I saw a yellow bumper sticker the other morning. It said, in friendly blue lettering:
“You don’t have to believe everything you think”
I don’t have any tattoos, but I might consider permanently inking that phrase across my forearm.
I like thinking. I do a lot of it. Usually too much, although, periodically, not enough. There have been plenty of times when thinking has served me well. Believing certain things that I think, on the other hand, has been the source of a lot of pain.
When you frequently sit in rooms where family members of alcoholics and addicts are struggling with their particular realities, the pitfalls of believing everything you think become much more vivid. We think we can help people, even if those people haven’t shown any interest in, or have even responded angrily to, our offers to help. We think our marriages, our childhoods, our children, our children’s teachers, our jobs, our coworkers, our lives are supposed to be as we imagined – what we thought they should be – instead of what they are.
I thought that marriage meant that I was supposed to feel loved by another person and that it was understood that such an endeavor is worth the work and times of discomfort that likely takes. I thought I was supposed to have more than one child. I thought that having a child would motivate the other person to be a better person, because that is undoubtedly what it did for me. I thought that respect would mean the same thing to the other person as it does to me. I thought our idea of a “good person” would be the same. I thought that love would mean the same thing to the other person as it means to me. I thought.
When these are the kinds of things that you think, and what you think is not your life, or even close to your life, life gets ouchy.
A year ago, I sat in a counselor’s office, and she said something that confounded me:
“Addiction can be your greatest teacher.”
At first, that pissed me off. Addiction is a sneaky, mean, lying, controlling bastard. Addiction is a villain and I am a moral, loving, hard-working, good girl. Addiction messes I up everything I was supposed to have and enjoy in this life. Or so I thought.
I essentially let go of drinking years ago in support of another person. Or so I thought. I’m not an alcoholic, so it wasn’t hard. When I miss it, I have a nice glass of wine. It can be months before I want another glass.
My decision had little or no bearing on the other person’s path of recovery. But my quitting has taught me that I prefer a life of rarely drinking. I’ve learned that I prefer the feeling of being in my body, the challenge of overcoming my own shyness without liquid help (probably the biggest reason I ever drank in social settings to begin with) and the rewards of settling into my difficult feelings instead of trying to control them. Addicts and I have this in common, we just go about it differently. I’ve tried to intellectualize my feelings into neat compartments while an addict may be more inclined to escape from or obliterate feelings with substances.
Living within spitting distance of addiction has forced me to try and look at people more openly and compassionately as they are instead of what I think they should be, beginning with myself. I am smart about things I never wanted to be smart about, and more aware of how naïve I am about most things. That makes me so common, so wonderfully human, so fundamentally like everyone I meet, addicts included. It has cracked my universe wide open.
I am a moral, loving, hard-working, good girl. And addiction really is a sneaky, mean, lying, controlling bastard that has tried, more than once, to convince me that everyone is really a sneaky, mean, lying bastard at heart, including me. He hunts for our weaknesses and exploits them, grinds into them until feeling itself just hurts, he fuels our cynicism and erodes our faith in anything or anyone. The more persecuted and victimized an addict feels, the more the addiction can thrive. That’s how addiction gets all of us – addicts and the people who love them – to do his bidding.
The moment I stopped thinking of addiction as a dictator or persecutor or something unilaterally “bad” and started looking at the weaknesses it has exposed in me was the moment I felt something new – maybe a genuine self-respect – begin to take root. When I change the word addiction to death, to job loss, to illness, to bad government, I find the same thing applies.
If I hadn’t been exposed to addiction, I might have cruised through life thinking that it was possible to manage or change other people according to the way I think things should be. What a gift it has been to try and dump that kind of thinking and focus on what I can change, like the way I respond to difficult times and situations, instead.
At least that’s how I’m thinking about things today.
Listen to “Thinking” by Steve Forbert