If I were to single out one thing that I find difficult to explain to outsiders, it’s how radically my sense of time and priorities have changed.
Overall, I am doing pretty well. I am researching and writing, working on my marriage, planning new undertakings, doing some hard work in trauma therapy, and putting my back into twelve step work. But I had a day this past week where I struggled: a long, treacherous Monday of sadness, anger, regret, self-recrimination, fear, shame, and complete psychic and emotional exhaustion…. that grey tumult of emotions that I used to experience in the form of an overwhelming, undifferentiated depression. Basically, I did the right things. I talked with a program friend that I am sponsoring on the phone, went grocery shopping, sat for a few hours with another friend who is waiting for a space in an out patient treatment program, cooked dinner, and caught a late yoga class. Focusing on others helped, for sure, as did some basic self-care. But mostly, I endured. I write this and it feels trivial. I mean, who doesn’t have an occasional shitty day that they just have to get through? But there was something significant about my banal, painful Monday. When I went to bed, I hadn’t taken a drink.
If I were to single out one thing that I find difficult to explain to outsiders, it’s how radically my sense of time and priorities have changed. I have a new, absolute, everyday, nonnegotiable baseline. There is nothing that I do that is more important than making it through the day without using. After that, I do my best to identify when my actions might hurt others, and move quickly to fix them. These two commitments are really the core ethical pact that I have made with the world. As an addict who spent years inflicting pain and causing havoc during active use, my fundamental responsibility is to live in a way that no longer causes harm. If I manage to pull that off, I count the day as a win. A big win. There simply is nothing more important. It’s not that I don’t have other commitments or larger ambitions. In many ways, my life is richer and more diverse in activities and goals than when I was using. But they have become decidedly secondary. I may or may not finish an article, write another book, complete an addiction peer-support training, go on a yoga retreat, or continue teaching at a university level. I can give each undertaking my best efforts, but the outcome is largely out of my control and entirely extrinsic to who I am. The universe may or may not give me these things. Both outcomes are equally fine. As long as I don’t use.
The daily work required to stay sober has begun to change. At first, it truly was a white-knuckle endurance test that required defensive vigilance and constant support from my recovery community. The shift away from this mode was subtle, but it feels quite established. Now, my overall focus is on deepening my physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Organizing my day and setting my intention every morning, I am mindful of possible temptations (which, of course, one can never totally avoid): university events, restaurants, or parties where alcohol might be present. But in general, I concentrate on self-nourishing relationships and activities. Most days, that is enough to keep me inside an emotional and psychological range where drugs are not a temptation. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always on top of things. If I drift for a bit—and neglect planning my coming day or doing a thorough inventory of events at its conclusion—I begin to feel uneasy and off balance. I slide back into a perilous zone. Or, if something dramatic happens and I am thrown, I have to reach out for support and carefully monitor my inner state until I regain equilibrium. When I am attending twelve step meetings, working my program, and taking care of myself, I can go weeks without seriously considering a drink (although, it still might cross my mind…). Then, without notice, I find myself staring the possibility in the face. The previous day’s decisions do help. I don’t start from scratch every morning. I fight on terrain prepared in advance. But I still fight and there are no guarantees.
Don’t drink to the point of reckless oblivion and don’t destroy anybody else’s life. It’s humbling to admit that the obvious, given starting point for most normal people has become my overriding ambition. The best representation of this experience that I have read is not to be found in an addict’s memoir or text book about addiction. It’s C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters. It really does feel like I receive constant, subliminal messages from my personal demon who works to steer my life toward temptation and then pounces on the smallest opening. When I can step back and examine it from the outside, it’s fucking surreal. In the past, I would have immediately clarified that I am speaking allegorically, of course. But I have tasted enough of fire and ice to no longer blithely dismiss the possibility of the devil. Or neuroscience. Or whatever. Do I really mean to suggest that millions of people around you and I are engaged in a constant, largely invisible, largely silent, life-and-death struggle for the preservation of their besieged souls? Yes, that’s my best approximation of what it means to be living in the midst of an addiction epidemic. And many of us are losing.
My favourite book by an addict, by a few light years, is Kristen Johnston’s Guts. It’s mordantly over-the-top, earthy, and captures what it means to try to drink and drug yourself into being someone other than the person who you are, while being trapped within your distorted impressions of what other people may-or-may not think of you. And it’s short. She ends by thanking “all my fellow warriors who are fighting bravely to get and stay well….Hold on.” Before my sobriety, this type of language would have made me cringe. Now, I try to remember that every person I encounter in the course of my day might be quietly fighting this war.