Gratitude Friday 10-20-23 – The Day Everything Changed
“The paradox is that hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind.” ― Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence
My motto as a young person was one I reappropriated from Dupont Chemical company. A slogan they used for a generation, “better living through chemistry.” Without getting into the details for a whole host of reasons, it did not work out that way for me. Perhaps the most painful lessons I learned in those early years was what goes up, must come down. I also learned that when it comes to alcohol and other drugs, I have what is akin to an “on” switch and an “off” switch. Addiction is a complex condition, and I have what researchers note is the early onset, severe form.
It hurt me and others around me. With very heavy drug use you end up feeling miserable all the time, even when you are not using. You only achieve anhedonia in short bursts. If you do not understand, watch this short cartoon NUGGETS. That is about the easiest way to understand what happens. It was getting clear in ways I was afraid to my core to acknowledge. To stay alive and not suffer the ever-present pain I needed to stop using. I mean full stop.
Today is my recovery anniversary. It was a dark day in my 21st year. I thought my life was over. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I have a fulfilling life, focused on working on a deeply challenging and critically important issue. I believe that what I do matters. I don’t feel bliss all the time. Recovery is not nirvana. I am not 37X more serene than on at the end of year one. Yet, it is also true that the things I have learned over the years took all those years to understand.
I am in Texas at the state’s addiction professional conference. I am the third day keynote; On day one is one of the most respected addiction and recovery researchers in the world. On day two, the head of the federal Office of Recovery and then me. I am going to talk about the history of recovery in America and what we can do to strengthen recovery efforts into the future. I am able to do this today because people who came before me worked very hard to make sure that the things I needed to heal were there when I walked into the publicly funded treatment center for help. Their work was not easy. They did it anyway. They knew there were kids like me who needed help, and they made sure it was there. I am eternally grateful for them. This is a life well beyond what I thought was ever possible for me. I pay it forward. I am grateful to do so and for the opportunities to grow and learn that came with recovery for me.
I recently had an email conversation with a mentor I deeply respect. He spoke of his recovery journey and how became gradually aware of the generations of effort that occurred that aided his journey. It started in the early days for people immediately around who assisted him. Over the years he became cognizant of and increasingly grateful for people far removed in space and time who had made recovery possible for so many of us. He ended up focusing a great deal of his time on documenting our history. He is Bill White, and he wrote the seminal book on recovery movement history in America, Slaying the Dragon. Itself a significant contribution to our movement. What a gift for the rest of us.
I understand that in our day and age, acknowledging a recovery anniversary is seen oddly as elitist by some. This is not my aim or how I see myself. Most of the people around me who used like I did who did not stop using are now dead, often meeting early and painful ends. I am sick in my heart from seeing so much death. This day is a celebration of life for me, One I could not even imagine. I am going to acknowledge it. I do it to instill hope. We do recover.
To borrow a phrase from the esteemed recovery researcher David Best, I have a “better than well” life. I honestly and fully believe that my life is much better than it would have been if I had not had a severe SUD early life. For those who may not understand, consider someone who has received a terminal diagnosis and then add in that they become aware that they can save their own life through changing everything they do. In my case, like the quote above it meant shifting from hedonism to a life of purpose. That dark day became the defining day of my entire life. I am grateful for it.
So today, on this gratitude Friday I am grateful for the darkest day of my life. There was a moment, sitting in my parents’ basement on an old couch staring up at the rafters and hearing life stir above me when I started to ponder the question, what if. What if I could perhaps live and be happy not being numb all the time. What could I do with my life? I vividly recall the very moment on that Monday morning that a question started to form and lift through the pain and fear. What started to come through all that was the feeling of hope, out of which came purpose and connection to others.
Recovery has not been easy. One of the things that it has taken many years to realize is that recovery is an unnatural state in America. We are a nation of hedonists. Better living through chemistry could be our national motto, not just mine. As a result, we are collectively experiencing a form of anhedonia. There is another way. For all its challenges, I am grateful I found a way to live and have a fulfilling life. I share my experience in the hope that others find it too. I am grateful for all who have helped me on this long journey.
What are you grateful for today?