I was watching the evening news a few years back, and towards the end of the broadcast they played an interview with a feisty elderly couple who were celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. When asked what the secret was to the incredible longevity of their marriage, the husband got a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he responded: “The secret to our happy marriage is that we have sex almost every day. We “almost” have it on Monday… we “almost” have it on Tuesday… we “almost” have it on Wednesday…” I still giggle when I picture how shocked the interviewer was at this response from this little old man.
I’m blessed to have been married to the same incredible lady for over 27 years, and I too would credit the longevity of our marriage to that same word--almost. We go to bed each night with the belief that we’ve “almost” built the “perfect” relationship, and what keeps us going is the belief that tomorrow will bring another day to get us closer to achieving that. For a relationship to be fulfilling, it needs space to grow, evolve, and change. My wife and I are not the same people who married each other so very long ago, but we have had the faith to jump into the abyss together.
Robert C. Dodds said, “The goal of marriage is not to think alike, but to think together.” So much wisdom is hidden in those few simple words. A lot of relationships fail because people enter them expecting the other person to somehow “complete” them—to be their “missing piece”, or some strange romantic alchemy that transforms two independent people into one loving being. This quote from Dodds resonates with me because it turns that coalescing notion of relationship formation on its head. The couple is not growing into one, but instead, “thinking” together. I also identify with the analogy of what is commonly referred to as the “marriage box”. The premise is that we approach marriage, or any other long-term relationship, like a box. In the early days of the relationship, the box is full of trinkets and treasures, but these quickly disappear and lose their sparkle. For the relationship to continue to thrive, each partner has to contribute to the box. I’ve also heard an analogy made to the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Because no water feeds into the Dead Sea, nothing flourishes in the environment; unlike the Sea of Galilee, not far away, that teems with beauty and life as it is constantly refreshed by new waters.
Surprisingly, what you won’t find in your “marriage box” are the staples of any healthy relationship: romance, companionship, love, laughter, and security—These are not even found in our partner, but are brought forth in each one of us when we commit to building a relationship. What we place in the box is what our partner needs, not what we need. There will be times in every relationship when one partner takes out more than (s)he puts in—This is not sustainable indefinitely, and ultimately is the demise of many relationships.
In a previous post, I wrote about intimacy and how it is often confused with romance. If you were to plot your relationship on graph, you’d be able to see how romance tends to wax and wane, but intimacy is the coal that keeps the fire of love burning. I’ve been reading a lot recently about the different stages of relationships, and it’s helped me to identify four distinct stages in my marriage.
1. Sweaty palms and beating hearts
There’s no denying the mind-body buzz of utter infatuation, and how it drowns out the “white noise” of the world spinning around us. This honeymoon phase of every relationship is tinged with an air of invincibility, as both partners tend to make compromises that once seemed unfathomable. The bitter reality is that this stage is unsustainable, if only for the sheer exhaustion it induces. I can remember sitting up night after night with my wife when we first started dating, and then both of us crawling into work and school on only a few hours sleep. I fear that a diet rich in Hollywood romantic comedies, coupled with the prevalence of internet pornography, has given many young people today the idea that this phase of relationship goes on indefinitely.
2. Taking off the rose-colored glasses
One morning you wake up and you realize that you’ve come crashing down to earth and your head is no longer in the stars. I call this second act the “discovery phase”, which is characterized by a period of negotiation and compatibility calibration. For any relationship to have longevity, there needs to be mundane discussion about who does what and when. In my marriage, these are the times when little acts of kindness become echoes of love and caring. There is something to be said about letting down your guard in front of your partner and seeing each other for who you really are. Maybe sweatpants really are the new lingerie!
3. Entering a pocket of turbulence
“Life happens” to the best of us, and being in a long-term relationship does not insulate you from periods of discord, pain, and hurt. It’s easy to be in love when everything is humming along perfectly, but it takes real commitment to weather the storms of relationship dissonance. This is the period when you need to have faith in where you are going as a couple, and you will need to continue contributing to the “marriage box” even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing. We all face two choices in this phase: rebellion and confrontation, or what Buddhists refer to as “benign acceptance”. The one truth I’ve learned in our marriage is that for love to survive, there can be no “winner” or “loser” in times of strife. I remind myself that I didn’t marry my wife for “yesterday”—I married her for “today” and “tomorrow”.
4. Recovery and co-creation
If you hold on long enough to pass through various pockets of turbulence, you find yourself in what I consider to be the most transformative and beautiful phase of any relationship—synergy of recommitment to your love. When I look back on the 27 years I’ve been married, it’s clear to me that our relationship became stronger immediately after weathering another rough patch. Just like my wedding ring doesn’t look as shiny as the day my wife put it on my finger, I must admit all the dings and scratches in my wedding ring remind me of the incredible journey I’m building with my partner.
I’m not surprised when I read about the escalating statistics of the number of people being treated for clinical depression and anxiety; in fact, what is surprising to me is that so many of us continue to get out of bed every day despite the overwhelming odds against us. The stark reality of human existence is that eventually, we all will lose everyone and everything which is dear to us—suffering is a universal truth, yet the majority of us keep bravely moving forward.
I’m left with the obvious question: If trauma is an inalienable fact of life, why did I spend 47 years ducking from it, running from it, and denying its existence? I think we can all agree that trauma can be devastating, and that some of us appear to get more than our fair share of trauma to process. Up until a year ago, I was content to blindly ignore the trauma in my life, but everything got turned upside down when I decided to disclose that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I needed to somehow process what had happened to me as a child and find a way to make some sense out of the senseless. Because I am an athlete, I was able to make the analogy that just as a muscle needs to be put under strain for it to grow, the trauma in my life may be a catalyst for spiritual and emotional growth in my life.
Pioneers in the field of Positive Psychology, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun are credited with coining the phrase “Post-traumatic Growth” as they attempted to measure positive outcomes in people who experience life-altering trauma. The researchers looked at five primary metrics: relating to others, new possibilities, personal growth, spiritual change, and appreciation of life. This dovetails nicely with Stephen Joseph’s book What Doesn’t Kill Us, which describes how people who have been touched by trauma often report heightened functioning in three facets of their life. Here are the three categories and some guiding questions—I invite you to consider a traumatic event from your life, be it an illness, loss of a loved one, physical or emotional trauma, or even a painful breakup, and consider whether this trauma has been a catalyst for personal growth.
Have you reassessed the importance of what you thought was a primary relationship in your life? Have you undertaken what I refer to as “friendship editing”—distancing yourself from people who are overwhelming negative or too demanding of your emotional energy? After coming through trauma, are you more compassionate and empathetic with others?
2. Change in Values
Have you adopted less “attitude” and more “gratitude”? Has there been a substantive shift in your prioritizing of time or money? Perhaps you’ve re-evaluated your life and you are aligning yourself with what Brene Brown refers to as vulnerability acceptance?
3. Global Change in Life Philosophy
Have you finally uncovered your core purpose in life, your mission? Have you come to accept the one thing “you can’t NOT do”?
It’s important to stress—and I know this intimately from my own experience—that simply being affected by trauma does not mean that we will be “effected” by trauma. So many of us fail to undertake the deep dive to embrace the trauma as a potential for transformation. This was the genesis of the title of my blog, Breathe Through This, because unless I am willing to sit with this discomfort long enough to make sense of it, any prospect of spiritual or personal growth is all but nonexistent. There needs to be what Calhoun and Tedeschi describe as “one’s ability to reflectively engage or ruminate over elements of the event in order to repair and restructure one’s understanding of the world.” I interpret this word “ruminating” to be more of an active process of self-discovery rather than a death spiral of depression brought on by the paralyzing “poor me” pity parade.
No matter how transformative working through trauma can be, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but I today I do understand why it is often referred to as an “unexpected gift”. We become empowered when we take personal ownership of the trauma in our lives—We begin to reorient ourselves as the residue of this trauma is woven into our beautifully unique resiliency blanket. In the words of Peter Levine, “Trauma is a hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.”
As a teacher, I spend most of my day helping students, and if I’ve learned anything in over 20 years in this profession, it’s been that the most effective way to help someone is not by spoon feeding information, but by directing the person inward for the answer. There are definite times in our lives when we have no shame asking for help—in fact, it’s expected of us. If you really think about, everything we are proficient at today is directly, or indirectly, credited to someone else’s time and effort.
We are the most connected society in human evolution—smartphones, video conferencing, and the web tether us, like never before, to our work, friends, and family. That being said, in the midst of this digital connectivity comes a strange dichotomy that impedes our desire to reach out and ask for help when we need it most. Somewhere along the line, help has become a four-letter word synonymous with weakness or incompetence. I’m not certain why this has occurred, but it may be linked to our belief that our access to a sea of online information has made us more inclined to being self-sufficient, especially when this is coupled with our fear of public weakness or failure under the spotlight of such global scrutiny. For whatever reason, as individuals, as communities, and even as nations, we are not very good at asking for help. We internalize our pain, our fears, and our doubts for far too long instead of sharing our burden and lightening our load. As the motivational guru Lori Deschene points out: “Pain is not a sign of weakness, but bearing it alone is a choice to grow weak.”
This past year has been challenging to say the least, as I’ve had to learn to be “comfortable” asking for help—be it from professionals or from family and friends. More recently, I have been trying to figure out how to respond to other recovering addicts and to fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse who have turned to me for help. I thought I’d share with you a few things I’ve discovered throughout this process.
1. What prevents people from asking for help?
Without a doubt, the biggest obstacle in the way of people asking for help is PRIDE. We are terrified of looking incompetent or weak, so we seldom ask for help at the point when we could use it most. In fact, at an organizational level, this can lead to a culture of mediocracy because employees become so risk averse that they limit any chance of innovation that may be a by-product of lessons learned from mistakes or growth potential when employees seek out help in the form of collaboration.
2. How can people help you if they don’t understand what you want?
When it comes to asking for help, most of us have a lot to learn. As a teacher and a parent, I witness this all the time when I hear: “I’m confused.” “I don’t understand.” “I’m worried.” In order for people to help us, we need to express our needs in tangible, actionable language. Instead of simply saying, “I feel anxious”, you could expect a better response were you to say, “I feel anxious because I’m not sure I want to stay in a relationship with someone who takes me for granted.”
3. Do you see help as an ongoing dialogue?
I know from personal experience that when people say to me, “Let me know if you need any help”, I typically respond “I’ll be fine.” The reality is that I desperately want their help, but I’m uncomfortable articulating what I really feel. If you’re the person who’s offering to help, the best thing you can do to avoid this dynamic from playing out is to follow-up with the person later that day, or week, to see if your assistance may be welcome. It’s quite a wake-up call to think about it like this because it really makes me think twice before offering those empty promises of help that I secretly hope the person won’t take me up on.
4. Do you weasel your way out of a yes?
In treatment programs, participants talk a lot about learning how to establish appropriate boundaries in relationships. It’s hard for me to admit this, but when I let my ego get the best of me, I’m often too quick to say “yes” to every request for my help. Although I love the “drug” of feeling needed, it’s quickly tainted with an overwhelming sense of dread and over-commitment. I spend far too much of my time trying to gracefully back-out of things I’ve committed to. I’ve had to admit to myself that many of my relationships have collapsed boundaries because there is no synergy of give-and-take. A relationship in which you're either doing all the “giving” or all the “taking” is a toxic relationship entrenched in resentment and inferiority.
5. Do you view help as a living entity?
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in Alcoholics Anonymous is that sobriety is a “gift” that was freely given to me, and it must be given away in order for me to keep it.—I am beginning to view all forms of “help” in the same light. When we accept someone’s help, we also assume a mantle of responsibility. We give the gift of help the respect it deserves by paying it forward to others in need. Most of all, remember “You may be only one person in this world, but to one person at a time, you are the world.”
Ever feel as though you’re at a crossroad—a place in which you try to convince yourself that if you have the patience and the courage to make some changes in your life, you might just break through to a better you? I’ve written before about crux moments and how whenever they appear in our life, they are steeped in fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt. Being exposed to uncertainty, we admit to ourselves that we may not have all the answers. This leaves us open to new possibility and new directions we might otherwise have ignored. The best way I can describe the disorientation associated with a crux moment is by saying it’s like being swallowed up by huge wave that tosses and spins you around. You open your eyes and you’re not sure which way is up, so the only option is to thrash away until you gain some equilibrium.
Something else I’ve noticed about being in the midst of a crux moment is my feelings of disconnection are accentuated because typically, those closest to me, aren't sure how to react to me as I get used to trying on this new skin. In fact, you may encounter huge resistance because your willingness to change may be seen as a threat to those around you who are dealing with their own insecurities about their inability to make a change in their life. Just the other day, a friend sent me a great quote by Dean Jackson that so eloquently describes this dissidence within your social circle. “When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.”
No matter what significant change you’re contemplating making in your life, there will come a point when you’ll have to dive into uncertainty—let go of that sinking raft floating out at sea, and start swimming for shore. When I look back on the most transformative times of my life, they have always come when I had the faith to let go of what I’d always thought was right in the hope that I’d find a better right. Simply willing change in my life is not sufficient—there are a few critical habits I have to foster so that this transformation can enter my life.
1. Kill the destructive self-talk.
William James, known as the Father of American psychology, said: “The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” I can’t stress how important this philosophy has been in my life during those lucid moments when I have been able to silence the negative self-talk in my head and replace it with a much healthier guiding principle: “What would I do if I weren’t scared?” There is no need to sabotage myself by being my own worst enemy, when simply by changing my perspective, I can become my greatest advocate for change.
2. Don’t allow your perceptions to become your beliefs.
It’s helpful to note the distinction between “feelings”, which are personal reflections, and “emotions”, which are states of being. Understanding the difference between these often confused terms can have a direct impact on the way I interact with the world. In order to make “sense” of our life, we have to assign an emotion to everything we come into contact with as a way to make meaning out of what we encounter. We assign emotions like, love, anger, jealously, or even indifference as we knit our unique interpretation of our reality. Emotions trigger our awareness, physical change, and ultimately action. When the same emotion is continually repeated, is carves a groove in our subconscious and eventually becomes a “feeling”. Your feelings are a direct reflection of you; whereas, your emotions are your interpretation of what lies outside of you—They are your reaction to that external realm. Because “feelings” are embedded and serve us long-term, we want to nurture and rely on these rather than on the transitory “emotions” that left unchecked, can cause us pain on many fronts. Consider the following distinctions: fear is an emotion--worry is a feeling; lust is an emotion--love is a feeling; happiness is an emotion--contentment is a feeling. Therefore, if I’m to dive into the uncertainty that change will bring in my life, I’m better grounded if I govern my behaviour based on feelings rather than on emotions.
3. Build your fighting-chance roster.
The older I get, the more I realize the necessity of jettisoning the naysayers from life and replacing them with a close-knit team of people who nurture my soul. The three most important types of people in my life are mentors, believers, and dreamers. If I’m going to “dare greatly” as Brene Brown invites us to do, I want people in my life I can model myself after, people who believe in my core goodness and strength, and those people who dare to “dream” in a life that may at times be unconventional.
4. Clear a landing zone.
Meaningful change has little chance of entering my life unless I make room for it. In the words of inspirational speaker Danielle Laporte, you need to “make space for your future to show up.” The literature of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to this as “clearing away the wreckage of your past.” Leaving this space open in you can be an incredibly vulnerable feeling, so I think that’s why so many of us cram as many things as possible into our daily agenda. If I’m too busy, I don’t have to think. If I don’t have time to think, I don’t have time to feel.
I’d like to leave you with this quote from the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, who reminds us that opportunity for change may be fleeting and we best be prepared to dive into greatness: “When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.”
I’ve always thought of myself as a simple, uncomplicated guy. I like concepts distilled into bite-sized digestible phrases. When asked what my purpose in life today is, I would have to say, growth—I’ve had enough of stagnation, not to mention regression, to last a lifetime. Lately, I feel like a fuse has been ignited deep within my core. It’s as though I had a laser-sharp understanding for what I want the next chapter of my life to look like.
I wholeheartedly believe you can’t go forward without first taking stock of where you have been, and more importantly, where you are launching from. With the exception of the fear and shame that have been toxic stowaways throughout my life, the one constant in the past 28 years has been my wife, who at times, has been my partner, a bewildered bystander, and most recently, my advocate.
For lack of a better word, I’ve always thought of my wife as a soul mate—the person who completes me, my missing piece. Yesterday, this misconception was shattered, when out of the blue, a friend sent me a seemingly innocent quotation from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. “People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, a person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life…show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so out of control that you have to change your life.”
There’s so much to chew on here that I thought it worthwhile to unpack this—painful realization, by painful realization. I have to say it’s a little unnerving to discover a new lens through which to view the most important relationship in my life.
1. Do you complete me or reveal me?
This is an entirely different perspective to assess your relationship with your partner because instead of looking to someone else to fulfill you, or complete you, we begin to see that happiness and fulfillment are an “inside job”—It allows me to feel perfectly “whole” as I am, and it takes the onus, I would even venture to say, “the pressure”, off our partner to “complete us”. If you buy into this way of looking at your primary relationship, you might as well throw that old expression, “my better half”, out the window.
2. Can I see “me” without you?
Having been married to the same person for the past 27 years, I completely grasp what Elizabeth Gilbert suggests when she says your soul mate is “the person who shows you everything that is holding you back.” Long-term marriages are certainly more of a rarity nowadays, and I believe that one of the consequences of this has been that fewer people are able to take advantage of that stark, and crystal clear reflection held in front of you by your partner. We can all benefit from that person in our life who has known us longer and better than anyone else in the world. I’m just lucky that this person happens to be someone I’m romantically involved with, but I don’t believe that’s a prerequisite for a “soul mate”. Without this person, it’s so much more difficult to identify self-destructive behaviours, sabotaging cycles, and even unrecognized strengths.
3. Is there discomfort in love?
I was talking to a friend the other day about whether or not a healthy, loving relationship makes you feel “safe”. I’d really like to believe that’s true, but the more I think about it, the more “uncomfortable” I am with that word “safe”. It goes without saying that a healthy relationship should be both physically and emotionally secure, but I fear that in striving to feel “safe” all the time, many of us slip into a stagnating comfort zone that certainly is not healthy for personal growth and relationship nurturing.
4. Does passion consume you or propel you?
So often we hear people describe that honeymoon period of their relationship as having a “spark” or an all-consuming passion. It’s this passion in our relationships that is the combustible accelerant that harnessed properly, can propel us to growth, but left unchecked, can burn out of control and consume us—taking with it our identity, and ultimately, our relationship. I love the part where Elizabeth Gilbert says your soul mate will “break your heart open so new light can get in.” Gone is any notion of “comfort” here—The business of love is “messy”, and if you’re willing to be vulnerable and stick around through the discomfort, you might just be surprised what is found hiding inside you.
I’ve had a remarkable, and I would even venture to say, transformational week. My life got so busy that something incredible happened—I didn’t have the time nor the energy to over-complicate my life by rationalizing, interpreting, or rejecting people and circumstances confronting me. Instead, the usual noise and clutter of my day no longer incapacitated me in a sea of conflicting choices. It’s as though I’ve been able to shift the focus of my telescope so that first time in my adult life, everything has a crystal clarity. With the simple act of being present in the moment, I was awake enough to witness the following lessons of guidance that dropped in my lap from a variety of sources.
1. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.
As a recovering addict, I have a litany of regret that given too much self-reflection, can germinate into a festering cesspool of toxic negativity destined to sabotage my current wellbeing. As is the case with most addicts, lurking underneath my addiction are the twin pillars of anger and inferiority. Drugs and alcohol were my futile attempt to sever the painful part of me that I couldn't face looking at. This is a rogue’s game from the outset because no amount of drugs or alcohol will ever be able to remove that part of you. I was reminded of this truth on the weekend when a character in a movie said: “I don’t want to get rid of it, I just want to find a better place for it.” So much of my journey in recovery has been about learning to live beside my discomfort not without my discomfort.
2. You’re not worn and battered—You’re calloused and stronger.
I’ve been thinking recently about what strength and bravery look like, and I think it has a lot to do with my coming to terms with the sexual abuse in my childhood. The greatest growth has been a shift in my mindset from “victim” to “survivor”. This subtle lexical distinction has enormous repercussions because I’ve been able to reframe my life story from something that “happened to me” into something that “shaped me”. Today, someone posted an inspirational poster on Facebook that said: “I’m thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.” I’m beginning to believe that my emotional scar tissue and callouses of adversity have knit themselves into my superhero cape.
3. You may not have made it, but now you own it.
I had the opportunity yesterday to hear former NHL tough guy, Theo Fleury, speak about the childhood sexual abuse he lived through. He beautifully articulated what every survivor of this childhood trauma has to come to terms with at some point in life. The pain of the trauma continues to cascade throughout a survivor’s life because it becomes enmeshed in shame because the child, and later the adult, feels somehow responsible for the abuse. As Theo Fluery put it, “The childhood sexual abuse was not my fault, but it’s now my problem.” This was like a lightbulb moment for me because I’ve been able to accept the first part of the statement—that what happened to me as a child was not my fault, but what I’m left with is figuring out how to deal with it and react to it in my adult life. Before me lies the onus of responsibility for my actions and reactions, and I need to remind myself that the lack of blame doesn’t give me a “free pass” to act out irresponsibly as an adult.
4. Sometimes blood ties need to be cauterized.
I am the youngest of five children, yet I feel like an orphan. I haven’t spoken to my mother in a few years because I had to distance myself from her because it was a toxic relationship that made me feel physically ill and emotionally worthless. Last year when I disclosed that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, all but one of my siblings broke off their ties with me. I should point out that for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the greatest fear is that by revealing your “secret” others will turn their back on you—This is the element of shame that echoes in our mind. Hearing Theo Fleury talk yesterday about his family having the same reaction to his disclosure gave me a sense of comfort that I so desperately needed. I was consumed by a sense of guilt and anxiety because I can’t have the relationship with my family that I want, or need. The life lesson here is that even blood ties have to be “cauterized” when the relationships are destructive. The moral of this story is that I get to choose who my family is, and genetics doesn’t have to have a damn thing to do with it!
5. A lot of people leave before the last act.
The most important lesson I’ve learned this week came to me when I looked into my wife’s eyes and I saw, or should I say felt, the love and intense pride she has in me. We’ve been together for 28 years, and during that period, she’s persevered through my battles with addiction, mental illness, and most recently the underlying issue, my coming to terms with childhood sexual abuse. She had me in tears the other day when she said I was the “strongest person she knew.” I’ve spent 17 years in 12-step meetings, and add to that this year my time in discussion groups with fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Throughout that time, I’ve heard accounts of thousands of relationships destroyed by trauma and addiction. Having said that, some of the greatest people I’ve ever met are people who have gone through hell and come out the other side stronger and more empathetic. Driving home last night, I turned to my wife and said, “One of the greatest tragedies in life is that we often, for whatever reason, don’t stick around to see the “magic happen.”
I’d like to leave you with the words of the improvisational violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch who talks a lot about creativity and learning to embrace the accidental mystery of life. This quote resonates with me because it reminds me to take my foot off the gas, slow down, and pay attention to what my life is trying to tell me. “The harder we press on a violin string, the less we can feel it. The louder we play, the less we hear…If I try to play, I fail: if I race, I trip. The only road to strength is vulnerability.”
As a born and bred Torontonian, I have to admit how embarrassing it’s been watching the pathetic saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford unfold before, a now, global audience. I find it increasingly difficult to restrain myself from adding my voice to the growing chorus of caustic vitriol being flung at Rob Ford. I wish I could perch on my high horse and say my restraint is a byproduct of my being a caring and understanding person who believes everyone deserves a second, third, or even, fourth chance—but that is simply not the case. You see, I’m an addict too, and though I’m loath to admit it, I see a lot of myself in disgraced Mayor Rob Ford.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “addict”? Be honest. I’m sure many of you envisioned a skinny, possibly homeless person, desperate for the next “fix”. Truth be told, most addicts are functional addicts. They are not on the margins of society, but instead are people who cross our path every day. They are our doctor, our teacher, our neighbor, our parent, our sibling, or even our spouse. Addiction is defined as the continued use of a psychoactive drug, or the repetition of behavior despite its adverse effects.
In his Ted Talk entitled “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power”, Gabor Mate suggests that in order to understand addiction, we need to approach the issue from a different perspective. He says that we need to stop asking ourselves “what is wrong with the addiction”, and instead ask “what is right about the addiction.” Addicts get a release from pain, a sense of inner peace, no matter how temporary, a misguided a sense of control. The reality is most of us are addicts to some extent, be it to shopping, career obsession, or even social media. A line is drawn between people who battle these types of addiction and those of us like Mayor Ford and me, who suffer from less socially acceptable addictions.
Watching our mayor publicly implode as a direct result of his addiction issues, we are subject to chatter from media pundits and average taxpayers who say things like, “Why doesn’t he simply limit the amount he drinks?”… or … "Why doesn’t his family step in and tell him he’s out of control?” I can’t tell you how many times throughout the years I’ve had someone say to me: “How do you know you’re an alcoholic? Maybe you can just have one or two drinks.” If only it were that simple! I have no problems with gambling, food, or shopping, so it’s the same as if I were to say to those who do: “Just stop buying lottery tickets”, or “Just have two potato chips”, or “Just buy one skirt, you don’t need two.”
I should probably qualify myself at this point and come right out and say I am a recovering addict who is 17 years clean and sober, but not a day goes by where I don’t think about picking up a drink or a drug. Sure, there are easy days, but there are also claustrophobic days where I feel my addiction claws at my chest and screams in my mind. I’ve been in countless 12-step meetings, so I’ve heard addicts try to describe themselves in many ways—none of them very flattering: “a child in an adult’s body”, “a loose cannon”, “a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex”. However, if you really want to take the time to understand what makes an addict behave in the way (s)he does, you need to brush away the patina of the addiction to discover what’s hiding in the shadows.
I never drank to get drunk. I used drugs and alcohol to chase a sense of belonging that had been absent for most of my life. Asking me to have only one or two drinks and thus potentially limit my feelings of belonging, is next to impossible. The sad irony of most addictions is the addict participates in this behavior as a means to connect with others, but the result is always a distancing from others. This is what we are witnessing now with Mayor Ford—as he slips further into his self-destructive addictive behaviour, he pushes even those fiercely loyal to him further away. For me, the pathway to my addiction was set in motion by the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. Only time will tell what demon lies at the heart of Rob Ford’s behaviour.
This ever so public display of addiction run amok might provide the perfect opportunity for us as a community to step back for a moment, and instead of condemning, or even enabling our Mayor’s actions, we can do something a little more constructive. We might recognize that addiction is like dropping a pebble in a pond—It may have its genesis in one person, but it ripples through the lives of our partner, our children, our friends, and our entire community. When we hear the addict’s pathetic refrain “I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again”, recognize that however empty it may sound, these words are usually heartfelt, but come from a place of fear, shame, and loss.
When an addict finally publicly admits that (s)he indeed has a problem, some of that patina of addiction starts to brush away. That demon that was aching to claw its way out, now breathed into existence, sits before the addict for the entire world to see. Ironically, by speaking the words and invoking this demon to life, the addict has simultaneously robbed the addiction of some of its innate power—This is the space where healing begins, for the addict and for all of the lives touched by the addiction.