Why Addiction is Good for You (Stay With Me Here)
The tall (6’6”) young man stretched out his full length across several bus seats and got comfortable. He and his equally towering friend were both from Bozeman, Montana. We’d found ourselves together on this trip to do an ocean journey here in Indonesia. Recently gathered up by Sea Trek Bali at the airport, we had three hours to kill before reaching our hotel for the night.
My new friend (let’s call him Larry) is just 26. Yet what makes this budding travel videographer so interesting is that he’s already had his own version of a hero’s journey. He’s lucky to alive. Not long ago he was badly hooked on meth, living in his parents’ basement and delivering pizzas for a living.
“I was so strung out,” he remembered. “I’d use it get to my day started and then I couldn’t sleep at night.” We laughed- he can do that now- about how anyone with an addiction will do absolutely anything to feed the monster. He dropped out of college, was barely surviving, and was, frankly, killing himself.
While I’ve had my share of addictions (to donuts and designer clothing, equally expensive) I’ve never been a drug or alcohol user. But as I told Larry I was just as drunk in my eagerness to hit the Neiman Marcus sale rack as he ever was to score a hit.
Today Larry is more interesting in “popping a summit beer at the end of a long hike “ than popping a pill. A native of high country, he’s far more measured and selective about where those highs come from. He’s frankly happy to be able to enjoy Nature, and now, with his degree under his belt, is expanding his skills in new areas. He traded dope for dopamine- the kind gained from exercise, hard work and Nature.
What struck me about his story was that he’d already put himself through a vicious ringer and almost didn’t make it out. Yet somehow the way he tells it, he realized that if he didn’t stop what he was doing he was “going to be dead by 25.” He began putting one foot in front of the other to fundamentally redirect his life.
And here he is in Indonesia, about to board a ship for a week, videographing the journey, living the life.
And boy is he grateful.
Nobody did this for Larry. He did it for himself.
I can relate. So did I.
Masking Pain With Something Else
While most- and I mean most- addictions are devastating, we enter into a Faustian bargain with our addictions of choice often because we are, as Larry put it, “masking pain in some other area of our lives.” The addiction or an obsessive-compulsive disorder allows us to dissipate the anxiety or pain or both that need to be fully embraced. There are monsters lurking within the thick curtains of our underworlds and we need to go after them with a big light, call them what they are and coax them out. Our emotions can be terrifying. However, I’ve found that once uncovered, like the Wizard of Oz, what lives behind the curtains is far smaller and has very little power once observed in the loving light of day.
Larry took on his own monsters young. And beat them. Like so many heroes in the stories we love to read, this is precisely the kind of courage that having an affliction had engender. Not everyone responds to the call to rise. Not everyone possesses Larry’s self-described “mental fortitude.” My big brother was among those who succumbed, as did my father, both alcoholics, and my brother Peter a lifelong drug user as well.
As the light waned and our bus made its way along the pretty highway to our destination, Larry remarked with some sadness the trash he sees littered in open lots, tossed among the tall palms and right next to the lovely resorts that dot our journey. Without realizing it, he was making a comment through eyes that had cleaned up the litter in his own life, and in doing so, allowed him to notice, embrace, and ponder the messes we all variously make during the course of our (hopefully) long lives.
The Potential of the Hero’s Journey
We don’t always make it out of the depths. But like any hero, it’s up to us to rally the resources, whether that involves a twelve-step program for those who really benefit from group support, or to dip inside the endless well of potential that resides in each of us. For some it is forever untapped.
For others, like Larry, with his entire life ahead, his skid into the seduction of addiction taught him his strength. It is because of this battle, fought, won and celebrated, that he was on the bus with me. It was because of that sickness that he knows his strength.
Life will have plenty more challenges for Larry. He commented that he was fortunate to have gone through this so young rather than “marry the wrong person, have a couple of kids, work a desk job and wake up and fifty and wonder what had happened to his life.” While for many that may not be such a bad thing, that’s not for Larry. The fortitude that he discovered in healing himself has focused him on better food, better choices. He talked with some wonder about his clarity of mind and energy.
In its own way, an addiction carries with it the essential seeds of hope, potential and healing. The dragon we slay becomes the dragon we fly. Without ever meeting our monsters head on, we never know their gifts. While I would never wish such an illness on anyone, the truth is that without our inner dragons we may never become the people we are destined to become. And that is indeed a hero’s journey.