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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 3/19/21 - Walking My Way Into Recovery in the 80s

This gratitude Friday, I am reflective on my “walk” into recovery that started back in the mid-1980s. For background, I descended into addiction early in life. As I have at times mentioned, I started using at age 11. I was hanging out with older kids who were also experimenting as they were around 15. Addiction often starts with casual drug use and experimentation at a young age. There are a few factors that counted against me, like genetics. My drug use took off. I was using multiple substances and I suspect I was addicted by 14 or 15 at the latest. I hid it well. It took away all my joy and left a trail of carnage. Eventually, I had that loss of control thing where I had no predictability on any given day where use would take me. It was like rolling a dice and hoping I did not lose. I lost with every greater frequency as my use progressed.

I saw my own death looming, and without any viable alternatives I could see, so I tried recovery. It was not a choice I would have taken had I seen any others. Back then, in 1986, there was a lack of young people in recovery, I was getting into recovery with people in their 30s and 40s. When they talked about failed relationships and lost jobs, I had no relationships and no employment direction. I had no plan to make a living. I dappled with college and knew there was no possibility of applying myself to the tasks at hand with any consistency because of my drug use. The wake-up call was an arrest, and in a moment of clarity I saw an early death in my near future. Yet, the idea of recovery scared the hell out of me more than using did.

I was 21 years old at the time and the irony of being of age to drink and in recovery were not lost on me. If there is a harder year in a life for a person to get into recovery than the age when they can legally drink, I am not sure. I had no safe place to be in early recovery. I went to meetings, my part time job (at Taco Bell) and did some volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity. Home was not particularly safe either. My own age group was very dangerous for me, even those friends who did not have problems were risky, as most 21-year old’s are experimenting with alcohol or other things.

Given these dynamics, I took up walking as two working feet were on my short list of assets. Nearly every day in that first-year weather permitting, I donned my state of the art, Sony Walkman and picked a direction. I often found myself on canal towpaths in my hometown of Bethlehem PA, like the one pictured above. I would walk towards another town for a few hours, turn around and walk back home or to a meeting. As a clinician, I know now that it helped me with fighting off relapse as exercise gives you a good endorphin response as does being in nature. Loud music helped me work through a cup running over with angst and a host of other feelings.

Because of these experiences, young people seeking recovery have a very special place in my heart. I see myself a formerly young person still in recovery. A lot of people I knew did not make it past 40. As I testified in a Pennsylvania House Human Services committee hearing two years ago this month, we have lost a lot of programming for young people here in Pennsylvania over the last few decades. This has led to a loss of a lot of promising lives. We need to build a system of treatment and recovery support services that meet the needs of our young people. Things like recovery high schools and collegiate recovery programs and support through alternative peer groups are crucial. Having no safe space to go, no one to hang with and nothing to do is less than an ideal environment to foster recovery in young people, I don’t recommend it. These kids are our future. Every young person we get into recovery saves a lot of lives, resources and prevents devastation in our families and our communities. Investing here should be a no brainer.

I am grateful I had the opportunity to walk myself into recovery when I was pretty much still a kid. Essentially, I faced a terminal illness at age 21 and it allowed me to change the course of my own life. What I was afforded in these early days of my own recovery is an opportunity for deep self-evaluation and time to examine what was really important to me and how I wanted to spend my time on this earth. The stuff gratitude is made of.

What I did to get into recovery simply would not work for a lot of young people. I am grateful it worked for me, but I know we need to do better for our young people of today. Grateful for the opportunity to try and shape recovery opportunities to better support our young people of today. I had no idea what was in my cards at that time or how my life would unfold. I can say that my life was shaped on those long walks in ways that I can still recognize these many decades later. I am grateful I was afforded an opportunity to reevaluate my pathway through life. Not everyone gets such an amazing gift. Grateful that my path, started so long ago has led to who I am today.

What are you grateful for today?

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