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At the End of Your Rope Is Hope
You've Got the Power!
If anyone needed to change, it was me.
From the time I was a teenager, I had a preoccupation with catching a buzz. The son of a preacher, I grew up in a drug-and alcohol-free home in Eugene, Oregon. Our house, situated on an acre of land, was a neat, modest wood-frame home on Kirkwood Street, a road away from my father's church. Our house was surrounded by azaleas, rosebushes, towering oak trees, and a large lawn that I and my three brothers mowed regularly. There was a garden in our backyard where we grew a lot of our own food, and we were able to can a season's worth of fruit and vegetables. Folks from the church, many of them farmers and fishermen, would stop by with beef, lamb, salmon, and crab to fill our two large freezers. There were sidewalks, neighbors waving from their porches, and schools within walking distance of my house. Life in Eugene was largely predictable and tranquil.
But mine was not. I was born with a birth defect: abnormal breast tissue. In other words, I had boobs. I looked like I needed a bra. I refused to take a shower at school, and my secret was something I tried to keep. But in fifth grade, I was exposed by a coach who took delight in making sure I was always a "skin"—that is, assigned to the team that had to take their shirts off to play ball. "Look at Lamm's tits!" the coach would yell. It was cruel.
To be laughed at. To be different. To be in fear of discovery. It just hurt way too much. I decided one day that I should kill myself—and confessed my intention to my parents. They were shocked: "We never brought it up because we didn't want you to be even more self-conscious," they said.
My emotional crisis forced a decision on their part—to correct my deformity as soon as possible. At age fifteen, I had surgery, and voila, the outside had changed. Yes, the physical was improved, fixed. But the birth deformity, although corrected, left me feeling damaged emotionally; the psychological scars of being laughed at and mocked as a kid still remained. For most of my life, I felt like I didn't belong, like I could never belong, like every room I walked into was an unwelcome one.
The same year I had the surgery, I attended a Christmas party at a retirement home where I played the piano on Sunday mornings for the old folks' church service. When no one was looking, I snuck a bottle of champagne, locked myself in a bathroom, and chugged it down. My first experience with alcohol equalized all the unease with which I lived. Gradually, alcohol became something I felt I needed desperately, in order to remove my insecurities, make me feel like I fit in, and provide relief from my feelings. The more alcohol something had, the better, and I conscientiously read the bottle labels to make sure I was getting the highest proof available.
My drinking escalated. At the beginning of my freshman year in college, I'd get drunk before classes, then snort cocaine to boot myself out the door. As time went on, drugs of all types became a fixation, especially cocaine. It was an obsession, lord and master over my life, all I ever thought about.
I decided to leave college at age nineteen. My life at that point had become an endless series of flirtations with recovery from drugs and alcohol, yet I always ended up right back where I started: in the drugs, the alcohol, and the nicotine. I was self-medicating with everything that could release me from the pain I felt. My grandma Lamm called my pain "a bag of dead chickens." "Why do you insist on carrying it around everywhere you go?" she'd say.
Of course, she was right. I needed to drop the bag to get better. But I couldn't. To do so would mean I would have to do something about my addiction; I would have to face the dreaded c word: change. I was not ready for that. The thought of living without my crutch was too frightening.
I decided to "find myself" and settled in Kamakura, Japan, an ancient seaside city, where I lived in a picturesque hillside home near the beach. I taught piano and English, studied Japanese and Buddhism, and wrote music. I bought fresh fish from the local fishermen. I cooked healthy foods, tried to live a healthy lifestyle, and worked to fix the pain I felt through spiritual exploration and dedicated self-discovery.
I wasn't doing hard drugs, but I was doing alcohol, mainly beer and wine, and sometimes to the point of blacking out. The beer was making me fat. I smoked to control my appetite and keep the weight off. I binged and even purged when I had eaten too much. If it wasn't one thing, it was another! I hated my lack of self-control. I prayed daily for strength. "Please God, relieve me from this!" But I felt my prayers went unheard and unanswered, or maybe I just wasn't worth being listened to. Maybe I was too damaged by my past—that sack of dead, rotting chickens I kept lugging around. I wondered, too, if maybe God had turned his back on me.
One Saturday afternoon, while browsing in a little office supply shop, I slipped a book of Shinto prayers in my pocket. I rationalized that it was okay to reward myself by stealing something, since I hadn't drunk anything for five days. I deserved to get something for nothing. Not for nothing, as it turned out. A security guard pulled me aside, and within minutes I was surrounded by guards, speaking a hundred miles an hour in a language I barely understood. They threatened to call the police, but in the end I cried my way out of it and charmed my way back to my moped. I went straight home and drank until I passed out.
After I awoke, I read a prayer in I Corinthians 10:13 and claimed it: No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
But to no avail.
My way out always led back to another unanswered prayer. Was I not praying hard enough? Or was I maybe a hopeless case, as I feared? I always ended up back where I'd begun, which was nowhere—fast.
Then one day a solution came to mind—the notion that if I moved to New York City (the center of the universe in my mind), I could make the connection, find the answers I lacked, and moderate what I had been unable to control. Within a week, I was packed up, ready to go. I would make a fresh new start of it! I took boxes of a life that I'd cobbled together to the post office and mailed them to New York. I kissed my friends good-bye, and closed the latest broken chapter of my life, promising myself that the future would be better.
This was a fantasy, and the reality was far from it. Within a short time of arriving stateside, I landed a job as doorman at the world-renowned Limelight nightclub. I was in heaven or hell, depending on your view. Drug dealers slipped me drugs each night if I would let them in. Alcohol and cocaine were always a handshake away.
A chance meeting, while I was working the Limelight door, led to a job hosting an entertainment show that aired in six cities. Turned out I was pretty good in front of a TV camera. A man named Conrad Shadlin, the top agent for weather anchors on television at the time, took notice. He wrote me a letter and wanted to take me on as a client. He promised he'd train me on how to be an on-air personality and teach me how to do the weather. I signed on. Maybe he would lead to my prayers being answered.
My first gig as a weather guy was in Boise, Idaho. The year was 1996. My parents and brother Scott lived there too, and I was happy to be reunited with them. Life in Boise would be a fresh start. I promised myself (again) that I was done with drinking. I swore that I would never do drugs again. I wore a nicotine patch on my shoulder. This would be the time everything clicked for me! I loaded my car and headed for Boise. But by the time I was through New Jersey, I had ripped off the patch and lit a cigarette. I resumed drinking within a week. I tried to stop, and was in and out of 12-step meetings in Boise.
I reported the weather on the morning show three hours a day live, Monday through Friday. I threw myself into my work and became something of a local celebrity about town. I loved what I did and who I was becoming—a son, a brother, a friend, a local star! Yet alcohol was still my constant companion and first love.
I'd get home from work, start drinking, and not stop until I passed out. The alarm would ring at 3 A.M. I'd shower, get coffee'd up, and be back on the job. During this time, I struggled like never before with bulimia, purging to control the weight I was gaining from alcohol and food binges. I was desperate to stay thin and avoid those "ten pounds" they say being on television adds on you. To heal, I tried prayer. I tried fasting. I tried begging for change from a higher power, and yet there I would land, alone in my house with my dogs, a pack of smokes, and a glass of something that would take me away.
In 2000, my agent got me a better job in Washington, D.C., doing weather in one of the top ten markets in the country. This was my dream job. I had arrived. But within weeks of landing in D.C., I was snorting cocaine again, in addition to everything else. I had inexplicably drifted deeper into addiction. When push came to shove, the addiction always won.
Coke and alcohol made me feel safe. I felt completely sure of myself. Drugs took away all my fears. They did that socially, distancing me from other people, making me feel less vulnerable. They did that professionally, drugging me through the stresses of work. The Xanax I gulped by the handful made my job as a TV weather guy easier and lighter—and the weather, well, better.
Once, while delivering the weather on the noon broadcast, I started sweating, even though it was sixty-five degrees in the studio—a result of all the drugs I was taking, along with the bile gurgling up in my throat. It was like the scene from the movie Broadcast News where Albert Brooks's character, a newscaster, starts sweating and never stops. I explained it away with excuses and lies: "I have a fever. . . ." or "My blood sugar must have gotten too low. . . ."
I eventually replaced cocaine with crystal meth, a sniffable form of speed, to control my weight. My first experiences with it were so pleasurable that I didn't think there could be anything else that exhilarating. The drug had cracked open a door, letting in a paranoia that was malevolent and insane. Late one night, I tried to pry a molar out of my jaw with pliers, convinced that someone was listening in to my conversations through an implant in the tooth.
My life took on a deeply fragmented quality, with different personas emerging and becoming more distinct but also more false. At work, I was the composed weather anchor; after work, I was the addict, throwing back double vodkas and sniffing crystal meth with abandon. I didn't know who I was, severed from the thread that led to the real me.
In the mornings, I'd look in the mirror and think, "What happened?" I had the résumé of a model citizen, not a common drunk. Hometown: Eugene, Oregon. Occupation: weather anchor. Parents: beloved minister and devoted mother, both of whom raised me in an alcohol-free home with lots of love.
In other words, nice person, from a decent middle-class family. Why couldn't I beat my addictions? Of course, there is no simple answer. Trying to describe the process of becoming an addict is like trying to describe space. It's too big and mysterious and pervasive to be defined. All you know is that you can't live without the escape.
I went through countless detoxes to get cleaned up. But I didn't keep the post-detox promises. Active addicts try, and active addicts fail. That's how it works. I made the promises, and I really did try to keep them. But I kept rationalizing the third drink or the fourth or fifth. "Just today." "Bad day." "I deserve a reward," I told myself. "I'll stop tomorrow."
I was existing in a state of self-imposed chaos, lying and hiding and keeping secrets and feeling trapped, absolutely trapped, in the whole mess. Sickened, drained, unable to feel—it was perpetual numbness. No sadness, no happiness, no highs, no lows. Nothing. This is why an addiction like mine was so difficult to kick. My pleasure receptors were so fried that my brain no longer had the ability to feel any pleasure on its own. When you're this addicted, you're so depressed that you want to get high, again and again. By turns, I wanted to die, or be delivered.
All told, I spent twenty years living in active addiction. Then scary realities began to intrude on my life, ultimately triggering my change away from drugs. At age thirty-five, I started to notice that tiny blood vessels had begun to burst all along my nose and cheeks. My doctor told me my liver was in bad shape. A tremor in my hands developed, then grew worse, then persisted for longer periods, all day sometimes. Active addiction is heartbreaking and cruel. It took me to a place of desperation and loneliness, of unrelenting pain and humiliation.
One day, during a brief moment of lucidity, terrifying realities dawned on me: It might just be a matter of time before I drove home drunk one night and ran someone down or ended up in jail or lost my job. I really might kill myself if I kept living the way I was living.
Then along came my friend and business associate, Paul. Six months earlier, Paul and a group of three guy friends had been instrumental in getting me to resume therapy to tackle my alcohol and drug use. I had stopped the crystal meth, but finally failed at moderating the alcohol consumption. My drinking was off the charts. Ironically, by that point, I didn't even enjoy drinking. The fun had stopped more than a decade earlier. But the patterns of behavior had become so ingrained, so enmeshed in my brain chemistry, that getting between me and my addiction was like prying apart two pieces of metal that have been welded together.
But Paul, bless his heart, had not given up on me. He called me at noon one day. Six times. "Call me back," he said on the voice mail. "Okay, this is the fifth call . . . call me back, Brad." I could barely get out of bed to finally pick up the phone. I was sick—sick from being up all night drinking. I wasn't sure what had transpired the night before but I sensed it hadn't been anything good. I didn't even know how I got home. Paul wanted to meet for a late lunch.
I knew I was a mess and I knew I didn't want to die. Because I was afraid of losing my livelihood, and because I was afraid of losing my relationship with him, I showered, dressed, and headed to meet him. Paul urged me again to get help. He told me what he had seen, which is what I advise friends and family to do today: "We made a deal six months ago that you'd moderate—that you'd slow it down, or stop if that's what was needed. But you didn't. You're a very sick, chronic addict, and I believe you're going to die out there unless you go away and get help right away."
I respected Paul; his voice mattered to me. But I wanted to scream, "But you don't understand. I'm a preacher's kid. I play the piano at church. I was on TV." I knew he was right. I was thirty-five and desperate and was sick, sick, sick. And I needed help.
I was so beaten down and so tired that when I met with him, I said yes to help. I said, "I will do what you tell me to do." I knew he cared for me. I knew he had love for me as a friend. If you'd asked me that day if I was "done" with the addictions, I would have said that I needed to learn how to drink less. Honestly, I didn't consider giving up drugs altogether. Not that I liked any of it—the smoking, the drinking, the drugs. It's just that the bar was so low to what I thought was possible that I didn't believe I could actually ever stop and stay stopped.
I was like a boat adrift at sea, and Paul had been the wind filling my sails and carrying me in a direction I had no real say in. I allowed myself to be navigated, and so began my own journey of change and restoration.
My therapist suggested a treatment center in Minnesota called Hazelden. But stubbornly, I went online to research another one that looked like a spa. I remember clearly thinking that if I could just get away for a bit—get off the merry-go-round of my life and get some good therapy—that perhaps I could fix what ailed me.
That next morning, with bags packed, I headed to the airport, boarded a plane, and admitted myself to treatment in Laguna Beach, California. I had not raised a white flag and surrendered in my heart. I did not consider myself "done." But I had said yes to help, and that was a start.
The last time I had a drink was on that plane on the fourth day of February 2003. I ordered two double Bloody Marys. As I was drinking the second double, the little boy sitting next to me jabbed me with his finger and made a sign with four of his fingers. He had counted the four little empty blue bottles of SKYY vodka sitting on my tray table. "That's a lot!" he said. He didn't know the half of it.
With my head hung low (and $10,000 in cash in a FedEx envelope in case of emergency—remember, I was really not thinking clearly), I checked myself into treatment. The rehab provided a safe, therapeutic environment in which addicted folks like myself could get through their physical withdrawal (the detox part), then work on themselves and learn to navigate a drug-and alcohol-saturated world (the treatment part). I was not locked down, I could walk out anytime. From my bedroom window at rehab I could see a liquor store just across the street to remind me that the world was just ready and waiting to welcome me back into my addiction.
We had individual treatment plans designed to help us work through the guilt and shame that are part of addiction. Educational groups. Process groups. Groups. Groups! Groups!!! I was given a key that first day in just the schedule—what you've got to do, you are unlikely to do on your own.
Excerpted from How to Change Someone You Love by Brad Lamm.
Copyright © 2009 by Brad Lamm.
Published in January 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.