I’m Keith, a person in long-term recovery from alcohol, opiates, methamphetamine and any other damned thing I could put in my body to transport me from here and now to some other there and then. Life, you see, made me feel homeless, like a refugee dropped in a land that would never be his. My purpose, every single time I used, whether smoking, shooting, snorting or drinking, was to escape from under the unbearable weight of existence—or at least existence in the bodily, mentally and spiritually wasteland that was Keith.
I changed the universe by getting messed up, or at least I changed my perception of that cold, dark, empty place. No longer was I little, timid and ascared of the world and its people. Once high or drunk, I was not only bigger and stronger and braver, I was also smarter and funnier and a better dancer. Or at least that’s how I felt—and I’d accepted feelings are what matter. Rather than change my circumstances to change my emotional response, I’d discovered a shortcut, a life hack: I’d change my feelings to make null and void my circumstances. If I felt good, I was good, no matter how my life might look to others.
This genius move on my part, of course, had long-term consequences, but using my keen alcoholic and addict mind, I created a corollary to the thesis that feelings trump facts. To wit: Only the lame look past the instant, past the immediate gratification—those of us who understand life live only in the moment. After all, doesn’t the Bible say “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?” (For the record, the answer is No, sort of. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, says “there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.” Likewise, Isaiah says, “Let us eat and drink . . . for tomorrow we die,” but in the context of condemning the people of Israel for their hedonism and impiety.) In active addiction, I controlled the world by manipulating my feelings, giving no thought to tomorrow.
This life hack, of course, is the equivalent of mortgaging the future for the pleasures of the moment, like living off credit cards with ever-increasing balances and no intention of payment. Either of those might be acceptable, except for the damned tenacity of life. If I’d died at 30 or 35 or 40 or 45, the decision might have made sense to leave this vale of tears with a huge balance due. (Un)fortunately, life sticks to one like gum to a shoe—it won’t leave until it does. At 47, I’d watched my reality become steadily worse—from marriage and house and successful career to isolation and homelessness and drinking mouthwash to stave off the DTs. Also, booze and drugs had maintained their power to transform the universe, but only for brief periods followed by drinking into blackouts and oblivion. In short, I was at a jumping-off point—and was ready to jump out of life and into the abyss. With a suicide plan in place, I waited for a bus to take me to my destiny. My appointment with the hereafter, though, was postponed by the first moment of true clarity I’d experienced in years. I didn’t have to die. Life could be better. Maybe I could find a way to re-empower booze.
Because I live in a country with universal health care Because I am a veteran with guaranteed health care for life, I went to the VA Medical Center in Manchester, walked into Urgent Care, and said to the nurse behind the counter, “Hi. My name’s Keith Howard and I don’t want to be alive any more.” At that moment, I surrendered, first to an ambulance ride to White River Junction VA Hospital, then to the psychiatric unit there, then to my alcoholism and addiction and then to a program of recovery. I learned to listen to others who had been in my situation—and had found a way out that wasn’t a final exit. I learned I wasn’t unique in my feelings or in my practice of better/worse living through chemistry. I learned how to live in my skin, experience my situation, feel my feelings. Little by slowly, over time, I learned how to live without needing an escape vehicle. I was home.
September is National Recovery Month, whatever meaning that may have. It’s also, National Yoga Month, National Honey Month and National Prostate Health Month. Once you’ve relaxed, sweetened-up and prepared for a prodding, think about those around you who have escaped the need for escape, who have managed to live life without chemical assistance and who have transformed their lives from quiet desperation to quieter inspiration. And know, really and for true, that if you need help in that transformation, people like me and everyone else at Hope for New Hampshire Recovery are there for you.
Keith Howard is Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of the Tiny White Box blog site.