June 12th found me celebrating 36 years of sobriety. As I approached the eve of my anniversary I am reminded of the model of recovery that has made this milestone possible. When I got sober my grandparents (both of whom survived Auschwitz) asked me to develop a mission statement that would guide my sobriety which I would like to share with you: staying sober is the single most important thing in my life, and if anything jeopardizes my recovery, it’s eliminated. This kind of commitment and absolute focus has supported me to remain sober through hardship and loss, through sadness and despair. Absolutely nothing else is as important as staying sober.
I am grateful I found a homegroup where I feel comfortable and feel like my contributions are valued. In the last two years I’ve seen an increase in membership and a significant amount of relapse. While relapse can be part of recovery, it certainly doesn’t have to be a part of your story. A casual review of the people who have relapsed in the last year demonstrates a startling pattern: every single person that relapsed gave a detailed version of their relapse, and without question they placed more importance on other aspects of their life versus the need to stay sober.
I have mentioned the following concepts in another article I wrote for this site, but I believe it’s worthy of restating them here: I attach a tremendous amount of emotional pain to the thought of using and a tremendous amount of pleasure to the thought of remaining chemical free. Not only do I stay sober because I made a commitment to my grandmother (pleasure) I do not use chemicals because it creates more problems than it solves (pain). I was able to quit as the people I knew who used drugs and alcohol had different goals than I did. I wanted more from my life than I was currently getting. I no longer saw drug use as fun, and everything I wanted in my life conflicted with using alcohol and drugs. I did not want to be asleep on my life. Anything I wanted in my life and the relationships I created are vastly more important than any chemical I would use or alcohol I would drink.
Oftentimes I hear people suggest they don’t like the program because all they hear is pain. I don’t see pain when I attend meetings, rather, I see possibility. I am reminded of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist in the novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story about a prisoner in a stalinist labor camp in the 1950s. The story offers a stark parallel to an AA member trying to stay sober. Ivan does whatever he needs to do to make it through the day so he can eat. He endures hardship and trouble as he understands the reward for existing one more day. He exists because he knows that staying alive and pursuing freedom is its own reward. The protagonist in this story also draws a parallel to Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and the author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’ noted that we must endure, and that suffering will, with a proper attitude, bring light. He recounted that the will to survive (a man’s attitude) and not the conditions of a particular camp, generally determined if this same man survived. Frankl’ believed that possibility is the natural outgrowth of pain.
I decided to get sober as I was tired of being a parasite, and I certainly wasn’t being helpful to anyone, much less myself. My grandparents spent every day in Auschwitz not knowing if they would be alive the next day. When Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 my grandparents came through Ellis Island and made their way to Brooklyn to try and make a normal life for themselves. My grandfather was a tailor, my grandmother was a seamstress. They were consumate artists and made a nice life for themselves. However, because of my addiction, my grandparents spent a lot of time, money, and emotional energy trying to deal with the wreckage of my use. But more than any of this, my grandparents spent a lot of time worrying about me. I came to understand that I could either continue my lifestyle of meeting my own needs or quit using. I made a conscious decision to quit as treating my grandparents like crap was no longer okay.
When I graduated from Rabbinical School my grandmother gave the commencement speech. During the speech she heaped praise on me and my fellow classmates for living a life dedicated to service. She suggested that recovery need not be boring and that we needed to dedicate ourselves to what is called Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase which literally translated means Repairing the World. I have come to understand that to a greater degree that is what we do when we live a life of service and practice the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Recovery is its own reward. The path we forge is our own. There is a buddhist saying that suggests we gain light for ourselves when we help another and illuminate their path. Whatever you choose, I wish that the light you give to another helps you along the way. Good luck on your path.