I am one of those lucky people who got clean and sober before I could legally buy alcohol. My age, of course, never really mattered when it came to getting loaded. At sixteen, I had developed good relationship with a convenience store owner named Krishna, who gladly sold me thirty racks of Natural Ice, and even gave me a tab to work with when money was tight. Likewise, in the little mill town where I grew up, there wasn’t a legal age to buy whatever drugs I wanted. What I’m saying is that I certainly didn’t miss my fair share of indulgence, but when it was time to begin my recovery, I felt like I was being cheated in a major way.
I moved into a halfway house in April of 2008 after a horrific detox from opiates and alcohol. At first, I felt glad just to be alive, to have a bed to sleep in every night, and plenty of pasta and bread to fill my belly (I gained 30 pounds in my first month of recovery). But by the time summer rolled around, I was beginning to feel better physically, and the warm weather conjured plenty of good memories of summer nights in the woods, getting loaded around big fires, anxiously awaiting whatever chaos would come next, a good fistfight or a shout from the dark that the cops had come. This was how we did it where I grew up, and it was definitely my idea of a good time.
I’ll admit, after all of the awesomeness I’ve experienced in recovery, it doesn’t sound that appealing now, but at the time, that’s what I knew, and that’s what I felt I was missing. When I got clean and sober I had a very narrow sense of what was possible in a person’s life. I’d started using young, and my breadth of life experience was totally limited, so not being able to drink and drug felt like a major loss. And it wasn’t just the relief I’d found in the substances I was losing, it was the lifestyle: the quick friends, the late nights, the unpredictability, that beautiful feeling of not giving a shit about anything. For me these things were also rather addictive, and that first summer of my recovery, I became intensely focused on the fact that couldn’t do them anymore. I think this is a common focus for people in early recovery. We have lived a certain way for so long that it has become the only way we know how to live, and when we can no longer live that way, we aren’t sure what’s left. I know in those early days I often experienced that deep sense of “what now?”
Too often, I meet people who are living a life defined by what they can’t do. It’s true even of people who aren’t in recovery, but for us I think it is a particularly dangerous. The problem with living a life defined by what you can’t do is that it makes the world seem small. It’s like standing on a mountaintop with a beautiful panoramic view, and focusing on the rotten apple core the last hiker dropped there, most likely because he was so struck by the beauty of the place. I lived with this “can’t do” focus for quite a while, until a friend helped me adjust my perspective. I’m not sure how the topic came up, but I was likely complaining about the lack of excitement in my life, about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to drink on my 21st birthday, that I wouldn’t be able to go to have friends who weren’t in recovery…and what if I happened to fall down some stairs? I can’t take painkillers anymore, so I’d have to suffer through that awful pain.
Like a good friend, he listened to me until my “can’t do” tirade had petered out. Then he said:
“I don’t know about you, Jake. But I couldn’t do shit when I was getting loaded.”
Something clicked for me in that conversation. I realized that the one thing I couldn’t do anymore—get loaded—had actually kept me from doing much of anything worthwhile or enjoyable in my life. Here is a short list of things I couldn’t do in my addiction: show up to work, be present with my family, maintain relationships, go on vacation (for fear of running out of drugs), travel out of the state of Massachusetts without a court issued permit, get a good night sleep, wake up in the morning, spend money on a movie or a concert, have a regular bowel movement (sorry—but it’s true), look people in the eye, sit down and read a book…the list could go on, but I’ll spare you the full picture. I’m sure your own list is just as interesting. The point is, in exchange for the one “can’t do”, and several others things I probably shouldn’t do (lying, cheating, stealing, etc.), I was presented with a tremendous array of thing I could do.
Eventually, I began cultivating a “can do” perspective, focusing on those things that were available to me now that I wasn’t drunk and high on a consistent basis. This “can do” perspective opened my life up in major ways. I started getting the good stuff of recovery. I have been able to go back to school, establish healthy relationships, maintain good jobs, travel to foreign countries, move from the East Coast to the West, sit around fires and enjoy myself without getting loaded, learn how to fly fish, grow vegetables, start a blog…this list could also go on and on, and I don’t share any of it to toot my own horn, but to say that life gets big when we stop focusing on the fact we can’t get loaded anymore.
For what it's worth, I’d encourage you to look at your own “can do's” and maybe even give some thought to the things you couldn’t do in your addiction. List them side-by-side. Share them with a friend now that you are capable of maintaining relationships. I’m convinced if you can shift your perspective in this way, you’ll realize you are missing out on a lot less than you think you are.