What was left of the skin on her face and forearms lay bubbled and raw. I wanted desperately to look away in disgust, but at the same time, something primal compelled me to take in as much as I could. Little did I know that this would be as close as I’d ever get to having my very own “come-to-Jesus moment.”
By that time, the drugs and alcohol were still jolting through my bloodstream, and they made such poor bedfellows for the shame and self-loathing washing over me. That could have just as easily been me lying in that bed. And then came the flood of “what ifs”… What if I hadn’t decided to stay for just one more drink at the bar last night? What if instead, I had taken her up on her offer of a drive home from the bar? What if I had been sitting beside her when the car she was driving careened into the back of a propane taxi, exploding and sending a plume of fire in through the exhaust vents? And, what if I were the one lying in the burn unit right now…
I used to live in the moment, and that moment was usually an all-consuming desire not to just escape, but to annihilate—to numb everything inside of me. I was suicidal and wanted nothing more than oblivion. I can remember the morning I walked out of that hospital like it was yesterday, but in fact, it was 7,328 days ago, and I’ve been clean and sober ever since.
The only thing that stood in the way of my getting into the car on that fateful night was my alcoholism, that insatiable need to stay in the bar for one more, and with it, more self-destruction… more self-loathing… more…
It’s ironic that my addiction saved my life that night—It brought me to the bottom of my despair. I’ve been kicking around 12-step recovery rooms for over 20 years now, and I think I can safely say that there are as many definitions of what a “bottom” is as there are recovering addicts. But there is one I heard recently that really resonated with me. “I knew I had reached my bottom when I was going down faster than I could lower my standards.”
All these years later, I still attend 3 or 4 recovery meetings a week, not because I’m afraid I’ll pick up a drink or drug today, but rather because I have a tendency to forget. I forget what it was like to feel desperately alone in a crowded room. I forget what it was like to hear my wife getting our young son ready to go to the park, knowing that I was too hungover and shaky to get out of bed today. I forget what it was like to need the lubricating haze of drugs and booze in order to slip into my skin for another day. But most of all, I sit in those meetings to hear my story coming from the lips of a complete stranger; and it pierces my heart and cuts through all the platitudes and bullshit that I would much rather surround myself with.
I live in an old Victorian house on a leafy street in Toronto’s downtown core, and it feels as though each month another condo pops up, casting its ominous shadow over our little plot of land. The gentrification of Toronto’s downtown brings with it ever-escalating house prices, hipster bars and funky boutique shops, and yet one more Starbucks. But brushing up against this gentrification are those individuals who inhabit the margins of our community—the men dispersed from the homeless shelter at 6:30 every morning, facing the yawning tedium of the day ahead… I look out the front window of our over-inflated million-dollar home, and I see a sex worker flick her cigarette across the road as she tentatively walks towards the minivan that just pulled up. And then I watch as she slips into the passenger seat next to a complete stranger, and they drive off…
Everywhere I look, I see the ravages of active drug and alcohol addiction. It’s as though the more prosperous and ‘world class’ our city becomes, the more vulnerable people are pushed to the margins. I often think, what’s the difference between me and the addict shooting up in the alleyway behind our house? As much as I’d like to believe that I am in some way more deserving of recovery than that addict, there is no doubt in my mind that the addict with the needle in his arm is closer to grace than I am, 20-years sober, today. And it’s that startling truth that keeps me returning to my 12-step meetings.
And what is grace? One of my favorite writers, a recovering addict herself, Anne Lamott, says: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” For me, sobriety and grace are inseparable. Grace is a gift of which none of us is deserving, but all are worthy of; and I believe that therein lies the mystery of sobriety—a daily acceptance that you are worthy of grace, worthy of change, and worthy of self-forgiveness.
If you kick around recovery rooms long enough, you’re bound to hear someone say: “Religion is for those people afraid of hell, and spirituality is for those who have lived through hell.” When I think about the spiritual path I’ve been on these past 20 years, I think the greatest change has been in the way I approach prayer. Early on in my sobriety, I “prayed for something”… for forgiveness, for things I’d lost, and for everything I so desperately wanted. As the years passed, I began to do what others around me suggested I do—I started to “pray to something”. I’m not only a recovering addict, but I’m also what you’d call a “recovering Catholic”. And so for me, it took a long time to arrive at place where I felt comfortable praying “to” something.
Prayer has continued to evolve in my life, and today, I find that I’m no longer “praying for something” or “praying to something”, but instead, “praying with something”. When you take away the drugs and alcohol from an addict, you leave a festering hole at the core of his or her being; and in my opinion, the only way to fill that gaping absence is with gratitude. And it is with this in mind, that I approach prayer with a heart that is grateful. I no longer pray for things, or pray to change the way I feel. Instead, I bring what is with me to prayer, be it a heavy or a joyful heart, the strength of certainty or the wavering fear that comes with uncertainty. If the destination of addiction is escape, than it’s safe to say, sobriety is all about being achingly present in your life—arriving at prayer with whatever you are sitting with at this time.
I’ll simply end by saying, if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, have faith, compassion, and a belief that each and everyone of us can change—Each of us is worthy to be met with grace.