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In rehab, I spent a great deal of time with a constant inward gaze. I played the mistakes I had made repeatedly in my head. Then, I lamented how the disease of addiction had unfolded and ravaged my life. This self-evaluation is, of course, an important part of recovery. After all, I needed to be aware of how my mind had fallen into the usual traps of substance abuse. Most of all, I needed to come to terms with the fact I spent years lying to myself. My internal monologue was full of the same lies: “I can always stop. I’m just drinking once in a while. These drugs I’m using aren’t that bad and only take the edge off. “
Reviewing the steps that had caused me to seek rehab gave me insight into the path that had led me to substance abuse. However, there was a downside to this line of thinking: the guilt was overwhelming. I hated myself and wondered why God would let me be such a fool. This started a feedback loop in my mind, and I became hyper-critical of every mistake I had made.
Don’t get me wrong — I made many mistakes that I needed to take responsibility for. The drugs and alcohol that had taken over my life had ruined many relationships, some of which are not repaired to this day. However, the guilt began eating me alive.
Taking Responsibility Does Not Need to Mean Losing Hope in Ourselves
I knew I needed to take responsibility for my actions. However, for an individual struggling through recovery, reliving all the hurt and pain you’ve caused (and the pain you’ve been through yourself) is traumatic. There’s nothing worse than when regret takes over your life to the extent that you can’t see the good that still exists.
Unfortunately, guilt seems to multiply exponentially when you’re locked away in your own mind. The glass, as they say, can start looking half empty — or even bone-dry. But that isn’t the case! I was failing to see how much hope there actually was in my life. At the time, I couldn’t begin to imagine that one day I could be the father my two daughters deserved to have. All was lost within my mentality of perpetually beating myself up. To say the least, I didn’t see things as they really were.
Seeing Myself in Other People
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A few weeks into my 42-day stint at a rehab center, I remember meeting a young man who’d recently been admitted. He’d nearly overdosed, and I could see the fears in his eyes, along with the shame and the desperation about his circumstances. I didn’t have to talk to him to know what he was thinking: “How could I be stupid enough to let this happen to me?”
I didn’t see him much for those first few days, as I was in the blur of my own detox. My moods were fluctuating from craving, despair, mental suffering, and even physical pain. Eventually, however, a few days after that he was admitted, we did say a few friendly hellos. More importantly, I began to learn a little about this young man.
Rehab is full of many challenges, but what you don’t often hear much about is how boring it can be at times. One evening, I was struggling with my boredom when another young man sat down next to me. At this point, I had only been there a few weeks myself and was feeling broken. Still, I was happy for this man’s company, and he cautiously started telling me the path that had led him to this moment.
I immediately felt similarities to the story he was telling me. I could relate to all the times he had lied about his substance abuse to loved ones or downplayed the severity of his problem. Then, something happened that I’ll never forget — he asked my advice. How was I handling being stuck in this facility, thinking about all that I’d lost?
Learning What I Had to Offer
It was like a light switch going off, and I suddenly realized that I wasn’t alone. Here was a smart, caring person that suffered from the same disease of addiction as I did, and he was asking for my advice. I realized I could help this soul just by offering my story. I didn’t know it at the time, but this realization played a key role in my recovery process that continues to this day.
I had only been in rehab a brief time when that guy told me his story and asked for my advice. As a result, my first thought was: “why would this dude want my advice?” It was then that I realized I’d been clean for over two weeks. It had been fifteen days since I’d taken a drink or done any drug. This was an accomplishment I hadn’t internalized until that moment. I’d been so focused on my own guilt and regret that I hadn’t noticed my own progress.
Guess what else? I made my best progress when I offered up an ear to someone else. Wanting to help another person through his process made me that much more determined to see myself through my own journey. I’m not saying that I was in any shape, at that time, to officially mentor him through his own recovery journey. After all, I was still in the initial stages of recovery myself. But, I could show him a glimpse of what his life could be like in just a few weeks.
Helping Others Gives Us Hope
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A sad truth is that many people relapse after completing rehab, often within the first year. Addiction is a deadly disease, and so many succumb to the traps of it even after experiencing sobriety. For many of us, this is true because people like me can so easily forget one simple thing: Hope.
I truly believe that there is a power greater than us that can help guide us over the bumpy roads that make up the lifelong recovery process. The reason it is so easy to give up hope in ourselves is that we don’t trust in it. Instead, we relive the mistakes we’ve made in our lives over and over again. Or, perhaps we convince ourselves that we don’t deserve a better life for ourselves. We assume that too much time has been wasted on messing up. We think there have been too many times we let loved ones down because the draw of drugs was simply more important to us at the time.
That’s the interesting thing about human nature — we have an amazing capacity for empathy. When I looked at that young man in rehab, I never doubted for one minute that he was a person that deserved to live free of the confines of drugs and alcohol. He deserved a life full of friends and love and had so much to offer the world. I knew that the world was better with him in it. Speaking with him made me realize that if this guy deserved all this, why didn’t I? While encouraging this other person, I understood the importance of encouraging myself.
Helping Others Has Kept Me Sober
There are many studies suggesting that individuals experiencing substance abuse have as much as a 50% lower risk of relapsing if they’re helping others with their own recovery. I know from experience just why this is true. My twenty-five-year experience working in the substance abuse field reminds me so much of where I once was and the importance of staying healthy every single day. However, others don’t spend every day reminding themselves of the risks of substance abuse.
What people who have never struggled with substance abuse might not realize is that how, even after years of sobriety, it can be so easy to fall back into old ways. There is a paradox in an addict’s life where even negative experiences with drugs and alcohol are often a part of positive memories. The memory of a friend’s wedding is interlaced with one too many champagne toasts. Many friendships were formed during late nights, drowning my sorrows at a bar. These are memories I will always cherish. Unfortunately, nostalgia, over time, can solidify the good times and erase the bad.
You may think, “Is it really that bad? I could handle a few drinks now. It’s been so many years, right? What’s so bad about reliving the old times?” However, the road to recovery is full of bouts with alternating nostalgia and low self-esteem. Those old wounds and feelings of guilt can be overwhelming, especially when you feel you’re in it alone. Or, if your life is full of people who love you but don’t know what it’s like to experience substance abuse, it is easy to think, why not? What’s the point?
However, when we’re in recovery and spend time helping others who are not as far along on the journey, we can counter that nostalgia and self-doubt. Helping others can remind us how substance abuse negatively affected our own lives. We need to remember where we came from, so to speak.
Healthy Social Networks Prevent Relapses
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I know personally how connecting with others has been key to not relapsing. My social network has been nearly as important to me as any of the other treatments that led to my sober life today. One of the things that happened when I helped other mentors is that I created a social network of people who knew what it was like to be me. I had a group of friends who spent time in coffee shops instead of bars. I had a social group who would want to play around a golf course without bringing a twelve-pack along.
I have helped many people experiencing substance abuse — both professionally as well as in my personal life — and in turn, they have truly helped me. If you’d like to do the same, there are many official and unofficial opportunities for people in recovery to sponsor and mentor others. The sense of purpose this can give you can endlessly keep you moving forward. Helping others can remind both them and you that there’s so much hope out there. I recognize that I’ve been so blessed and have much hope for my future. I would be selfish to keep my personal experiences and joy inside when I can help others see that there’s so much more to their lives than substance abuse.
When you have compassion for others suffering like you suffered, it reminds you to have compassion for yourself. That is one of the most important things I’ve learned on my bumpy road to recovery. I hope the thoughts I’ve shared above can help you do the same.
As always, thank you for reading. Stay strong!