A Gift of Birthday Lessons

As addicts, life takes on both less and more meaning. It’s much easier to see how it takes on less meaning. Often, we think of ourselves as worthless. Many of us have felt (or feel) that we have screwed up our lives so badly that we’d be better off dead. Few addicts, especially active addicts and those new to recovery, have meaningful work that inspires us. Often we don’t have healthy families. The list goes on.

It can be harder to see how addiction gives life more meaning and trying to express it requires that we understand the world of addiction a little better; so again, try and imagine this: Your work is meaningless to you. You are separated from your family, and they don’t understand you. The only people in the world who support you are a very small group of your peers, with whom you share everything. You often sleep in the same dingy rooms, bum smokes and rides from each other, and share the only thing that brings you any relief. Your whole world is the tiny, broken make-shift family that you have around your addiction. All of you know that it’s not healthy, but you all share the common agreement that there are no better paths available to you.

Add to this the fact that with shocking regularity, people very close to you die. The ‘statistics’ on drug-related deaths cannot possibly convey what it is like on the street, nor are they anything close to accurate. Cassy, whose car flew off the road, was an ‘auto accident’. Mike, who took his .45 to his temple; ‘suicide’. Jessie lost her job, was getting desperate. No one’s seen her in 5 weeks. “Missing person”. All these people had active addictions, they were members of someone’s little patchwork family and community. They were a support, a parent, a lover; and now they’re gone. Sitting on the office sofa today, crying over another childhood friend’s suicide, someone in recovery said: “Everyone I love keeps dieing.” This is not an exaggeration in the world we are talking about, and this is not even mentioning the appalling incarceration rate of users. Everyone here knows people serving 8, 20, 45 years for non-violent crimes. In many ways, these living ghosts are even more painful to live with than the departed.

In this world, there is a very different understanding of the fragility of life. Every week at house meeting, we share deep and genuine gratitude at being alive.

From this perspective, birthdays have a very different meaning. Many of us did not expect to live to the age we are now. Especially those who have overdosed or had violent pasts speak regularly at how surprised they are to be alive. We wonder how and why we are still here.

What is often a fairly mundane celebration for most of the world takes on a wholly different meaning in this context. When Death is such a constant around us, we begin to see Birth and Life in new ways. Birthdays are celebrated not just as a banal gathering, but as a surprise and a gift. There is often a sense of awe that we are still here, let alone in a place where we are being celebrated and loved with friends and community.

Birthdays are a chance for us, as a community, to show someone not only how glad we are they exist, but how deeply proud we are of their incredible work. How inspired we are by their continued life. How grateful we are that they are healing wounds that often stretch back generations.

When people in our recovery houses clap each other on the shoulder, lock eyes, and say “Happy Birthday,” they mean something much deeper and more serious than it may appear. They are saying “I see your work and your life as evidence of our collective ability to heal trauma and shift the patterns that are destroying us all.” There is a recognition of the fragility of life, the sacred potency of the person who is alive and healing in another rotation around the sun, and the fact that this birthday was not guaranteed.

This is yet another example of how people in recovery and the recovery community as a whole has so much to teach. There can sometimes be a cultural narrative that addicts and those in recovery are a drain on society. Those of us who have the privilege of working in this field often come to the opposite conclusion: a society that creates addiction is a drain on those of us in recovery.

This is not to say that the recovery community doesn’t need your support – it absolutely does. However: if we wish to heal the wounds that plague our world and move into healthier ways of being human, the broader culture must also learn to see the world-changing support that people in recovery have to offer society. People practicing recovery are practicing the ability to change. They are doing fundamental and almost impossible work of changing their foundational habits, perspectives, thoughts, and beliefs. Most people never do this work, at least not at the depth and scale necessary to recover from long-term addiction and the trauma that leads to it. It is actually impossible to describe the depth of work that it takes to shift the core of how we think and what we believe.

This is the work that is necessary to build a better world. As a society, we must be able to continuously re-evaluate what is working and what is not. What is leading us closer to health and wellness and what is not. What is supporting people and what is hurting them. Which practices lead to a clean, healthy environment and which do not.

Beyond being able to identify these successes and challenges, we must then be able to do the incredible work of changing how we think and what we do. People in recovery know this work. We know what it means to change, in our bones.

Think of this as an invitation. The next time you meet someone who has decades of solid recovery under their belt, you’re invited to see them more clearly. They are someone who has an indescribable skill set for healing and transformation; you’re speaking to a master of an ability that could benefit everyone you know and, if applied with the correct wisdom, clarity, and guidance; has the potential to heal the world.