“Recovery is selfish, Chris.”
The road to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is littered with countless little sayings like this. That one, delivered to me by one of the finest substance abuse counselors I’ve ever known, became my absolute favorite. His assertion that recovery has to be a process where addicts focus solely on themselves in order to get better isn’t all that different than how they lived their lives before recovery. Addicts and alcoholics are machines that run on high-octane selfishness. They’re self-absorbed gluttons who may have genuine concern for other humans, but, at the end of the day, their only goal is to satisfy the inner voice that screams for more.
I should know because I was one of the worst.
When I was using, it was all about me, and when I wasn’t using, it was all about pursuing more substance so it could be all about me. No one else mattered. Not my dwindling number of friends or remaining family members who could actually stand talking to me, and certainly not my precious two children and their mother — totally innocent human beings mowed down by a father too sick to realize he was damaging what was most important to him.
And so, when it was time to enter recovery, being able to keep even a small bit of my self-serving nature was something I could certainly get behind.
And it worked. I tore through recovery on a mission, everything — and everyone — else taking a backseat to my healing. I’d miss my son’s games to go to 12-step meetings. I’d miss my daughter’s school concerts to be at recovery events. I cut alone time with their mother short so I could meet with my sponsor and, later, with the people I was sponsoring. I fell deeply, madly in love with all things recovery related, rapidly becoming an expert on the process. Chewing up even more of my already limited time, I enrolled in college to enter the field of mental health and substance abuse counseling. The man who used to be obsessed with powdery white lines, fermented liquid, and mayhem was now obsessed with the spiritual, emotional, and mental healing process associated with divorcing that sick lifestyle.
But what about those who I had hurt the most? What about the human wreckage left behind from my rampaging addiction? The little boy who just wanted a dad to play catch with and the little girl who just wanted a dad to cuddle on the couch with?
I was not anything even close to a functional addict. Once into a substance, I quickly lost control and any facade of normalcy I was struggling to hold up rapidly crumbled. My behavior was erratic and unpredictable. I was never violent with anyone in my household (though I wonder how far off those days were), but emotional and mental trauma was piling by the week for them.
Police visits were not uncommon, nor was it uncommon for me to leave for days, vanishing into the strange wilderness of pharmacology. Stumbling around and passing out on the living room floor, only to wake up and scream at the children’s mother like all of this was her fault, happened once a week. A reputation among the parents of my children’s friends that perhaps our house wasn’t fit for a playdate grew. Broken promises, tears, and alienated little souls.
How could I possibly be so naive to think they’d automatically heal just from being in close proximity to my recovery process? Like a sort of reverse-osmosis effect would take place and my A.A. meetings would somehow make them forget that the golden age of their childhood was an absolute fucking nightmare. Sure, I was surging, but I noticed the kids still got a little nervous if I said I was making a quick trip to the store to buy bread and milk and I’d be right back. They’d heard that one before.
Further solidifying the point, after a fairly small disagreement with my girlfriend over something trivial one evening, she began to cry uncontrollable sobs.
“You’ve healed, but I haven’t.” And she was right.
I finally began to realize the meaning of the phrase, “addiction is a family disease.” I had always assumed those years of active addiction took the worst toll on my own self. That it was just my psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being that were put through the grinder and chewed up beyond recognition. Here, living under the same roof, was proof positive that the damage was not isolated and my blast radius claimed some very fragile lives.
Things are improving now. We’ve established open dialogue, where no topic of conversation is off-limits. Issues and problems must be addressed as a whole family unit and without judgment in order for things to get better. We journal and keep gratitude lists. We go to counseling. We praise and compliment one another. We read recovery literature and have age-appropriate discussions about how addiction, negative thinking, feelings of hopelessness, and mental illness can manifest. We take steps to destigmatize the faulty wiring of the human brain by acknowledging that things up there misfire sometimes.
I need to take care of myself. At the end of the day, if I don’t keep that bottle and those little bags out of my mischievous hands, all will fail and the family will crumble. But I also need to remember that it’s not all about me. I’ve put my family into a situation where they were unwillingly exposed to my sickness and madness, and this is a contagious illness. It’s my responsibility and duty to make sure that they are not only able to heal and go through their own recovery, but to do whatever I can to make them aware of the risks they face later in life.
With addiction in this country reaching unimaginable levels and impacting all walks of life, it’s more important than ever for entire families to enter the recovery process hand in hand. It’s possible that we’ve seen this epidemic reach its high-water mark, but as the devastating wave recedes, we see countless families like mine. Homes affected by one or more members suffering from substance use disorder also need to start breaking the perpetual cycle often created by stigma, shame, and failing to properly address the trauma caused by addiction.
I’ve since renounced my favorite counselor’s slogan and adopted my own: “Recovery is a family process.”
Christopher O’Brien is a father in recovery. He attends the University of Maine, where he is studying Mental Health and Human Services to become a substance abuse counselor. He is also a trained recovery coach and mentor, and works with incarcerated males re-entering the community.