Recovery circles have a saying, or should have if they don’t, “Lift a finger, change the universe.” Without using words like “gestalt” or “holistic” or “antimacassar,” this imagined saying means change one thing and you change the relationships among all things. For instance, I’ve changed my life focus from chemistry to humanity. Let me explain.
Recovery has taught me a lot of things, beginning with how to live life without chemical assistance. When I was using and drinking, chemicals—whether powdered, pilled, herbal or liquid—solved all kinds of otherwise overwhelming problems. These solutions, of course, came with their own problems, but those challenges could be handled with more and different substances. I was the rootin’ tootin’ embodiment of Dupont’s old slogan: “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry.” If recovery had done nothing more than free me from chemistry—opening me up to the joys of biology, poetry, history and a thousand other interests—recovery would have been a great move. But there was more . . . much more.
For the active user, or at least for THIS active user, using drugs and alcohol to solve problems meant I never learned or used other tools. Any problem I refused to face could be solved with the use of chemicals. From the time I took my first drink at 13 and ended up face down in my own vomit on the lawn outside my first high school party, I had arrived, had found the tool to meet any need. When I experienced my first heartbreak, I had alcohol and pills to ease the pain. When my grades began to slip from their never-very-high peaks, I had acid and weed to convince me I was somehow better than other students who wasted their time on homework. When I was fired from my first five jobs—the last for taking acid at Orange Julius and simply laughing at any customers who came to the counter—I had whatever chemicals were around to support my notion that these jobs were beneath me. And on and on and on. For better or worse, I always had a bottle, a pill, a straw or a needle to change my perspective and help me feel better—and better than.
Giving up that solution showed me I had a lot of work to do, a lot of growing up and growing better. Some notions I’d thought were silly or presumptuous really mattered.
- Keeping my word matters.
- Showing up on time—or letting folks know I was going to be late—matters
- Not stealing matters.
- Trying (often vainly) to curb my tongue matters.
- Listening to other people matters
I’ll never be more than pretty good at these, but the prize is in the attempt.
One thing I have managed to internalize—mainly and for the most part—is that I don’t know what pain and trauma others are carrying as they walk this planet. When I was using, my needs, my pain, my sorrow were all I cared about. Honestly, they were all I believed in. Those around me were just whining and seeking attention to keep from focusing on the real problems–MINE. Once others’ lips stopped moving, it was the signal they wanted to hear about me.
Today, when others are short or snappish with me or seem distracted all the time, most often my first thought is, “I wonder what’s going on with them?” I know this sounds like, “What’s their problem?” a phrase that used to mean, “Why aren’t they listening to me.” When conjured up today, though, it’s a sign for me to remember the other person may have lost a loved one, been teased 10 minutes ago, have pants they think make them look fat, have a toothache or simply not have gotten any sleep last night. When I remember that others have endured pain, sorrow and loss I can’t ever know, I’m a little closer to becoming the man I want to be.
All because humanity has replaced chemistry.
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