I got clean when I was twenty years-old. I had much to learn. I was leaving behind a lifestyle that was filled with pain and enormous tragedy and suffering. My vision of recovery included thoughts of living without such difficulty, leaving behind anger and struggle, promoting healing and becoming a credit to my family rather than an object of disappointment, derision and shame.
I attended meetings of 12-step fellowships, especially speaker meetings. I often heard the speakers relating stories of how their lives were always wonderful since they had entered recovery. Their lives before were shot through with failure and pain while using, and since they got into recovery they were filled with blessings from God and gratitude for those same blessings on a daily basis. For some reason I heard the message that every day in recovery was wonderful and every day while using was a torment.
My expectations of life in recovery were unrealistic. Maybe I was naive; perhaps it was my inexperience owing to my youth. I fully expected a life free of difficulty and filled with success. I vowed that I would never get angry again or feel pain on a level that I had while using. I was going to be a success and make myself and my family proud.
I learned something somewhere along the way about butterflies. When the butterfly begins to emerge from the cocoon, transformed into a new and wondrous creature, it nibbles the smallest of holes in the cocoon and struggles through this tiny opening. If a well-intentioned person happens by, notices the struggle and opens the cocoon for the butterfly it will die. You see, it is during the course of the struggle that the wings are compressed from end to end. This compression forces blood through the tiniest of veins in the wings to begin the process of sustaining the wings with nutrients and oxygen. If the butterfly is deprived of this process, its wings will not function and it will die. It took many years for me to fully understand the real meaning of this metaphor.
When I was in my early twenties I married a woman in the fellowship. I was certain that since we both had tools to use to better ourselves and both of us had a support system in place to keep us in check, we were destined to a lifetime of happiness together. When she got pregnant I saw this as the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Since I was a small child I had wanted to be a father and to shower my child with love and affection.
When my son was born I felt more love than I ever dreamed possible. Fears of visiting on my child the abuse that was inflicted upon me as a child evaporated as I watched him emerge and draw his first breath. I loved that child from the time he was only a few cells in the womb, and that love was magnified thousands of times upon seeing him draw breath.
It really didn’t matter what I had to endure after that. I had virtually no education and worked as a landscape installer in South Florida. The heat was absolutely overwhelming and the work brutally hard. None of that mattered to me so much if, at the end of the day, I could go home and see my son. Every pain and struggle of the day flew from my mind as I lay on the floor and my son looked into my face and smiled. It was the sweetest nirvana I could know.
One day my wife picked up the baby and told me she was going to the grocery store and taking the baby. She never came back. Days passed and I endured the most exquisite pain I had ever known. As it happened, she had run away some 200 miles and moved into a crack house with my baby. She had decided to return to using. The baby was her way of making certain that I gave her money with which she could buy more drugs.
The next several years were spent vacillating between grief and anger. I had the financial help of family and by the end over a hundred thousand dollars had been spent and I still had not been able to extricate my son from her custody.
Sometime later I met another woman and we were married. She was pregnant with twins. I thought that God had decided to show me mercy and through His divine Grace I was to be given another chance at fatherhood.
At six and a half months pregnant she miscarried. I saw the twins in an incubator in the NICU. They were both on ventilators. They were black from head to toe. The doctor informed me that this was all contusion (bruising) from the trauma and force of the birth process. Then he told me that they were going to die and that there was nothing anyone could do about it. They were shivering and seemed to me to be in great pain. They passed away. I was angry as hell that their brief little lives were spent knowing only pain.
My wife went into a catatonic depression. She ended up in a hospital to treat her mental illness. I couldn’t reach her as desperately as I tried. Nothing I could do seemed to get through. They used electric shock as part of her treatment. This took away the memory of the children and of me. I had to let her go.
I relate all of that to make a point. My life during those times was spent seeking relief from pain. I went to meetings and shared my pain. I more or less emotionally vomited all over everyone and expected them to provide me with an answer that would alleviate my pain or at least help me to understand what was happening. It was an odd and empty feeling to find no answers. People simply seemed to be unable to relate to the pain I was in. Things like this just were not supposed to happen in recovery. I often felt that I had done something wrong in my recovery.
Some well-intentioned people tried to talk to me about God’s grand mosaic that we would never truly appreciate until we get to the other side. I rejected this line of thinking. I said more than once if God’s plan for me included allowing two innocent babies to suffer and die knowing only pain, I wanted no part of that God or His plan. I was angry and resentful at God.
I never truly abandoned my faith in God or His love for me, I simply didn’t understand why things had happened the way they had. I thought that my life in recovery was supposed to be easy and rewarding. Easy, no…rewarding? That remained to be seen.
For some time I thought that the “reward” was to understand that I could get through anything, not lose faith in God, and stay clean. On some level I instinctively knew that there was nothing so terrible that could happen to me that I couldn’t go out and use and make things worse. I was in enough pain already, to compound that with the pain of relapse and active addiction would have made things real torture. Remove all self-esteem and hope by using again? No thanks.
Although I never got an answer to the “why did this happen” question, I did find a measure of peace. I learned to grieve, to let it go, and to forgive. I learned that I didn’t have to be defined by my past or my pain. I learned that there were still good days ahead and that my life could count for something positive yet. I helped a lot of people to understand that life on life’s terms wasn’t always rosy, and that no matter what we could persevere and get through whatever came our way. I know that I helped people when I shared my experience with them. My having an answer to “why” wouldn’t have enhanced this process or brought me any relief.
I learned that being clean and recovering didn’t earn me any special dispensations from God to live a life free of pain. God isn’t Santa Clause. It wasn’t a scenario wherein if I did all the right things and behaved the right way, at the end of the year I got all my heart’s desires as a reward. The presence of pain didn’t negate the presence of God. He was still there and still loved me just as much.
I learned that the presence of pain does not call into question the quality of my recovery. The quality of a structure is better measured by its endurance than its aesthetics. Real recovery doesn’t have anything to do with things always being wonderful or living a pain-free life. In fact the quality of my recovery is measured far better in the way I deal with such issues and continue to grow not despite these difficulties but as a result of them. My relationship with God is the cornerstone of my recovery and such experiences have led to a strengthening of that relationship.
I learned that there was nothing so special about what happened to me. Pain and difficulty are universal. Difficult things happen to people all over the world in all walks of life. Here in the US, there in Europe, all over the world; there is no place where people are safe from calamity. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had loads of money, worked in the Peace Corps, or lived a faultless life. Life is still life…and God is still there.
Finally I understood. A few years ago when another catastrophe occurred in my life, more correctly a perfect storm of catastrophes changed my life, I recall sitting in my child’s room. There in the dark I was overwhelmed with stress, fear and pain. My new son was crying terribly as I transitioned him from my bed (where my now absent wife and I had slept with him) to his crib.
The crib was much safer for him. I had no choice as a responsible parent but to make this transition. It was hard for both of us and we both suffered as he cried in the night. I wanted so desperately for him to understand that there was no choice but for him to go through this…that this was for his best. I wanted him to understand that I hadn’t abandoned him, that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that I loved him dearly and always would. I sat there with my hand rubbing his back and singing to him in the dim amber of the night light. My heart was breaking.
It was then I realized that I was in the same position with him as my God seemed so often to be with me. The fact that my son was so upset didn’t dim one iota the enormity of the love I have for him. I had tried to provide for his comfort as he went through what he had to go through as my God had done for me so often. It was then I realized that God had His hand on me just as I had my hand on my son. He had made my way as comfortable as possible as I had for my son.
As I have said before, God isn’t spiritual morphine. He isn’t there to prevent me of having the human experience of grief or to anesthetize my feelings. He had provided well for me to have everything I needed when I suffered and endured. I had supports pop into my life at the perfect time so often it was a bit eerie sometimes. He had made my way easier in some of the most profoundly surprising ways.
As I sat there with my son, and this realization washed over me, my stress and fear evaporated. Finally, I understood. I understood what had eluded me for so long. There was no “why?”. It was simply life. My faith was strengthened beyond my own self-imposed boundaries that night. I knew moving forward that if God has my back it doesn’t matter what is in front of me. He is there for me, has always been there for me, and will always be there for me. That’s the point. That’s the reward.
A few lines from a poem I wrote when my first wife stole my son from me:
Life on life’s terms not always much fun
Sometimes when it hurts I still want to run
I thank you dear God for saving my life
And putting an end my internal strife.
Tomorrow will bring me that which it may
With my hand in yours you show me the way.
Even in the depths of my agony I knew He was there. Today I know I was right. What would humanity look like if God righted every wrong, instantly healed every hurt, prevented all calamities? Where would our need be for faith or charity or compassion? Where would we be if God had just created a race of automatons, simply carrying out every command as programmed, never harming others in any way? Would we be human or something else? Might we just be a race of bloated ingrates? Our humanity is at its finest when striving to correct a wrong, to restore hope to the afflicted, to embrace those in the throes of agony and despair. It could be that God has things set up exactly the way they need to be. It is entirely possible that He knows exactly what he is doing.