Addiction is NOT a Choice

“Choose to get clean.”

“I have no sympathy, just another rich bitch on drugs.”

“This is not a disease, it’s a choice.”

These are just three of the MILLIONS of comments that echo this sentiment about Demi Lavato.  No, Demi did not begin the conversation, hers is just the latest celebrity overdose to reignite the debate that addiction is not a disease, but a choice.   This argument has been fought bitterly on both sides from the outset of the creation of the diagnosis.  For the record, whether you agree or not, the American Psychological Association categorizes substance abuse as a disease, it can be found in the DSM, the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual- the bible of mental health disorders- right along with Depression and Social Anxiety Disorder.

I can appreciate the debate, the misconception that it is, indeed, a choice.  However, unless you, yourself are an addict and/or alcoholic, you absolutely cannot understand the feeling of enslavement that comes along with having this disease.  How can you? Every day, you do have choice.  You choose whether to have that glass of wine with dinner, or not to.  You choose to share that joint at a concert with friends, or not to.  Alcoholics and addicts simply do not have that choice.  We are powerless to the substance.  I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, no one, NO ONE, wakes up one day and thinks, “Hey, I would just love to be a slave to alcohol or illicit drugs.”  Honestly, logic would dictate that if we had the choice, we wouldn’t continue along such a significantly destructive path. A path of obliteration, filled with lies and horror, shame and disgust, and an eternally present, indescribable fear.  Why would anyone want to feel like shit about themselves day in and day out?  If we could simply put the drink or drug down, why would we choose not to?

No, it’s not a choice, it’s simply a fact.  This is how we were born, before we even took our first steps, tried that first taste of mashed bananas, or uttered our first words; we were addicts.  We have no more choice over this part of our genetic makeup than we do our hair or eye color.

Now this is when the naysayer comes in and says something like, “It was your choice to try alcohol and/or drugs to begin with.”  Well, yes, you got me there*…  However, what you don’t understand is that this is a sneaky and progressive disease.  Apart from heroin, which is a beast of a different nature, no one is instantaneously addicted to the substance itself.  No, it’s subtler than that, it’s so much more sly and underhanded.  First, we become addicted to the feeling of emotional relief and comfort that it gives us.  With that very first sip, snort, or inhale a switch in our brain is flipped and suddenly we feel “normal” for the very first time.  Just like that, life is suddenly manageable.  All the challenges that we don’t have successful coping skills for melt away, and we finally feel like we belong in our own skin.  Our bodies relax and the feeling of emotional freedom that we have unknowingly craved pins us up against a wall.  This is who we are supposed to be, how we were meant to feel!  Finally!

Then we want that feeling again, and again, and then again, until eventually we can’t live without it.  At this point, it’s too late; we are in over our heads with alcohol and/or substances and we don’t know how to stop.  Then, one day, what used to work no longer does, because now you have tolerance, and your search for that relief intensifies.

Finally, your brain stops producing its own happy makers.  The dopamine and serotonin that once pumped, plentiful and bounteous, has slowed to a trickle, and without your substance, you can no long achieve any state of emotional regulation.  You have no choice; you either use, or you fall so hard you are not sure you will ever be able to get up again.

This descent may take months, years, or even decades.  However, once you’re there, the shame and fear take over.  You yourself wonder how you let it get this far.  You fear that there is no way to live without this substance and you are now stuck in this vicious world called addiction.  Even when you “hit bottom” and you decide to get help, you’re unprepared for how much worse it gets before it gets better.  The only way your body knows how to live is with that substance, and now, you must learn to live without it.  The disease begins to talk to you, like the devil on your shoulder.  It reminds you of all the good times, while it completely buries away all the horrid times.

I know that this is a break from my normal blogging subject matter.  However, as someone in recovery, but who also works as a mental health counselor with people seeking treatment, I think it’s worth the departure.  Two-thirds of families in the U.S. have been touched by addiction.  Many who need help do not seek it because they are told that it is their choice to be this way.  It is not.

*Unless you were prescribed pain killers by your doctor and you had no idea that you would soon become addicted to opioids- then the choice was made by someone else.

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Shedding The Shame of my Alcoholism

I have had no trouble writing about the challenging times in my life.  I have willingly and gladly left myself open and vulnerable to the masses week after week by openly sharing about my parenting struggles.  I have operated under the belief that no shame can come from speaking my truth, a truth that I have no control over.  Parenting my son, and simply being a mother in general, is difficult.  I regale you with personal anecdotes to help spread awareness for those like him and advocate for families like ours.  Sharing these stories is necessary for our survival, it is empowering and inspiring in a way that keeping them secret is not.

However, I am simultaneously buried deeply under my own shame and stigma.  I have only shared part of my truth with you, my friends.

The truth is his, my name is Laura, and I’m an alcoholic.

I think when people consider the term “alcoholic” or “addict,” they don’t picture their next-door neighbor.  It most certainly does not conjure an image of the mom two doors down, the parent of two well-kept children, the one who usually has a smile on her face and the one you share a laugh with as you both walk back to your houses after the school bus has collected your kids.  I don’t think they can fathom that it can be the seemingly pleasant, although somewhat disheveled, woman they have grown to know and love.  The one who gets her kid to therapy appointments on time, who never misses an event at their school, has a delicious meal on the table each evening, and who seems to have it mostly together- at least as together as any parent of young children can.  Alcoholic to them is some abstract term, a definition for the drunk living on the street who is intoxicated by 8AM.  The one who can’t hold down a job, who smells like they haven’t showered in a week, and looks like it too.  In this modern day, I would like to think that that isn’t the truth.  That, by now, people would understand that alcoholism comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and colors and hues.  That it does not discriminate between man or woman, rich or poor, or brilliant or uneducated.

It hurts my heart to say it, but many people, many peers even, still think of an alcoholic or an addict as some random loser, no one that could possibly live in their neighborhood, and certainly no one that they could know or care to rub elbows with.  People still seem to think that having this disease is a choice, something someone can control.  That if we really wanted to stop drinking, we would just put our mind to it and do it!  Let me be the first to tell you, no one, NO ONE, wakes up one morning and says, “Hey, today, I would love to become a slave to alcohol and/or drugs!”  No, it’s something we are born with, that was imprinted on our DNA while we were still in the womb, we have no more control over it, than we do our eye or hair color.

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The freedom of sobriety

What no one shares about getting sober, is that it gets significantly harder before it gets easier.  You put down the drink and everything you have wanted to numb, everything you have fought so hard not to deal with, is now uncovered, naked and raw, and you are no longer allowed to reach for your anesthetic.  Learning to live that way, happily, is harder than I can describe in words.

Over the last two years I have only begun to fight my way out of the deep cavern of alcoholism.  I have clung to every bit of hope and strength I could grab onto and let it guide me out of the darkness and into the light of a world I have never known.  A life I never thought possible.  One that I never thought I deserved.  Can you imagine living in a world of shadows- being there in body but not being truly present, ever?  Knowing, deep down, that there was so much more to life, however, not knowing how to get there or if it was even possible to do so?

The shame and stigma of this diagnosis has held me prisoner for too long.  It has kept me locked up in it’s dark, cold jail, behind the bars of secrecy.   Many years ago, it stopped me from getting the help I needed sooner.  Today, it stops me from using the power of my writing and my voice to advocate for women just like me.  The forgotten women who want to get better but are too frightened and ashamed to say, “I need help.”

For me, the last step towards truly achieving a peaceful sobriety is wearing this title proudly and openly.  Getting sober and since maintaining sobriety is the hardest and the best thing I have ever done.  I am so fucking proud of myself, so why shouldn’t I share that?  I want to climb to the top of mount Everest and shout it to the world, “I AM SOBER- SEE ME LIVE MY BEST LIFE!!”  I want to hang my sobriety majestically from a bedazzled sign around my neck.  I want to march down the street, rally style, carrying my message of hope and change.  I need the world to know that I am not ashamed of who I am.  That I too am a survivor and that my fight is no less than anyone else’s.

I share this to give a voice to all the women who live in shame and secrecy.  I share this to let women who might be struggling know that they are not alone, take the first step, get the help, the rest will eventually all fall into place.  I promise.

The Motherload

I walk into the house after eight hours of internship.  I brush sweaty, freckled child cheeks with a quick kiss hello and I’m off.  I begin emptying back packs and carrying soggy, musty towels to the washing machine to begin a load—how can they smell so bad after only one use?  I empty lunch bags, mine included, and load the dishwasher with seemingly endless containers sticky with residue.  I make sure to get the AM dishes in there too, you know, the ones that were left haphazardly in the sink from the chaos that is morning.  If I leave them any longer, the dried food glued to their sides might become permanently affixed.  With empty lunch containers in front of me, I immediately begin to repack them for tomorrow. Some random child calls from across the room; she doesn’t want that sandwich, she wants a different one—the kids have barely looked up from their post-camp television haze to acknowledge my presence, yet they sense that I am doing lunch wrong and promptly put a stop to it.  I usher one child into the bath and as I turn on the water I’m acutely aware of the fact that I haven’t gone to the bathroom since lunch.  I try to go but absentmindedly sit down on naked child who has beaten me to it and now the opportunity has passed.  I head across the hall and gather the requisite uniforms for campers attending two different camps. I’m lucky, it’s picture day at both of their camps so I only have to remember this fact once—two different picture days and it’s a guarantee that at least one of them would not be wearing the required camp t-shirt.  A blood-curdling scream comes from the tub; I think maybe she’s gotten shampoo in her eye.  I run, dropping the clothes on floor of the hallway.  When I get there, I realize it was just her rallying cry. She’s very proud that she has shampooed, conditioned, and gotten out of the tub to dry off all by herself.  Upon closer inspection I realize she actually hasn’t, that half of her head is still covered in shampoo—I let it slide. I continue on my way, there are still so many things to do…

 

The Motherload…

Run to the supermarket, we’re out of… everything.

Drop off the dry cleaning.

Pack Man’s lunch.

Pack Lady’s lunch.

Pack my own lunch.

Get to class on time.

Is it early drop off for camp today?

Don’t forget to call the auto body shop to order new tires before you have a massive blowout on the highway.

Pack camp bags—does she swim twice tomorrow?  Better toss in two suits just in case…

Wait, go back upstairs, you forgot it’s stuffed animal day and you need to pack Carrotty Bun Buns for her.

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Get your own school assignment finished, it’s due soon.

Sign the kids up for Fall dance classes.

What day of the week is it?

“MOMMMMMMM, can I have some water?”

Get back on that school assignment, it’s still due soon.

Sunblock the kids.

Prepare to run group tomorrow at my internship.

Speaking of internship, am I doing a decent job, because it kind of feels like I suck at this.

When was the last time I walked the dog?  Was it today?

Return library books.

Pick up ant traps, it’s getting ridiculous in here.

Go back to the hardware store, you forgot the Draino.

When was the last time I ate a meal sitting down?

“MOMMMMMM, there’s no more toilet paper!”

Is the air conditioning working? Better call for an appointment before the next heat wave.

“Man, eat your dinner!”

Double check that Lady’s play date is still on—am I dropping her off or is she getting picked up?

Shit- unpack Lady’s camp bag so you can put labels on all her clothes.

Go to internship.

“MOMMMMMMMM, can you help me tie my shoes?”

Do it all.

Do it all with perfectly flawless skin.

Do it all without cellulite, while looking hot in those jeans.

Do it with manicured fingernails.

With a stylish outfit on.

While getting a nutritious dinner on the table every night by 6:30.

With a smile on your face, a skip in your step, and without missing a beat.

 

What any mother can tell you is that this is just a fraction of what runs through our minds daily.  It’s called The Motherload.  It’s intense and it’s a bitch.  It’s the never-ending mental list that streams on a loop in our heads, always.  It’s our theme song- our anthem- the beat to which we march.  It’s with us in the shower, at the dinner table, at work, on line at the CVS, when we are driving, even when we are sleeping…or not sleeping because The Motherload is keeping us awake.  It’s a million tiny balls all up in the air at once; if one falls, they all fall, raining down heavily upon us leaving us battered and bruised.

I have been crushed by The Motherload lately.  With the recent loss of our babysitter coinciding with the start of my graduate internship and summer school—a time when my satanic professors feel It’s important to cram 15 weeks of work into just six short weeks.  And as much as it pains me to say this, I have brought part of it on myself.  I told my husband that I didn’t need a new babysitter until the Fall, that I would be just fine for the summer with work, school, and the kids all by myself.

What the fuck was I thinking?

I was thinking I could handle it.

No, I was thinking I should handle it.

There is a significant difference.

As mothers today, we are made to feel we should do it all.  We can have that fantastic career, thriving social life, happy, seamlessly operating home, and lovely, well-raised, children along with our sanity completely intact, all tied up neatly with a bright red ribbon.  Somewhere, some little voice in a remotely accessed corner of my brain screamed, “You don’t need any help, you should be able to do it all!!!”

This, my friends, was where I was wrong, because I can’t do it all on my own, not without being leveled by The Motherload.

Mothers unconsciously carry so much of the load and I fear it’s because we feel we have no other choice.  However, I’m beginning to see that the harder I work, the less I should be doing.  I need to unload, to give up on the idea that it all must get done, done well, and done by me.

Another School Year With ADHD

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As Man eagerly climbed the staircase of the bus for the last ride of his second-grade year, I let out a deep sigh of relief.  A year’s worth of emotion flooded out of me as I waved at his smiling face through the window while the bus drove away.  He disappeared down the street on his way to his last day of school and I burst into tears.  We had made it through another year of school and he was still a happy, sweet, and eager boy.

Second grade had been a success.  More than a success, he had thrived.  And suddenly I felt all the inner strength, fear, anxiety, worry, and anticipation that had slowly gathered inside of me over the last 180 days pour out at the end of my driveway while my dog looked on in wonder.  She walked over and licked the tears from my face, as she could feel the massive release of tension oozing out of me in that moment as well.

I don’t think I had realized just how much I was holding my breath every day until those doors closed behind him.  I don’t think I understood how much of my worry got on this bus with him and rode to school each morning until I knew that it was his last ride.  For my own survival, I had compartmentalized my fear and anxiety into the furthest recesses of my heart.  It was always there behind every beat, but I had refused to let it drive its rhythm.

My goal for Man every year (and I suspect this is the goal for many parents) is to just get him from point A to point B, from the beginning to the end, happily.  While I do push his studies and, of course, want him to thrive academically every year, my overarching goal is simple—his happiness and self-esteem.  I am of the belief that it doesn’t matter how smart he is or how well he did on that spelling or math test; if he isn’t happy and he doesn’t feel good about himself, then none of that matters.  His intelligence is static, it will always be there, ready for action, but it will be useless if we must first fight through depression and poor self-esteem.

Kids like Man are at constant risk for depression.  It’s not because they are born with a chemical imbalance (though some might be), it’s because their day-to-day academic and social environment isn’t designed for them.  For better or worse, I have accepted that his school setting is one we must live with and make work for us.  He, and others like him, will always be the round pegs trying to fit into the square holes.  It doesn’t matter what district in what state we live in, the laws of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) have not yet caught up with the social, emotional, educational, and executive functioning needs of the diagnosis of ADHD.  As I wrote about in my post Your Child is Too Smart for an IEP, he does not qualify for an IEP anymore and because he is doing well enough academically (the law states you must be two standard deviations below the norm), we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if we pushed for them to pay for a program that caters more to his executive functioning and emotional needs.

So here we are, stuck making each new year work for us.  We take the social, emotional, and academic demands of each grade and face them head on.  We design and implement new strategies to fit that new year, and so far, that has been working.  He is still a happy little boy.  But with that comes extreme fear and anxiety—what if next year it doesn’t work?   I feel my ability to protect him slipping out of my grip with each passing year.  As he gets older, he grows to understand more about himself and the world around him.  As he climbs through the grades, he sees more clearly both his differences and his similarities.  As the years go on, he begins to ask more questions about these differences and how they have come to be.  And this makes me worry.

 For right now, for today, he loves himself.

For right now, for today, he thinks his group of friends is simply the best—and so do I!

For right now, for today, he thinks he is smart as a whip—and he is!

For right now, for today, he thinks his choices in extracurricular activities are sublime—and they are!

For right now, for today, he is a happy little boy—and I will work to keep it that way with each passing year.

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Why I expect My Son’s School to Provide More Than Just The Requisite Support

“We provide the requisite support.”

This is the statement that the school principal made to me when I expressed concern over Man’s participation in an upcoming school event.  Our school does a wonderful, day long, event that involves relays and egg tosses and a multitude of other team building activities that promote sportsmanship and working cooperatively.

The kids love it, they look forward to it all year.  Why wouldn’t they?  A day of no classes where they get to run around and play games all day.  Eat ice pops and laugh with their friends.  Feel part of a group and relish in the power of team work.  Sounds amazing, right?  What child wouldn’t look forward to a day like that!?

Man. Man doesn’t look forward to this day at all.

Sports and other physical activities are challenging for him.  He’s not the fastest, slickest guy on the field.  And even when he’s participating in a seemingly innocuous activity like an egg toss, his Sensory Processing Disorder makes it extraordinarily challenging.  When kids are running and screaming around him, his body gets overstimulated and basically shuts off.  He drops the egg and lets his team down.

This day, though the best day for most kids, is one of the worst days for him.

As his parent, I dress him up, give him a little pep talk and send him on his way to do his best.  I think it’s important he learns to participate and that he understand that trying his best is good enough. I also refuse to raise a quitter.  Not every activity that he is expected to participate in is going to be his favorite or something he is good at.  It’s important he understand this early on and learns to try his best to rise to the occasion.  And who knows, maybe he will get a surge of “sportiness” and help his team to victory.

As his parent, I’m also going to do whatever I can within my power to advocate for my son’s success.  That’s why I e mailed the school and asked if there was any way they could create one, “non-sports-based activity” for that day.  Just one thing that would help a “non-sporty” kid feel like he or she could contribute to his or her team in a meaningful way. I pointed out that teamwork can just as easily be promoted through LEGO tower building or some other less physical event.  I highlighted that while I valued their support of Man’s academic success, it seemed that their support of children with special needs did not to extend outside of the classroom as much as they thought it did.

Not unexpectedly, their answer was no.  “We provide the requisite support for your son.”

That statement was like a bullet to my heart.  You see, as many parents of children with special needs can attest to, “providing the requisite support” is NOT the same as promoting an environment where we let our children shine and thrive for their differences.  Today, with the statistics of children diagnosed with any number of behavioral, learning, and/or emotional disorders rising dramatically from year to year, different is the new same.

I have an expectation, and maybe it’s an unfair one, that my school go beyond just providing what is required of them by law.  I have an expectation that they encourage an environment that allows children to be celebrated for their individuality.  I have an expectation that they demonstrate how some kids might not excel in one area but might kick butt in another completely different arena.  Teaching teamwork is showing children that they all have something unique to contribute.  It’s allowing each team member to be called upon for his or her strengths and carried by others when he is weak.  It’s making sure that every member of that team feels the power of their own personal contribution to that team’s success.  It’s not creating an environment where someone feels less than all day, especially a young child.

I want all children, typical and atypical, to feel the glow of success within the walls of their school.  I want them all to be celebrated for their assets and to understand that they won’t be defined by their weaknesses.  I want schools to go above and beyond what is just legally required of them for the development, success, and benefit of every student that walks through their door.  I want them promote acceptance and understanding.

Who knows, maybe Man will toss the winning ring, or hop across the finish line just in time to win it for his team.  Maybe he will have the best day ever.  But that doesn’t mean that my expectations of his school will change.  It doesn’t mean that I will stop carrying the message and advocating for the support and celebration of his differences.

When Sensory Eating Turns Into Failure to Thrive: A Horror Story

As a student of Mental Health Counseling, I often think of a diagnosis as a tree trunk.  There is one, solid stable disorder planting its roots and from the symptoms of the disorder, a branchlike network of additional challenges and diagnoses blossom.  I have discussed Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) before (Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder), this diagnosis has planted a giant Redwood like tree trunk in our front yard.  There are a multitude of symptoms that have allowed additional problems and disorders to branch and bloom, casting a large shadow over our entire house.  One such symptom is sensory eating, and from this symptom a tangled grid of branches has formed to develop a new and even scarier diagnosis, Failure to Thrive (FTT).

In my post, Sensory Eating and Picky Eating are NOT the Same (Picky Eating and Sensory Eating Are NOT The Same! A Guide to Improving Feeding in Sensory Eaters), I discuss the differences between a picky eater and a sensory eater.  The major difference, the most significant and frightening, is that sensory eaters would rather go hungry than eat a food that would disturb their bodies fragile peaceful state.  Man is a sensory eater.  Most people assume that that means that he can’t eat certain textures.  We all know people who can’t eat tapioca pudding or cottage cheese without having a visceral reaction.  Personally, I couldn’t eat shrimp until well into adulthood because that rubbery crunch gave my body the heebie-jeebies.  But for Man, it’s flavor intensity.  He cannot eat foods that have too much flavor.  When he was three-and-a-half he mistakenly grabbed a garlic flavored cracker off the counter and before he could even finish chewing the first bite he broke out into a cold sweat, his eyes began to water, and his entire face turned bright red.  His body was literally rejecting the flavor.  He couldn’t eat for the rest of the night.

Years of having such extremely intense bodily reactions to flavors have naturally resulted in extremely poor eating habits and dread around food and mealtime.  I mean, if every time you put food into your mouth it made your body feel pain, would you want to eat?  In our house, mealtime brings fear and anxiety, not pleasure and excitement.

You see, from day one, every bite of every meal that has gone into his mouth has been prompted by me.

“Eat, Man.”

“Take that bite, Man.”

“No, you’re not finished yet, Man.”

I can remember when he was younger, I would bring him his breakfast on a Monday morning and think, “Here we go, 21 meals and the week will be over.”

Meals can take upwards of an hour-and-a-half.  He laboriously chews each tiny little bite, bites small enough that he really won’t have to actually taste the food, while I would stand there, trying to stay calm, encouraging and supportive.  If I walked away, he would simply not eat.  I’ve tried everything, and there have been times of improvement.  He does eat some new foods, but ultimately, the quantity he eats remains the same; poor.

After many years, I decided that I did need to walk away and just let him be.  Mealtimes were causing me such stress, anger, fear, and resentment that I didn’t want to be around him at all anymore.  I forced myself to accept that he was going to eat what he was going to eat and that was going to have to be ok.  I couldn’t help him in any way if I was internally fuming and freaking out three meal times every day.

That tactic worked for a while, he wasn’t growing a lot, but it was steady growth at his own slow rate.  That was until our most recent visit, where we found out that he has begun to lose weight.  Now, a seven-year-old boy that only weighed 38 pounds, was a mere 36.5.  This has brought out the anxiety that I have tried to keep in check for all these years.

When we heard the news, it sent me into a frenzy and I yelled at him.

No, I screamed, I threatened, and basically tried to instill a fear in him that would force him to eat better, that would allow me to remain in my protective “Man eating bubble.”

I am ashamed, and it brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart to know that I made him cry so much about something that he really has no control over.

I vowed to get my fear in check and help him in a calm and loving way.  And that worked… for a few days.

Can you imagine what it feels like to have to remind your child to take every bite of every meal that he has ever eaten in his entire life?  It’s exhausting.

Can you feel the anxiety through the screen as I even type those words?  It’s palpable.

Like an alcoholic picking up a drink after a period of sobriety, I picked up my anxiety about his eating right where I had left it.  It has now intensified to such a severe level where every morning I’m yelling in a way that humiliations me to admit.

Every meal I look at his gaunt body across the table.  I see the dark rings of malnourishment under his eyes. I watch him pull up the pants that are sized for a child half his age as they slip down while he trudges across a room and I yell.  I yell out of fear.  Fear for his health.  Fear for his growth.  Fear for my own sanity.

Mostly, I just feel and incredible guilt every day.  This is obviously my fault because I can’t handle making sure he adequately eats each meal.  This is obviously my fault because I’m not finding the magic cure that will make this all better.  I’m obviously only making it worse by revealing my anxiety and fear to him in such a loud way and angry.

I just wish I could find a chainsaw strong enough to cut the branches of FTT off at the root, because right now, I’m terrified that this tree will fall and crush us underneath it’s weight.

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