microvascular level continues leading to cognitive impairment.

So what am I doing to slow down the progression? Nothing that exciting. There is no magic solution. No CBD Oil, coconut oil, MCT oil is going to lube my brain healthy again. We have found that eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise has helped my function a bit. Part of that is that feeling good physically and getting the right nutrients reduces the stress on my body generally which is a good thing. Managing emotional stress has also improved function. If I get overwhelmed or upset my memory, executive function and verbal abilities deteriorate for days.

The most important thing I’m focusing on is just living. Being diagnosed as cognitively impaired, and that I will continue to decline, really floored me. Although I knew I had a problem, having it be official took the wind out of my sails. I’m having to redefine who I am now and how I want to fill my days. Rather than focus on things I can’t do I’m working on enjoying the things I can. For instance reading fiction is very difficult – all those plot details! However non fiction – topics rooted in facts I learned long ago? Still a huge pleasure! I’m playing with painting, sewing and needlework. All revisiting skills from my youth. Then there is hiking. Currently I’m planning another attempt at the AT – and all the physical prep that goes along with that. Hopefully with my brain and body active, a healthy lifestyle and reducing stress I get to be cognizant as long as possible

I still chuckle at that “This is your brain on Drugs” PSA.

Amends?

It’s been 4637 days since my last drink. That’s 12 and 1/2 years if you add them all up. I didn’t want to get clean and sober. Well I didn’t want the pain, sickness and shame, but was terrified of living without drugs and alcohol. How did people do that? How to cope with all the emotions? The fear. The anger.

The work of recovery was something I feared deeply. Those damn emotions and all that accountability! There were meetings, therapy, physical care and mental health support. I began to realize that if I did what people who knew how to be sober suggested that maybe, just maybe, I would learn to be grateful and possibly happy.

An integral part of this process was about making amends. During active addiction I caused enormous destruction and pain. In recovery I could no longer place blame on others for my actions, had to own my mistakes, and do what I could to right those wrongs.

The idea behind making an amends is to clean up your side of the street. I wronged another person, and now had do my best to make it right, and we all move on. Whether they accepted my apology or not wasn’t something in my control. My role was to respect them and their wishes and carry on with my life. As hard as it was I did the work. Most people, over time, accepted my amends and relationships were repaired. Most. Not all. Friendships ended and I mourned. Mourned what I did. Mourned what I lost. That none of it could be undone.

Family relationships were the most important to me. These were the people I had impacted most, but also loved the deepest. Besides my husband and children it was my Mom and sister that carried the most importance. Those amends were terribly difficult. It’s hard to listen to what you’ve done so it can be made right. The blessing of being a blackout drinker is that you don’t have the burden of memory. The drawback is that not remembering comes off as denial to those looking for answers.

For a long time I thought my sister had accepted my amends. That we were working on our relationship. We had some great times in these past 12 years. Hard ones too – and during one of those tough times she came clean that she couldn’t forgive me. What I come to realize is that sometimes the damage is simply too great. That hurt informs everything going forward . Hurtful actions can’t be undone. No amount of me wanting things to be different is going to change that. Not even with a cute vision board!

So what do you do when your closest living relative can’t forgive you? I’m supposed move on. Respect her wishes and get on with my life. Clearly I can’t “make it right”. Can’t fix hurt and pain. Time can’t be turned back. I’m going to try my best to move on, grieve the loss and stop wishing for a resolution the other person doesn’t want. There is no denying that it sucks. I had held onto this idea that we could get beyond this and hike together when I attempt another AT thru next year. Just have to let it go.

I am committed to not going back to the life I once lived. To show with living amends that I am not that same person who caused all that damage. I am grateful. I am happy. Also sad. The good thing is … I won’t drink over it.