THE BLOG
08/14/2015 12:35 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2016

What It Feels Like Not to Be Addicted

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My fingers hold the yarn inside the pockets of my sweater as we talk in the hallway, shifting side to side to let others pass.

I ask about his internship at a drug rehab clinic. As part of the doling out of the legal drugs, to limit or taper off the illegal ones, the clients are required to attend one counseling session per week.

He says some of the people get into his heart. He tells me of an old woman who's been addicted for three quarters of her life, but clean for the last four years.

The old lady said she knows she's not going to live much longer (because of her age), and she wanted to know what it felt like not to be addicted to anything.

My hands grab the insides of my sweater pockets as my eyes fill and the sentence knifes my heart. I picture the curiosity of the simple question, how she might have asked it, the innocence in years of unknowing.

He nods his head in the hallway glimpsing my tears. I know, he says.

When I go home, I can't get the old woman's question out of my head. It's weighted so heavily I lost my tongue at first, but now the question rolls inside my head like rotating taffy.

I think about how everyone is different, even within the same addiction. There are similarities but each person is an isolated case because each person has a different life story. We're like snowflakes, where no two experiences are exactly the same.

What if that was me in the room? How would I answer if the lady had asked me that question?

What does it feel like not to be addicted?

At first, it feels like mad, crazy freedom like you've been unglued from a black hole, like you're a water bomb bursting in all directions, like you've just sprouted huge wings and want to fly everywhere and do everything the addiction kept you chained from.

It feels like you've been living on one side of a pendulum and now it's swung completely to the other side, and you're giddy and delirious from the reaction to the thrust.

But then you realize that freedom doesn't mean without problems, it just allows you to see the problems that addiction made invisible, the ones it always covered up. If you've been in therapy during the recovery process, you'll have some skills and tools to handle these newly visible problems. You have a toolbox to help connect the dots, to be aware of your triggers, to take care of yourself, to have boundaries, and to have a voice.

Then you begin to feel oddly normal, like you've been through a battle and emerged with insights. There's clarity to life. There's space -- free space -- in your head, which used to be occupied by the voice of your addiction, by the drumbeat of the dance that kept you moving. There's space, and sometimes even silence, and nice voices and healthy thoughts.

The space is the best part. It's like breathing again after having a heavy, dark cloud step on your chest. It's like looking into the mirror and saying, "hi, there you are," and being able to face the eyes looking back at you.

It's being able to trust yourself with the terror of being one spoon away from a binge and purge, one tiny slip from falling into the black hole. The fear goes away -- the fear of yourself and the dark shadows you hide -- the secrets that you punished yourself to silence.

Suddenly you show up in your life and it's weird and exciting, crazy and surreal, and so frickin' cool. And you relearn how to be with yourself and have yourself be someone you like. And you relearn how to be in your relationships. Some grow closer and some grow away.

You begin to form a new normal and have that be the story that begins to tell the new chapters of your life. When you talk to yourself it's like, "OK self, we can do this." And the new little voice in the back of your head, the one that replaces the one that always told you horrid things, says,

"Yes, yes you can."

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.