Thirty years ago today, I left Talbott Recovery Center in Atlanta where I’d been in treatment for four months for cocaine addiction.
I flew home to Toronto where Jean met me at the airport and took me directly to the plot of land on Georgian Bay where we pitched a tent and where we are today, sheltering from the pandemic in our cottage.
The next morning, I woke in our tiny tent, squiggled out of my sleeping bag, lifted myself out the front of the tent, stood up and……impaled my foot on a board with a nail sticking out. Ouch!
Jean looked at it and said: “Well, we’d better go to the hospital.” So off we drove the 20 km to Georgian Bay General Hospital where the nurse asked me if I was allergic to any drugs, and I said, not 24 hours after leaving treatment: “Yes, I can’t take narcotics.” But the bigger irony was that, after they patched me up, I didn’t leave the hospital. I just went to a different room for my Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, held there every Sunday at 11 a.m.
I was doing “90 in 90”, attending 90 AA meetings in 90 days. This is a way of making sure someone fresh out of treatment connects early and often with a so-called recovery community. Even though I’m an addict and not an alcoholic, the distinction blurs when you view addiction as using chemicals to dull your feelings.
In the intervening 10,958 days, I’ve steered clear of mood-altering substances of any kind. Leading the very long list of people and places like AA that have helped me is, of course, Jean who saw in me what I couldn’t and who took a very big chance. Life today is completely different from 30 years ago, and if Jean and the others weren’t there, I wouldn’t be here.
While I’ve changed, so has the world’s view of addiction.
Or has it?
I ask because even though it’s an illness and not a character flaw, disturbing numbers of people still believe – deep down where their words are spoken only to themselves – that addiction is not a state of being, but a badge of shame. And because what we believe is different from what we say, it’s no surprise that addiction remains one of the last great afflictions to be dragged out of the closet.
But like so many things in life, I believe that just talking about addiction can take away its hold over us. As I was told over and over in treatment: in our secrets lies our sickness.
That’s why I wrote this today, to talk about something that, for want of talk, continues to flourish, to destroy thousands of relationships, organizations, families and lives.
Doing “90 in 90” in those years before the Internet meant getting the booklet that listed all the AA meetings in a geographic area (and their subgroups: men, women, gay, sexually abused and even pilots and doctors whose meetings are deeply anonymous). It also meant calling around to make sure the meeting was still on. I remember Toronto had 200 meetings a week, so it was hard to believe when someone said: “I couldn’t find a meeting.”
My “90 in 90” days are long gone, and it’s been a while since I’ve been to an AA meeting. But I went to one last night, not in person, of course. But virtually. I found it online.
It turned out it was the weekly meeting of the same group that met in the hospital 30 years ago. There were 32 of us on Zoom for the hour. We opened, as all AA meetings around the world do, with the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions. Then people checked in with how they felt. Most everyone knew each other, so the banter was easy, even though the subjects – lost jobs, sick parents, destructive kids and abusive partners – were the very stuff of alcoholism.
The best definition I know of an alcoholic or an addict is someone who ingests chemicals to repeated harmful effect.
It doesn’t matter how much you use; it’s how much you hurt yourself and others that counts.
By not doing that anymore, I’ve saved myself and my world a whole lot of hurt.
So if you’re the one in 10 of us reading this who might see yourself in those words, I can tell you it doesn’t have to be like this.
It seems even a pandemic can’t stop an alcoholic who wants to stop, stop.
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Get your tickets to the TWO upcoming RamsayTalks Online: May 14th with Jared Diamond, “one of the deepest thinkers of our time,” and May 25th with Roger McNamee who believes tech is too important to operate without adult supervision.