I’ve been invited to give a talk at an event coming up in the next few weeks on “Addiction and What Life Is Like Living in Recovery.” I’ve been clean and sober now for more than 18 years, and throughout that period, my attendance at 12-step meetings has definitely waxed and waned; however, I've stopped beating myself up about this because I look at it as a barometer of what else is going on in my life at the time.
As a writer and public speaker, I’ve had many occasions when I’ve touched on how I’ve had to navigate my issues with addiction, but in all that time, I’ve never been able to adequately articulate what it’s like living with that monkey inside you, constantly trying to wrestle itself free. For me, the essence to getting to the heart of that question lies in which side of the fence you find yourself on within the addiction community—Those who see themselves as “recovered addicts”, and those who prefer to self-identify as “recovering addicts”.
Within the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, the word “recovered” comes up at lot, and come to think of it, why wouldn’t it? Many an addict latches on to that idea as a desperate lifeline of hope. I, on the other hand, have grown to embrace the fact that until the day I die, I will be a recovering alcoholic. I long ago decided to make peace with this disease, but that in no way makes me immune to feeling frustrated and angry by the circumstances surrounding my relationship with the addiction.
When my addiction is at its worst, I’m like a belligerent toddler surrounded by beautiful colorful toys, but inconsolable, as all he wants to play with is the one toy that sits on a shelf just out of reach. I often lose sight of how incredible my life is because I become fixated on that one thing just out of my reach—a drink or a drug. It’s in this space of ‘dissonance’ or ‘disruption’ that I need always remind myself of the insanity of picking up that first drink or drug. Whenever I arrive at that o’ so precarious place—and believe me when I say that even though 18 years have passed, I still become ensnared in that hollow—each and every time my only escape has been to divert my attention to a place of gratitude. For me, gratitude has come to mean ‘clarity’, and with that clarity comes the daily reprieve of not picking up that first drink.
I was recently listening to one of the last interviews the writer and educator, Bruce Kramer gave before succumbing to his battle with ALS—although he’d probably refer to it more as a ‘dance’ than a ‘battle’. In the interview, he was discussing how every one of us struggles with something that is beyond our control, and in fact, it’s our humanness that naïvely convinces us that we have the illusion of control in the first place. What struck me the most was when Bruce said that in order to find that place of serenity, we have to find a way to “grow into the demands of that, which is beyond us.” I find these words so enlightening in that they remind me that learning to see a ‘challenge’ as a ‘gift in disguise’ is not only a way to make peace with what challenges us, but also the clarity to begin to understand the beauty in the chaos that surrounds us.
I’m now at a place where I see ‘healing’ as not meaning ‘cured’ or ‘recovered’, but rather, as the temporary breathing room that only comes with the acknowledgement that being present with discomfort is not something to be feared. By walking into that, which frightens or disarms us most, we permit ourselves the opportunity to learn from adversity. And as Jacob said when he wrestled to find the truth hidden within his struggle, face your adversity and exclaim: “I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me.” (Gen. 32:26).
Were I asked to sum up what the past two years for me has been about, I would have to say that everything keeps bringing me back to the same core question-- Where does inner strength come from, and is it something we can foster? I’ve written extensively about, and given many talks on, my struggles with addiction, sexual violence, and mental heath, so not surprisingly, I’ve become known as a public face of ‘resiliency’. No matter how life affirming that recognition is for me, I’m ever so cognizant that there are no peaks without valleys, no light without darkness.
A friend sent me a quote the other day from the American writer and pastor, Joel Osteen: “We may get knocked down on the outside, but the key to living in victory is to learn how to get up on the inside.” These words resonate with me so strongly on many levels in that they remind me that fortitude is brought to light from inside us, and may not immediately reflect what is happening around us. I’m also drawn to the idea that victory is something we are “living in”, rather than the sum total of what we have achieved. And there in lies the elusive answer to my question of “where inner strength comes from.” Without a doubt, the wellspring of our strength is borne of the return rather than from the journey.
I was listening to an interview with author and entrepreneur Nilofer Merchant on the Good Life Project, and she was asked how she managed to overcome incredible hardship and trauma in her past to get to where she is today. Her response was quite empowering in that she believes there are two types of people in the world, and both are working from the same ledger. There are those who define themselves by the column of the ledger that tabulates all of the failures, hurt, and disappointment in their lives. And the second group is comprised of those who choose to define themselves by the column, composed of all the choices they’ve made to overcome each of those obstacles in their life. When I look at life like that, I’d have to say that resiliency is not the absence of or immunity to setbacks and disappointments, but your ability to embrace the concept that even in failure, you have enough faith in yourself to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward.
When it comes right down to it, I believe we all just want to leave a gentle footprint on this earth, and for me, that means striving to go to bed each night feeling I’ve made a difference, and hopefully left things better than the way I found them. Am I able to say that I meet that challenge each day—definitely, ‘no’. Life has a way of getting in the way, and as is most often the case, I’m the one who’s in my own way.
I was sifting through my Facebook news feed yesterday, when a quote from the author Shannon L. Alder caught my eye. “What separates people who made their dreams come true is not setting goals to achieve a life the way they expect it to be, but how they expect to be, in order to achieve it.” I think this was simply another reminder for me to shift my attention from being goal-oriented to being more process-oriented. I have a tendency to miss the opportunity for growth and learning found in the moment because I’m often so anxious for the next thing to come along, particularly when I’m in the midst of something uncomfortable and questioning. Reading Shanon Alder's words brought my attention back to that concept of leaving a “gentle footprint”—something that is all about where I’ve been, and who I’ve been, and something that has very little to do with where I’m heading.
If I want to enact change in my community, I need to be willing to step outside of my comfort zone, and as is often the case, if you can’t see it in your community, you need to be it in your community. In the words of John Krakauer, “Many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.” A few years ago when I finally decided to speak openly about the child sexual abuse in my past, I was desperate to find other male survivors willing to speak openly about how they had come to terms with their childhood trauma. What I discovered is that there were very few men willing to talk openly about such a sensitive issue. As a result, much of my own healing has involved my raising awareness by putting my story out in the public as a beacon for other survivors of sexual abuse to find their own way to inner freedom.
In order to pollinate an idea, you have to be willing to embrace the vulnerability, and thus take the first steps to harnessing all of the other unseen voices silently waiting to rally behind your cause or your passion. When it comes to beacons in my community, I don’t have to look very far to find the intrepid bright lights building change around them. There’s Heather Gardner, the driving force behind Toronto’s Tribe Fitness. A passionate athlete and educator, Heather has carved out her own niche in Toronto’s downtown core—Amidst the towering condos and busy freeway, Heather hosts free runs and yoga classes for others looking to not only pursue a healthy lifestyle but also meet new people and be part of a greater ‘tribe’.
There’s my dear friend Glori Meldrum out in Edmonton, who as a survivor of child sexual abuse herself, saw that there was no nurturing place for children, working through this trauma to simply ‘be children again’, while being surrounded by the best professional care team possible. In 2007, Glori formed Little Warriors a charity dedicated to “preventing child sexual abuse through awareness and the promotion of adult education.” Glori went on to work tirelessly to raise millions of dollars to open the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch, located just outside of Edmonton. And beginning last fall, this incredible space, created entirely without government funding, finally became a reality as the ranch opened its doors as a “a spiritual oasis where neglected survivors can find the tools they need to heal their bodies, hearts, spirits, and minds.”
Looking to be inspired? You need look no further than Rhonda-Marie Avery, founder of the Envisions Project, “a non-profit organization set out to empower 'other'abled athletes to chase their dreams and choose their own adventure.” Rhonda-Marie is a legally blind endurance athlete whose unwavering optimism and sheer tenacity has been a beacon to attract a loving supportive community around her--people who share her belief that physical obstacles and barriers are placed before us to be overcome and not to limit us. This past summer, Rhonda-Marie ran the Bruce Trail in Ontario from end to end; that's 885km in 20 days!
When it comes to the concept of “if you can’t see it, be it”, I can think of no better example than Lauren Reid, the founder of the When You’re Ready Project. The recent news headlines have been dominated by the prevalence sexual violence in our society, particularly the stories concerning Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia. While many of us were horrified by what we were reading in the papers and seeing on the news broadcasts, Lauren decided to actually do something about it—to be the change. As stated on its website's masthead, When You’re Ready Project “is a community where survivors of sexual violence can find strength and support in each other, to share our stories and connect. When you're ready to share your story, we'll be here.”
I'll end by saying that if you’re struggling out there today, or if you’re frustrated by the status quo you see around you, I invite you to consider how you might leave a “gentler footprint” in your community. Embrace your resiliency by looking at how far you’ve come, and in so doing, you will live a life of attraction rather than one of promotion.
As I’m sure is the case with many other Canadians, I too am left with a sea of emotions in the wake of the release of Omar Khadr. After being imprisoned for over a decade, including years forgotten in the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre, Omar is now free on bail. In his first public appearance and media scrum, we witnessed not a mean-spirited radicalized militant, but rather, an articulate, humble young man, and in his own words, someone eager to “prove to [Canadians] that I'm more than what they thought of me.”
While watching the press conference, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that sensation I’m often left with when I haven’t seen someone’s children for a long time, and then I see them ‘magically’ all grown up. Like with a fly in amber, we have a tendency to trap people in a moment from their past—It’s as if our mind is incapable of allowing the movie to play on if we are not there to witness it firsthand.
There’s no doubt that we all take advantage of living in an increasingly globalized world—one in which the fluidity of cultures, languages, and traditions engages in a constant dance to embrace foreignness; while at the same time, each attempts to carve out its own space of relevance in a changing world.
Although friction is inevitable, I am deeply troubled by the reaction of many of our government leaders, who often default to a position that ‘difference’ equates to a potential ‘threat’. Being told that our reality is that we live in a constant state of alert has done little except desensitize us to the learning and growth opportunity that resides in dissonance—that overlap of cultures, that space where what we thought we knew is put into question.
Let me bring this back to the release of Omar Khadr and what I believe is the most important lesson I can take away from this very politically and emotionally charged debate. When asked if he had anything to say about his actions as a 15-year-old on a battlefield half a world away, Omar offered these very simple words: "I'm sorry for the pain I caused… There's nothing I can do about the past. I hope I can do something about the future."
I am in no way naïve, and I know that Omar is an incredibly polarizing figure, but you can't deny the wisdom of those words. As a middle-aged man, one who has been given the benefit of the doubt on more than one occasion despite past transgressions, I can honestly say that the only thing I'm sure of is that holding on to anger and hatred keeps me shackled to the past and absent from my present.
It’s with all this in mind, that I choose to view the release of Omar Khadr not as an opportunity to jump on yet another bandwagon by aligning myself with those who view him as evil incarnate, or those who view him as a manipulated child soldier, or even those who feel that adequate justice has been attained. Instead, I choose to remind myself that there is nothing that any of us “can do about the past”, and my eternal hope is that by doing the next right thing, I can only hope to “do something about the future."