Addiction is a funny thing. I can smoke a pack of cigarettes like there’s no tomorrow and no matter how much I want to need them, I don’t. I drink coffee and all I’m left with is bad breath and the shits. I’m not lured in by attractive addictions. I wouldn’t say I’m attracted to used needles or unprotected sex, either, but when I didn’t care about myself (but didn’t have the guts to string myself up from the ceiling fan, so said my “friend” and drug dealer), I wanted to disguise my demise as a mere happening, a course of events, rather than a conscious decision. In truth, I was just too strong to do the job the quick and painless way. I wanted to test my incredible ability of hanging on by mere threads.
“Hi, I’m Andrew, and I’m thirty days sober.”
The new ones always start out with that familiar waver in their voice. They fiddle with their hands at the podium, they skirt/ dance around the words “dope” and “addict.” They omit bouts of homelessness and jail time and hopeless custody battles. They thank some deity instead of themselves. They don’t declare that last bit – how long they’ve been sober – with pride. They wonder what force even drove them to walk up to that damn podium. Andrew would be right to be proud, in a cautious way. After all, the beginning is said to be the hardest. He made it this far.
The veteran of the drug club sauntered up to that podium – no, her podium – with a spring in her step. She said her name and her years sober and knew exactly when to pause for the applause of 20 other addicts hanging on her every word (and a few with a demeanor that suggests they’d rather be anywhere but there). Her confidence filled the room. It compensated for all of the newbies, all the step-ones, all the fresh-out-of-rehab dope fiends and pill poppers who could hardly muster up the courage to say those three words: “I’m an addict.”
In the midst of applause and praise, she forgets just how vulnerable she is. How susceptible she is. How a toothache can turn into a relapse just as easily as pride turns into perceived invincibility. The mark of the newbies is their humility. They know how vulnerable they are. I can hear it in their weak voices and see it in their hand-wringing rituals. I felt it as I held a perfect stranger – Andrew – in the church bathroom as sobs rattled his thin frame. Everything about him was fragile. Staying sober is fragile, too, for me it’s like walking a tightrope whilst a million distractions are being thrown at me from every which way. Sometimes maintaining sobriety requires my utmost attention and diligence. Parts of me want to abandon this second (or third, or fourth, I lost count) chance, and it’s my duty to keep on walking the tightrope, to address the dope-pangs and dismiss them. And most of all, I can’t look down. I can never look down.
In between his choking sobs Andrew talked to me probably as candidly as he’d ever talked to anyone in drug club. He felt smothered by the numbers, the years the others had spent sober. How could they be so hopeful? Had they never been here before? Had they ever laid on the floor of a questionable bathroom crying because it was just so fucking hard to breathe, to live, to exist in a place where other people’s success seemed to nullify their own? Probably. Time dilutes the intensity of these moments, and so does the ratio of great times to times spent on the verge of relapse. I reminded the boy who reminded me so much of myself that him being here, sober, was a feat in and of itself. The details don’t matter, he’s here now, and that we can work with.
I’ve learned more from the 17 year old who’s been sober a month than the lady with 11 years under her belt. From him I learned to be humble. Humility is important in this business. Once I start to think of myself as invincible, once my successes start to go to my head, I have to remember, my path is much narrower than most. I can’t afford to stray because I am walking a tightrope and I always will be. I have gotten stronger and more balanced but the fact remains the same. Time heals, but we don’t measure our strength in time, we measure it in the times we’ve been tested but refused to give up. I try not to attach so much undue significance to a value that means next to nothing. Take the story of the man who didn’t smoke for over a decade only to start up again after spending a minute in an elevator with a man who was smoking. A single minute meant more than an entire decade.
So, if I choose to introduce myself, rather than sit in the back of a room full of addicts, observing, I will say:
“Hi, I’m Lucien, and I’m an addict. I’m sober.”
And that’s all that matters.