February 3rd, 2014 was a day I wanted to seem normal. It was my goal this year not to notice that day. For 21.5 years, that day had been my A.A. birthday (or anniversary for east coasters). In 1990, that was the day I walked into a room of alcoholics and accepted the idea that I was a hopeless drunk that needed help. I was twenty years old. In 2014, it was also the day that I learned Phillip Seymour Hoffman had OD’d.
For those of you that have read Leaving the Rest, it will come as no surprise to you that I no longer identify as “Sober.” In fact, I no longer identify as an “Addict” or an “Alcoholic.” I have spent the past few years trying to remove those labels from the construct of my self-image. I am succeeding, but it is a daily journey - much like getting sober was. For the past few years, since redefining this paradigm, a cloud of doubt has hung over me on February 3rd. A fear haunts me — that my choices are hubris run amok and could ruin me—how dare I claim to be different than anyone else, how dare I suggest that I could be healed in some way, when other believed themselves so incurable? That fear, combined with a painful loss of a sober community that I once called home, meant that February 3rd has been filled with melancholy and reflection of late. In 2014, it was also the day that I learned Phillip Seymour Hoffman had OD’d.
To better explain this, I often use the bike-in-a-tree analogy. For me, the “bike” was alcohol. In my teens, I had used booze to suppress the pain of being raised to believe that something was wrong with me, that I was somehow abnormal. When alcoholism presented itself as a socially acceptable reason for that abnormality, I embraced it as an identity. I removed the bike, and I began learning how to live without it. This was born in adding a new word to my identity. Addict.
As a teen, I drank like an alcoholic, but as a twenty-something, during the majority of my Emergent Adulthood period, I abstained. And I spent twenty years in the rooms of A.A. fearing the day I might relapse. I was told, and I believed, that I could never ride a bike normally, because the bike belonged inside me. But after twenty years of sobriety I dared to ask, “what if I want to ride a bike?”
At present, the only proven way to treat addiction is abstinence. In spite of all these various addictive realities, any and all lay assessments of addictive behaviors reduce the spectrum to only two groups. Alcoholics and Drug Addicts. And we believe that abstinence is always the best solution. But, based on the nature of the dependency, an addict may not be able go cold turkey. To do so would be like removing the bike from the tree with a chain saw. A dependent addict must stop, but it is physically unsafe for them to do so. To treat them, we put the person in a hospital; we build structures around them, support them, and remove the bike slowly, with precision.
Perhaps, because I got sober just after I turned twenty, my brain still had time to heal itself, before resigning me to a life of addictive behavior. Honestly, in my heart of hearts, I believe this is why I can now comfortably reject the idea that I am an addict, when so many others in my shoes cannot. I got sober at twenty, in the early part of the developmental stage. I stayed sober through and beyond it, and my brain healed the bike-sized hole. Or perhaps, for the more spiritual of you, I just needed to believe that I could be healed, and that optimism drove me to a new set of neural pathways. Whatever the reason, I can’t offer any science to support why I did not turn out to be the addict I believed myself to be for twenty years. I can only offer my own semi-educated guess. Keep in mind it comes from a man who has just enough scientific knowledge to be dangerous.
In AA, we are taught to believe that we will always have to wear the label of addict; that our view of a bike will always distort us. To deal with addiction, we are taught that we must accept the "disease" as a part of who we are, that a part of our make up is out to get us. The "bike" is the best tool our demons can use to destroy us. We are taught that indulging the thought that we might ever be cured is to deny something fundamental about who and what we are. That leap into practicing the program means accepting the possibility that we will not ever achieve a complete healing of the bike-sized hole. We are taught to believe that we cannot ever be rid of this part of ourselves, that we can never hope to ride a bike again, least we risk a tragic death. But I dared to ask, what if I just can't ride that bike? What if I tried different ones? What I learned was that there are some bike I can ride, other I cannot. And in those hard-learned lessons I have come to accept my limits.
The thought that perhaps I could see any “bike” normally, without distorting it into something that would hurt or harm me, was not an acceptable idea in the community of addiction treatment I had come to know. I have lost many friends out of this prejudice, but I have also lost many because I have made mistakes in this journey that may not be repairable. As such the cost was not just that I had to take a hard journey, but that I had to do it alone. But I needed to know if I could achieve it. The first step toward this reality was accepting the idea that I might have never been an "addict" at all. I was and can be an abuser. But that does not require that I believe anything inherit in my make-up is actually out to get me. And changing that thinking, was as hard as removing the bike from the tree in the first place. As soon as I began to believe I could ride, the older feelings about what a "bike" should be and do started to melt away. When I doubted, I lost my way. Make no mistake, given the right circumstances, if my underlying wounds have too much focus, then I can easily fall off the deep end. But, if balanced and doing it for the right reasons, I find I can now sanely enjoy a bike for its intended purpose.
For any healing to happen we must first create and then carry that bike sized hole until it heals. Once its heals, its scars seem forever visible to the outside world, even if they are not. And it is the degree to which we have absorbed the bike into our biology that defines how hard a journey it is.
In more practical terms, to make this final leap to freedom, the pessimistic nature of a truly abused person must become optimistic. And what few people understand is that is a tall, tall order. It is the Everest of personal growth.