I entered long-term recovery at twenty years old. I suppose that is younger than the norm, at least that is what many tell me, but I had definitely earned my place. When I break my anonymity to someone who is not in recovery, I typically receive mixed messages. Some people have personal experiences with others that needed recovery, but others simply understand very little about addiction and what it entails. Some question, “But how would you have truly known at such a young age?” “Ahh, it was probably just a phase,” others say. While the judgment is unfair, the people who make these comments are fallible just as much as I am. I find it difficult to convey the role that addiction and recovery have played in my life. This occurs partly because the two have such an integral place in who I am five and a half years later, but also due to societal ignorance on the subject.
I know very little about my mother except for the stories that my father gave me. I know I inherited my addiction from her, but I also know that she had many redeeming qualities that made her a compassionate person before she overdosed. Her legacy lives in me today, and it warms me during my cooler moments. While my dad has shown gratitude that I have become sober, I witness in him much of the ignorance or stigma surrounding addiction that I touched on earlier. I carry a knowledge of the disease with me so that I can help others whether addiction touches them or they simply remain unaware of the phenomenon. My father has asked me why I continue seeking recovery if I am not compensated. Such questions seem born out of misunderstanding, as are questions of that nature from other people. He may perpetuate the stigma, but I put my father through many nights of fear, hefty financial crises, and overall disappointment. The greatest gift I can give him today is my presence and time, which actually gives him the opportunity to learn about who I am, thereby lessening his own stigma of alcoholism and addiction.
The most damning stigma, however, lived within me. While I have overcome my own ideas of how I was less than, I was not always so comfortable with the pursuit of recovery, or acknowledging I had a problem for that matter. When I entered into recovery, my feelings of dejection, hopelessness, and moral repugnancy overwhelmed me. My own preconceived notion of what an alcoholic and a drug addict was hindered me from seeking help from medical professionals and support groups. In my mind, my mother fit a specific mold that I believed was an alcoholic, despite the fact I had not met her at that point. I had instilled some sort of machismo within me that precluded my recovery. I believe that egotism was originally introduced by societal norms and misunderstandings, but to sustain a sober lifestyle, I had to rid myself of that. This process had no overnight fix; it took a few years, and I still struggle with it from time to time. I can easily recognize the old thought patterns and internal stigmatization today. I continue to make progress. I expect nothing more than progress because the perfection that I originally sought had nothing but negative consequences.
Along with this realization process, sobriety has given me many other gifts that I am proud of. Some have been subtle while others have been quite blatant. There is no single thing that I am the most proud of, or best thing that has happened to me. Life has been quite a beautiful experience, even with the setbacks. I recently applied to several graduate social work programs, and I got into them. I sent my confirmation to a school that I would have otherwise allowed my ego to discount. My higher power or my most authentic self, whatever works, has instilled a sense of clarity within me that allows me to not only make decisions, but take guidance. I do not know whether the ability to achieve is my greatest accomplishment in sobriety, or if the clarity that comes with experience is the most laudable accomplishment. Regardless, I am unable to achieve the wonderful gifts that my higher power has planned without that clarity. The pride that I feel in pursuing a Masters in Social Work is intrinsically meshed with a desire to help others overcome their own adversities, whatever they may be. While I will have the opportunity to help other alcoholics and drug addicts, there are many others who have encountered adversity, and they need a solution too.
These wonderful accomplishments have not come without daily work, though. I have a network of individuals whom I see on a daily and weekly basis. While I attend many support groups, I do not believe that they are the resolute way to stay sober. Most days, I try to seek something outside of myself and greater than myself. This is not necessarily my higher power all the time, but often just a connectedness to a community that surrounds me or to the world as a whole. I am not the cog that makes the world run, but I am a human among humans. This acknowledgement keeps me active in my own sobriety and recovery. On the days that I do not see my support groups, I stay active in my recovery through volunteer work with local homeless populations. Some of these people have much more gratitude than I do which maintains a refreshing, stimulating mentality on my own life. In order to keep my recovery active, I not only need to keep my outlook “green,” but I must remember that very few things happen in my life by chance. When I first got sober, people told me that everything that happens in life is an opportunity to learn. That cliché overwhelming annoyed me a few years ago, but today I realize it is a cliché because it works. Every situation has an opportunity for me to grow as an individual, and if I don’t grow, I am able to look back and ask myself why.
Speaking about addiction with others, especially those who are not addicted, helps to convey a message of normalcy. We all have issues, problems, and flaws, but if we talk to one another, those things dissipate and we are left with a human being. Speaking about addiction with others and being an advocate about recovery makes a huge difference in the perception of addiction. As long as we remain behind closed doors and do not extend ourselves to the public, others cannot know the message of recovery. When others begin to realize the humanity of active addicts, and the despair that follows the active alcoholic, the recovery community can help more people. Talking to others about the fiction of addiction versus the reality of addiction carries a message of advocacy and tolerance of one another. Therefore, if anonymity breaks, then it breaks. After all, how can one carry the message of addiction and recovery if someone else had not given them the news? I know that I would not have been able to.