In Praise of Crisis
In mid-November of 1981 my family gave me a one-way plane ticket from Providence, RI to Minnesota, a 30-day all expenses paid stay at Hazelden, and a stern admonition to not come back.
Twenty-nine years old, drinking and drugging daily, no job or other legitimate income, physically and emotionally beat up, rejected by family and friends, in trouble with the law, beginning to lose hope. Inpatient treatment followed by a three-month stint in a halfway house, followed by moving into a sober house with five other guys. One final chance to turn it all around.
It so happens that the winter of ‘81-‘82 was one of the coldest and snowiest on record. As a Russian Jew, being exiled to Siberia on the plains felt just right – trudging through the snow seeking some kind of redemption.
I attended AA meetings at a hole-in-wall club in downtown St. Paul. Clouds of cigarette smoke, burnt coffee, uncomfortable chairs, and one of the most unusual collections of humanity I had ever encountered. Men, mostly in their 50’s and 60’s, many with decades of sobriety, who looked and talked rough, but who could be also be incredibly wise and kind.
The men would introduce themselves, “My name is Bob and I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic.” “My name is Jim and I’m a grateful alcoholic.” I looked at them with disbelief. Surely, they were lying. How could anyone be grateful? These men had seen pain and tragedy beyond imagination. Their lives had been destroyed by alcohol or drugs. What an absurd thought – grateful.
Grateful for having a disease that robbed me of my health, my self-esteem, my emotional well-being. Grateful for having blown multiple educational and vocational opportunities. Grateful for having hurt and pushed away every friend and family member who cared for me. Grateful for having to stop doing the one thing that offered me relief. Grateful for having to sit in these rooms and confess to strangers what an asshole I had been.
A grateful recovering alcoholic
As the months passed, the compulsion to drink began to fade, my physical health returned, and slowly I was beginning to make sense out of what had happened in my life. I began to believe that perhaps I could create some kind of future despite the daunting hole I had dug for myself. And as my mind cleared and I started to really pay attention to what others were trying to tell me, I began to understand.
The American philosopher and essayist, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Far too many of us settle; we accept and yield to the obstacles and the disappointments that are central to the human condition. We abandon our dreams. We sleepwalk through our lives, waking up one day at 70 years old only to realize that we blew it. Never fully engaged or happy or gratified.
The men in that AA club had many reasons to be grateful, as did I, and we talked about this all the time. But, the most meaningful and poignant gratitude I came to experience was for having had a crisis in my life that forced me at the age of 29 to go through a process of self-exploration.
My addiction put me in a position where I had the choice of changing or dying. I had to look unflinchingly at who I had become and I had to go through the bewildering process of figuring out who I wanted to be.
Continual meetings in cramped AA and NA rooms, midnight conversations with roommates and other friends, hundreds of hours of group sessions, and more hours of individual therapy. Learning, growing, seeing with a new set of eyes. No longer living a life of quiet desperation, but one of adventure and growth and excitement.
Yes, a grateful recovering alcoholic.
The gift of pain
Of course, there have been many losses and disappointments in the last three-and-a-half decades. Recovery does not promise freedom from the storm. But I have found a way to live that allows me to weather the storm, occasionally even with some grace and humor. I wish that I had been able to find this path without all of the devastation caused by my chemical use, but I also now understand that it was precisely this devastation that served as the catalyst for my rebirth.
These days I continue to work with individual addicts and alcoholics, but more of my time is dedicated to improving designing for families. In working with the families at FRrē, I have the privilege of witnessing this phenomenon of rebirth and reconnection all the time. Marriages sundered by drink, infidelity, and dishonesty. Children estranged from parents. Siblings who have come to view each other as the enemy.
They seek us out to do the hard work because they can no longer tolerate the pain. The pain is a gift. Combined with hope and faith, it is the organizing force of early recovery.
Having been through the crucible, having experienced the pain, having done the work, many families come to discover that ultimately the bonds are even stronger. That which was ruptured has now been repaired and is more meaningful than ever.
Grateful recovering families – imagine that!