If there’s anything we can all stand to learn from ex-addicts, it’s that we have the power to shape tomorrow regardless of our past. So leave the burdens you carry behind. Remember the power you have today.
I used to know this guy who started smoking weed and experimenting with other drugs in high school. By the time he turned 21, he’d given up drinking, but the rest was more of a challenge. By 23, he considered himself an addict — unable to stop smoking everyday throughout the day.
He spent all of his money on getting high. He stole money from friends and family. He cut food expenses by begging, stealing, and dumpster diving. He let his rent checks bounce and received regular late payment notices from the utility companies. He couldn’t stand the pain of being even a little bit not-high, yet sometimes he was so high that he could hardly do anything except lay there and zone out.
He wanted to stop. He would break down crying sometimes because he wanted to stop so bad but wasn’t sure how to begin. He had good reason to believe his dealer was doing something to alter what he was buying, but he was worried for his safety too if he found someone else or confronted the guy about it. He wanted to ask his family for help but he was too embarrassed and they didn’t have the kind of relationship that he felt could handle him being so honest about his struggle.
It affected his memory. He told me how he’d gone for counseling and felt like he couldn’t make any progress because he couldn’t remember why he’d started in the first place. He thought maybe he was lying to himself whenever he tried to remember, but he couldn’t even remember the lie anymore. His whole life was a blur occasionally punctuated by the startling stories others remembered about him.
Our work together started when he was about 26. Ironically enough, getting sober was the easiest part for him. He just quit cold turkey. He had all his reasons for doing so — the expense, the rampant destruction of his life, the instability and danger of the habit. In the end, it was just mind over matter for him. He chose to stop and he did.
The work that remained was his reintegration into society. He hadn’t held down a real job in years. He didn’t have a college degree. And he was plagued by a sudden wave of self-resentment and guilt that followed in the aftermath of addiction. There are a million ways to dress up a decade of personal struggles, but in the end, it’s the absence of what could have been that haunts you.
Every potential employer wants an explanation. Every college application wants references you can’t provide. Every date sees you as a giant box of red flags. Living in a society requires the friendships you’ve never formed. And all together, I think it’s easy to see why so many people relapse into their personal struggles.
We love to celebrate the recovering addict who puts years between themselves and their drugs of choice, but we’re yet to grow the kind of heart that understands all of the ways these people need our compassion and help back up along the way.
This is a society obsessed with labels and trauma. We want the inside scoop — the same thing the counselor asked him for — we want to know where it all began, why, whose fault it is. We don’t see a human being before us who is trying to make his life normal and better. We see an addict. We see an addict who is maybe in recovery — never recovered, always just an addict, though perhaps modified slightly. We see a privileged white dude who lost control of recreational drug use, or a backwards redneck too dumb to stop using opiates he was once prescribed.
We see a disappointment. We see a failure. We see a guy who skated by without putting in the work that other people did in their teens and twenties. We see a fluid matrix of social relationships but always avoid the plainest, most basic recognition that he is a human being, ready to change, and in need of a hand-up to make it happen.
We are a past-present society. We are obsessed with how the collectively experienced past shaped the present, but to position ourselves as a present now shaping the future is something so alien it perhaps takes an ex-addict to remind of us of our individual power.
You are allowed to change. Whether you are a recovering addict or not, whatever mistakes you have made in your life, whatever circumstances you were born into or intrinsic qualities you possess, no matter how hopeless it may seem in this moment, find the small choices where you have power and turn them in your favor to change the direction of your life.
Your past is not a death sentence. It is merely the beginning of where you will go with today.
The friend whose story I recount here? He went on to get accepted to a local university and graduated magna cum laude with his degree and several awards before he turned 30. He’s an entrepreneur now, sober still, and we both think he’s going to turn out okay.
You are not the same person you were yesterday.
Choose a better tomorrow. And start changing your life today.