Over a span of ten years, I experienced drug addiction, drug overdose, marriage, divorce, financial hardship, ruined relationships, and failed businesses. I learned some things along the way that will help all of us to live better lives. Here are the top four lessons I’ve learned.
Lesson #1: Acceptance isn’t the same as resignation and it doesn’t mean you have to like it
A few years before finally finding real sobriety and recovery, I made several attempts to stop using drugs and alcohol. During one struggle, mostly trying to save my failing marriage, I made a pledge to stay completely abstinent from all drugs and alcohol.
Even to my closest friends, I couldn’t be honest about why I suddenly decided to avoid alcohol. I would dodge their questions or pass it off as an attempt to get into peak physical shape.
I said things like:
“You know — for Crossfit and stuff.”
That wasn’t a complete lie, as I had recently taken a genuine interest in Crossfit and even started training for a local competition.
I did somehow manage to enter — and win — that local Crossfit competition. I showed up the morning of the event wearing my wrist wraps, not because I needed them for support, but because I was hiding the track marks left behind from injecting heroin.
Unbeknownst to my workout partner, I wouldn’t have even been able to get out of bed had I not used heroin earlier that morning.
I was maintaining a strict diet and exercise routine while simultaneously hiding in bathroom stalls to inject myself with poison. This shows the insanity of my disease — wholly irrational and hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it.
After nearly a decade of substance use, I had managed to normalize this daily chaos. It was like being afraid of the dark as a kid, cowering under your blankets in a pitch-black room. You know where the light switch is, but you’re terrified to step off your bed, exposing yourself while you walk towards it.
I was stuck, desperately wanting to stop using drugs. The idea of accepting that I was addicted to drugs, and even more so asking for help, was terrifying. Instead, I risked my own life on a daily basis and consistently burned down everything around me. I wanted to live on my own terms–fiercely grasping for control of my circumstances and the things that happened to me.
Learning to accept everything exactly as it comes
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “My formula for greatness in a human being is Amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”
This philosophy challenges us not to wish for things to have happened differently, but wish for them to arrive precisely as they have. Your circumstances don’t care how you feel about them, so you might as well learn to accept and love them exactly as they are. Only then can you find true serenity and happiness in your life.
For years, I exhausted my energy by wishing specific events never happened, or that they had happened differently. I wished that I could prevent my wife from leaving me, or that I could have somehow convinced my father not to drink himself to death. I didn’t want to be addicted to heroin or to identify as a person in recovery, and I fought it viciously, nearly choosing death over stigma.
My life was completely unmanageable, but I refused to accept having a substance use disorder. I fought the fact that I was suffering from a disease that needed not only abstinence from drugs and alcohol but consistent and life-long treatment.
Control what you can and forget the rest
There is a common saying found in several twelve-step programs of recovery: “Let go, let God.” To me, this idea is less about recognizing that there is a God-like power who controls the movement of the universe, and more about merely acknowledging that I am not that power myself. I was not only addicted to drugs and alcohol, I was also addicted to control. I wanted to control everything and everyone around me and allowed the actions of others to affect my well-being.
Ancient Stoic philosophers had a metaphor that I think helps explain this idea of complete acceptance. They said that we are like a dog tied to a moving cart. We have two choices. We can dig our heels into the ground, foolishly fighting against the direction of the cart and being forcibly dragged along. Or we can go with the cart, enjoying the walk.
Both dogs are in the same situation, but only one of them is enjoying the journey by recognizing which things he can’t control. Unless I wanted to get continually dragged along, I needed to focus on only the things that were actually in my control, and most importantly, know what those things were.
The fact is, I can’t control any of the things that have happened to me, or prevent more obstacles from being placed in my way. The only thing I have complete control over is my reaction to these things, and how I choose to act in each present moment. Like that dog tied to a cart, I can either accept certain things and take my freedoms where they come or fight against things out of my control and get dragged through the dirt.
Accepting is not the same as giving up
It’s essential for me to remember that accepting my circumstances does not mean that I’m giving up. Acceptance is not resignation. Although I may not be able to control everything about my current conditions, my actions today will shape my future.
Although I never wanted to be addicted to drugs, that’s where I ended up. Accepting and even loving my fate of being in that situation, doesn’t mean that I wanted it or like it, just that I can recognize that it’s in my interest to accept it and make the best of it.
Without accepting and embracing my substance use disorder, I wouldn’t be able to share my recovery journey with you today. I’m grateful to not only be abstinent from drugs and alcohol, but also for the ability to live honestly and free of shame while I treat my disease.
It may seem unnatural for me to be grateful for my addiction to drugs and alcohol, to love something that I never wanted in the first place. Throughout my life, I’ve learned that many of the worst things to happen to me have later revealed themselves as being the most significant gifts — but only if I accept them and allow myself to learn from them.
Lesson #2: What someone thinks about you is none of your business
In the fall of 2015, my wife finally asked me to move out. She was soft-spoken and outwardly showed little emotion when she said those words. I remember it being mentioned casually, almost in passing. Likely wanting to avoid a confrontation, she did her best to frame the idea as a temporary break, but I knew that I would never again be welcomed back into our home.
At this point in our relationship, I was too broken to even put up a fight. I complied with her request and shuffled my way out the door. Divorce is not what I wanted, but I could barely get myself out of bed most days, let alone be a husband. Small daily tasks seemed unmanageable.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was close to dying, and honestly, I felt indifferent towards my potential death. My entire life felt confined within my mind, unable to consider anything or anyone outside of myself.
Over the course of our six-year relationship, I caused a lot of wreckage. My wife always tried to keep the wheels on, cleaning up my messes and keeping up the outward appearances of our perfect life. I held that woman hostage with me in my disease, and she probably should have thrown in the towel long before she did. I moved out, and the divorce papers came in the mail soon after.
Will we invest ourselves in something if the outcome is not guaranteed?
When I finally found my way into recovery and put together several months of sobriety I made an effort to reach out to my now ex-wife. My ego wanted her to know how well I was doing and how full my life had become in recovery. I wanted her forgiveness and for her tell me that she was proud of me and was happy to hear from me.
None of those things happened as I had hoped. She had no interest in knowing what I was doing and firmly asked me to never contact her again. My expectations of the situation were not met, and I had feelings of resentment for her not appreciating my efforts.
As someone in recovery, this response could have been especially devastating. Attaching my self-work to the expectation of healing a relationship, or to gaining forgiveness from another person, could derail my sobriety if those expectations are not met. It’s always risky for me to attach my well-being to the outcomes of my recovery efforts.
It requires humility to accept that I don’t control the reaction of others to me or the amount of praise and validation I receive. In retrospect, it was selfish of me to reach out at all, and it was unreasonable to have expectations of her reaction.
Marcus Aurelius said it best when talking about tying happiness to other things or people:
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”
If I approach my recovery correctly, I should focus on fulfilling my own standards of myself. I should find serenity in doing the work instead of being consumed by expectations of the outcomes. The work that I do in recovery every day is enough; the reactions of others do not determine my value.
It’s important to find peace in knowing that you are doing the right thing and focus on what is within your control. Having expectations about someone’s reaction to your efforts will only set you up to have resentments, and it could potentially disrupt your recovery.
It’s not my business
My marriage is in the past, but I still struggle today with forming healthy relationships and dating. I can get caught up in what other people think and in wanting to control their reactions to me.
These feelings typically manifest strongest for me when I am dating someone. My ego wants to control what a woman’s friends and family think and say about me. “Recovering heroin addict” isn’t the resume that most parents want to hear when vetting a potential partner for their daughter. Because of my past transgressions; I feel like I always need to prove myself worthy to other people.
When I feel attacked, I find myself wanting to say:
“Forget them, they don’t appreciate my efforts anyway.”
The reality is that some people will judge me based on my past and the stigma surrounding addiction. I can’t control these reactions, and it’s in my best interest to not consume myself with things beyond my control.
I’m learning to be happy with my actions and the way that I carry myself on a daily basis. I know that I shouldn’t tie my happiness to other people’s reactions to me, but it can be a hard thing to practice.
In life and in your recovery, you will be unappreciated. You will be attacked. You will have failures, and your expectations will not always be met. I know I’ll only keep my sanity by instead focusing on my efforts in recovery and in becoming the best version of myself. What someone thinks of me is not my business and most importantly not something I should tie to my happiness.
Lesson #3: Pain isn’t something that should be avoided
Growing up, it seemed like there wasn’t anything in the world that my father couldn’t do, and he was good at everything he tried. Like most young boys, I thought my father was the strongest and best example of what a man should be. I noticed that he was exceptionally skilled at two things in particular — fighting and drinking. My older brother inherited these skills long before I did, and I idolized him even more than my father.
One of my earliest memories is of waking up one morning at dawn to find my brother standing in the kitchen, shirtless and covered in blood. I barely recognized him. His blonde hair was saturated red with blood like he had painted it in hair dye and neglected to wash the paste out. A pair of deep cuts on his hairline exposed what looked like his skull, and his face was obscured by the blood still flowing from his injuries.
He had been out drinking and got into a fight with a group of men. He was repeatedly struck with bottles and fists. His arms and legs were badly torn from injuries inflicted by a pit bull that joined the fight alongside his owner.
For most families, this scene would likely result in an ambulance ride and a police report. However, I’m confident that after getting patched up, his first call wasn’t to the local police.
I hoped that one day I could be strong and hardened like him. The two men I looked up to most didn’t seem to feel physical or emotional pain. Emotions were not something I ever recall talking about and from my childhood eyes, it wasn’t something a man was supposed to feel. Alcohol and drugs existed to suppress pain at the first hint of discomfort, and you could just kick the shit out of anyone who dared to see through it.
My father eventually succumbed to his disease and drank himself to death–I’ll expand more on that later. I know that he loved me and always did the best that he could, while simultaneously fighting his own demons. I don’t have a lot of contact with my older brother today. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t share details about our relationship or his struggles. I hope that if he reads this, he knows that I love him.
Avoiding emotional pain and discomfort
In my experience, almost everyone with a substance use disorder has experienced trauma. I don’t believe it’s the trauma itself that causes substance misuse, but the desire to avoid the pain caused by this trauma.
Avoidance of life’s painful emotions often manifests itself in unhealthy behaviors, causing more harm in the long run. I reached for drugs and alcohol as a solution to help me avoid certain emotions. Hiding my feelings with substances worked for me in the short term, but doing this would only create more harm in the long run.
Avoiding feeling my emotions by drowning them with drugs and alcohol set up a paradox in which my coping method only served to multiply my emotional pain in the long run. Misusing drugs and alcohol had its additional consequences that would wreak havoc on my life and those around me.
The death of my father
My father experienced more than his fair share of trauma early in his life, and he fought a long battle with drug and alcohol addiction. He was a good man, but he suffered from the same disease that I live with today.
Years of daily drinking and drug use took its toll on his body, and as a result of his risky behavior, he lived with hepatitis C for most of his adult life. A couple years before I was able to get sober he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.
Cirrhosis is a late-stage scarring of the liver caused by diseases such as hepatitis and chronic alcoholism. The liver damage from cirrhosis generally can’t be undone. His prognosis wasn’t good, and he accelerated his own deterioration by continuing to drink.
During the few short weeks leading up to his death, I wasn’t able to be there for him. I had recently entered treatment after another long run of intravenous heroin and cocaine use. In our last phone conversation, I yelled at him out of frustration, trying to shame him into stopping drinking.
The irony of this conversation wouldn’t reveal itself until a couple of years later. He hung up the phone on me and died before I had an opportunity to coherently speak with him again.
I have long avoided talking about the circumstances surrounding my father’s death and the effect it has had on me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my drug use accelerated after his death, and my relapses have coincided with his birthday. It’s important for me to no longer avoid this pain, and instead learn from it.
Accepting that pain is both necessary and good
No longer being able to shield my emotions using drugs and alcohol, my methods of avoidance have changed. My pain avoidance now manifests the strongest in my friendships and romantic relationships.
I struggle to face discomfort and tough conversations, often choosing to ignore them. This can come in the form of defiant refusal to engage, shutting down emotionally, or running away and cutting contact altogether.
In life, we will all inevitably face challenges and painful experiences. When we avoid the discomfort of these experiences, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow and develop the skills to handle life’s obstacles.
All emotions — good and bad — are part of life, and it’s essential to accept that fact. The best part about getting sober is that you are finally able to feel your feelings, and the worst part about getting sober is that you are finally able to feel your feelings.
Lesson #4: Don’t let perfection get in the way of better
I’ve never heard of anyone completing recovery–or accomplishing anything in life perfectly. I know I haven’t even done it well. Author Gretchen Rubin said it best:
Instead of pushing yourself to an impossible ‘perfect,’ and therefore getting nowhere, accept ‘good.’ Many things worth doing are worth doing badly.
For me, my substance use disorder is not something cured with a well-planned and perfect treatment. My disease needs to be treated every single day with constant awareness and work. The important part is that I show up every day and make an effort, regardless of how I feel and how difficult it may be.
There are many things in life worth doing that are worth doing poorly, and recovery is one of them. Don’t let perfection get in the way of better.