I woke up. Where am I? How did I get here? It occurs to me that I am in my car, which is upside down. I am drunk. My car is still running. I start to panic. How could this happen? This can’t be real. My body is numb except for a sharp pain in my left shoulder where my body bounced off of the doorframe. I kick the passenger door open, step out and sink waist deep into swamp water. My car is wedged between a concrete drainage pipe and a mound of dry soil. The carriage is suspended over water. It was the scariest moment of my life. That was the night before I checked into rehab. One and a half years before I finally got sober. I was 18 years old.
Fast-forward sixteen years. I am a therapist, a partner in an amazing therapeutic program, an adjunct instructor, and a father of two beautiful children. I have been sober for over 14 years. 5,369 days as I write this. I sometimes ponder some of the same questions. How did I get here? How could this happen? I needed the scariest and darkest moments of my life to bring me to the life I have today. The worst thing to ever happen to me up to that point turned into one of my greatest gifts. Part of my job is helping people through the some of the most difficult times in their lives. Last month my work brought me to Europe. I spent two weeks across the Atlantic. One week in Spain, and one in England.
In Spain I had the privilege of facilitating a therapy group for people in long-term recovery. The theme of the group came from a reading out of one of my favorite books, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. Specifically the line, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.” Gibran’s work is amazing through and through. This line in particular sums up a large portion of my view on therapy. If we are going to be happy we have to know how to experience our sadness. The disease of addiction involves sharp vicissitudes; sadness, happiness, stress and grief, hope and hopelessness. Much of our trouble stems from a belief that we are not supposed to feel sad, that we are not supposed to encounter difficulty, and that things are supposed to look a certain way… but then, they don’t. Difficulty is baffling. Shame tells us something is wrong with us when difficulty arises. When we lack the ability to grieve, it blocks our ability to experience our joys. When we become less afraid of our tears, we will have less of them. When we become less afraid of our tears, the tears of others will scare us less as well.
It was a humbling and amazing experience to be part of the group in Spain. The courage that the group showed was truly inspiring. The reclamation of our tears is scary at first, but it becomes empowering and it leads to our ability to experience great joy. Confronting the aspects of ourselves that we are afraid to see, that we are afraid others will see, doesn’t make us weak, it makes us stronger. All of this requires a great courage. Much of our culture centers around looking “okay.” We are programmed to discount our pain, minimize it’s impact, to justify its origins – We talk ourselves out of tending to our own sorrow – as if simply ignoring it makes it go away. In essence, this pattern mirrors addiction itself – the belief that we are always supposed to feel good and never feel bad. Addicts chase that belief through the gates of insanity. Recovery involves more than just not drinking or using drugs. It requires the ability to confront our fears, our pain and our sorrow. This is how we access our joy, our gratitude and our happiness. Not by ignoring our sadness but by honoring it. An old adage comes to mind, “In order to heal, we have to feel. In order to feel, we have to reveal.” We get to be free from our addiction when we learn to navigate our own internal landscape. We get there by going there. Healing requires feeling. Feeling requires courage. I had the honor and privilege to bear witness to a group of people as they “went there” and came out on the other side.
I then went to London, England. Over the years I have had clients from the UK, and wanted to experience some of the aftercare programs and sober living environments first-hand. One of my former clients took a two-hour train ride from Bristol to London to escort me around the city. It was such a joy to see him. When he was with me in the field he had been quite a handful. I can’t think of a more resistant young man. At one point early in his stay, he sat down in the back of a truck and demanded a ride to town. Upon arrival he was going to inform the UK government that we were taking British people hostage against their will (not taking into account that he could indeed leave and that he had come to us of his own free will). Fast forward a year and he is 7 months sober, he is living with another young man in recovery, and he is working for an agency that raises funds for cancer research. It is amazing – a true miracle. Our relationship went from pure difficulty to a meaningful conversation between peers. We talked about recovery, family, work, and caught up on staff members he had worked with and former group mates he had spent time with in the field. All of this conversation revolved around gratitude – gratitude that comes after facing some of our most difficult “stuff”, the stuff we don’t want to face.
All in all, my entire trip was amazing. I am so grateful to have spent time in London visiting different therapeutic programs. One thing that really stands out to me is how lucky we are in the U.S. to have an abundance of care options. The professionals I met with in London were wonderful. The difference is not the quality of care but the access to care. What we have here does not exist there, and this is particularly true of wilderness therapy. It simply does not exist in Europe.
I reflect on my experience in Europe – How it happened, and how I got there. It involved facing the things I never thought I had the courage to face and coming out on the other side. It involved the families I work with doing the same thing. The families that we work with are in the midst of facing some scary truths at some of the most difficult times in their lives. Fast forward a few years and we don’t know what lies ahead. What a gift it is to have the courage to change the things that we can.