For Jim, CR @ 90 Main, and my loved ones…
A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague was helping out with a group of mine and afterwards, he said, “You know, I’m sick of being called an addict. I’m not an addict. I’m a guy with a problem.” When I wrote my book, my friend Liz reminded me that the politically-correct-APA-approved way of referring to addicts is “people with an addiction”. Recently, someone I care about said, “I don’t see how you can handle their behavior”. I reminded her that some people at my recent 50th birthday were addicts. Some people I knew growing up were addicts. Some people in my family of origin were alcoholics or addicts. In fact, at times, many people I knew were addicts, or alcoholics or both. You just never know. Well, except that you do. Well, you do-but-you-don’t.
My friend Jim is, in some ways, an addict and in some ways not. Will he always want his drink? Damn right he will, until the day he dies, or so I understand. Under the pressure of life, he might consider a drink as a way to cope until the day he dies.. Twenty years from now, if the two of us are walking by a package store (a “liquor store” for those of you not from the Northeast), Jim will think, “Wow, I’d like a beer” whereas I might just walk by without noticing. On a hot, sunny day, after a baseball game, he and I both might want a beer because it’s the perfect drink for that kind of day. The difference between us is that, if he starts, he won’t stop. He knows it and I know it. In that sense, Jim is – and always will be – an addict. In nicer parlance, he’s a person with an alcohol addiction, In another sense, though, he doesn’t need a nicer phrase to describe him. He’s a better guy than most people walking around if Jim is, like many of my addicted friends, a recovering alcoholic. “That”, as my loved one says, “makes all the difference”.
The person that comes into my office or comes into my life who has a problem with a substance or an idea or whatever has the potential to have less problems than I do on my worst days. Why? Because they want to get better, they want to grow, and — because they have seen the bottom of life’s barrel – they appreciate everything they’ve got, no matter how much that is. They have empathy (a sign of emotional health), and they’re honest (sign of moral health), their lives are simple, and they have faith or a sense of awe (a sign of spiritual health). People in recovery make conscious choices, and are generally sweet people — unless they have done so much damage to themselves that they now have depression or part of their brain has been mashed against a tree while drunk driving or they have been hit by pool cues one too many times after one-too-many fights.
Addicts not in recovery, on the other hand, tend to be less fun, less nice, and have lives with way too much drama – including the drama that threatens my life. In my younger days, a friend of mine urinated in a sink at the club we were at, nearly drove us into a bridge on the way home, and stared paranoid out the window when we got home, certain the cops or the CIA or somebody was waiting to cart him away. That was one of the least fun half-hours of my life. And he didn’t even remember it until years later. Drunks shoot up their houses, steal from their children, forget promises, spend the family’s money on their substance-of-choice. When the rent is due, they don’t have it. When the time comes to step forward, they forget that they have families or loved ones or pets. . And sometimes their families wish they would forget that they have families. A mom or dad who is hung over, dopesick, shaking, or walking around with a headache that would stop Godzilla, tend to be really mean or really whiny or demanding …. And the list goes on.
The continuum of people I like goes like this: active addict who never looks at themselves, “normal” person who never looks at themselves, “good” person who does look at themselves, with “person in recovery” and “mutant nice person who does great things without knowing pain themselves” tied for first. Why? Because the 12-Steps work and because people who do them make the world a better place just by saying they’re sorry. The 12 Steps, as a spiritual process, will do good for anyone, just like the Open and Affirming process will do wonders even a church already wants to be ONA. The process itself, the looking at one’s self, the knowing what effect their actions have on others, the conscious decision- making, all make better, more compassionate, more accepting and spiritual people.
Contrast this with the description above of the active, unconcerned addict, and you can see why I prefer recovering addicts to them. But go to the mall, look at the complacency in the political world, look at the world of Wall Street that we have to save ourselves from. See the people who care more about their nails than other people and you can see why I prefer recovering people over them, too. In that sense, Jim is more than addict, more than an average person in America, more than most of America – he’s a person, with or without a problem. Do I want that kind of person around my kids or my family? Hell, yes! I want my kids to know people who face their issues, people who do something with their lives, people who care about others, and people who are grateful and live in reality. The fact that they come in one package makes it easier still.
This Sunday, my friend Dave Ratz celebrates the one year anniversary of the group Celebrate Recovery @ 90 Main (90 Main St., New Britain, CT). A finer person you’re not likely to meet. Because he’s such a fine guy, I went and spoke to the group earlier this year, simply because he asked. There were people all across the spectrum I described there. There were people that gave me the willies because they were there for the meal and just had that aura of “active addict” around them, there were fairly “normal” people, and then there were the really cool people who were working their recovery. The thing that I remembered by the end of the night was that, if they stuck around long enough, the people in the first category would become the people in the third category. That’s some kind of change in that little corner of the world. Can you imagine if all the corners of the world were like that? I’d be having people over to my house all the time, my kids would be learning from all kinds of wonderful people in a great big community, and the world would feel safe (again for me, for the first time for them).
Now, if Dave or one of his friends from CR stops at the package store on the way home from somewhere, they are “off to the races” once again and they could end up as active addicts with all the attendant behaviors one more time. The world gets weird in a hurry when active addicts enter the picture. And even if I understand why they act that way, I don’t accept it as something I want my kids or my family around. I have experience with both kinds of addicts and the fact is, there’s only one I’d let in my house.
So, Dave, Jim, and more addicts than I can count are rowdy types who settled down and I am glad to call them friends. They have an addiction. They are, in Jim’s words, people with a problem. If their addiction has them, they are rowdy types who haven’t settled down, and they are just plain dangerous in so many ways to all the things I hold dear that I can’t call them friends without being insane myself. Not that one “slip” makes them unworthy any more than being disappointed in any of my friends ends the friendship. Not even close, provided they can “keep it real” and do something to change.
Here’s to any process – the 12 Steps, CR, the confessional, the confessing church, therapy – that keeps it real, that expects people to try to change, and makes the world a better place. I like the twinkle in their eye that lets me know all my rowdy friends have settled down.