Have you ever been intrigued by a speaker at a 12 Step meeting and then been surprised at the end to find out how much or how little clean time the speaker had? Length of clean time does not necessarily equal quality of recovery on this journey that we share, one day at a time. However, I find it useful as well as fascinating to hear the details of a fellow person in addiction recovery’s story upfront. I liked finding out which tools from our common stockpile best helped them cope with challenges along the way: what worked for them, and of equal or greater value, what didn’t work. The free exchange of experience, strength, and hope is our common currency.
Here then is a bit of my history upfront. My introduction to recovery was an AA regional convention set amidst the magical landscape of Sedona, AZ. The year was 1980, and I was visiting a couple of friends who were newly sober and involved in organizing the convention. Though not yet sober myself, the enthusiasm of the event was infectious. A seed was planted.
The following year, in the wake of some peculiarly harrowing bottle-fueled adventures in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, the field was finally ready for the seed to sprout. I found myself at my first AA meeting of my own volition. Trembling, sweating, and barely able to string together ten coherent words, I knew I was home. I felt like an alien who had finally found my home planet!
I soon came to realize that what had been the universal solvent to all of life’s mounting problems, namely alcohol, had become over time, and without my awareness, the cause of 90 percent of them. It also became clear with time, that the condition I sought to avoid at any cost, namely sobriety, contained the solution to 90 percent of my problems. As long as I embraced recovery, I could find effective ways to deal with the remaining 10 percent of problems, which were mine by simple right of being human.
I was not one of those for whom the desire to drink (or use) was quickly lifted. But with time, and support, my new life became increasingly rewarding, and increasingly worth fighting for. Now, with 24 years clean and sober, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts with the hope that you may find something of value or encouragement:
First, keep firmly in mind (tattoo on forehead if necessary) the following words, “I cannot safely use any mind or mood altering substance,” full emphasis on “safely” and “any.” This is one lesson where it truly pays to learn from the experience of others.
Second, whatever your background, aspirations, or pre-conceptions, build yourself a solid foundation in 12 Step Recovery. You now have access to a worldwide network which will enrich every aspect of your life as well as simple directions to get you through this day with some dignity and success. To me, 12 Step Recovery is not just a destination in itself but also a reliable vehicle to take me on whatever life paths I choose to explore.
Third, AA and NA have helped me develop practical coping strategies which have become habits through repetition. As Aristotle put it, “We are what we repeatedly do.” The more that healthy choices become automatic, the safer we are, and the more energy we free up to expand our scope. In the same way that habits come to define us, we also define ourselves by who we hang out with. The more I associate with folks in recovery at work, at play, and at meetings, the richer my experience in life becomes. We are, after all, creative, risk- taking adventurers, with a strong desire to live life to its fullest, which is why we gravitated to each other in the first place.
Fourth, recovery, for me, is most fundamentally a matter of mindfulness. On the most basic level, I’m ever mindful that my addiction is like a sleeping tiger who can reawaken if my attention strays too far. That’s the danger from which the vigilance of recovery protects me. However, the necessity to maintain that vigilance has an unexpected positive side, and this is where I have found the true magic in life. Every night, my mind and my spirit defaults to a negative bias, which for a “normal” person might simply lead to a crummy day, but for me, as a person in addiction recovery, that bias can have deadly consequences.
Therefore, every morning I must consciously reset to a positive orientation, count my blessings, plan my day, and sally forth with some measure of hope. I can’t do this alone, so, by necessity, my day must also include a heartfelt connection with others. This, my friends, is both the work and the payoff.