Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
David Bowie, Five Years
Something I’ve been recently questioning is what “recovery” actually means. Apart from the fact that I have received numerous, no doubt well written and well intended, handouts on the subject for my course (Mental Health and Addiction Support), I’m wondering on a more personal level.
Of course, I’m sure the professionals have something to say. A clear, possibly linear, progression from illness to wellness, like some idealised Yellow Brick Road. Perhaps I’m been a touch unfair there.
But in my experience people seem to view “recovery” as something tangible, measurable. A goal to be achieved, worked towards, like saving for a ticket to fly to some dream destination full of sun, sand and, well, no more “addiction”.
I heard a senior staffer say the other day that they wouldn’t consider hiring someone for a support work role (in the mental health and addiction sector) without them being in recovery for five years. This person has no doubt many years of experience working in the addiction sector, so he should know, right?
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got
David Bowie, Five Years
AA itself often notes that big decisions should not be made in “early recovery”. It yells “one day at a time”, but also looks to 90 meetings in 90 days to kick things off.
Now I should point out I’m not against goal setting, or planning. I’m just trying to set a context for the messy calendar of recovery, where the numbers hang on the wall but the only one that truly counts is the first – today.
So what is recovery, does it have a beginning, a middle, or even an end?
It’s a loaded term for sure. Dear reader, few as you are, you have found this anonymous blog. I don’t quite know how, but my previous life in digital and SEO tells me you probably plugged some words into the Google machine and voila, here I was.
Was one of those words recovery? What does it mean to you? Is there a Buddhist view of recovery? Is it different from the medical sense of the term?
Five years. It’s a great theme for David Bowie, but it’s a long time. In this country, New Zealand, I suspect you could probably kill someone or commit some heinous crime and still be out in five years.
Is an addiction (or for that matter a mental illness) a sentence to be served? Is it for life? Do we have to do our time until society deems us fit to return having paid our debt and displayed impeccable good behaviour?
Does a small lapse reset the clock on recovery? Or is it an organic process that includes all the trials and tribulations of what we call the human condition?
As someone who has felt like I have been in a recovery space for some years, should my lapses make me reconsider what I hold to be true?
Did recovery start the day I came to fully realise that something was wrong? Or the first time I attended AA? Or my medical detox?
Did it start when my drivers license was returned to me, or when my family and friends sought to re-engage? What are the measures?
Obviously not drinking is one that would come to mind first. But does it entail a complete sea change, a new job, rekindling of failed relationships, a haircut? Sit in the barber’s chair long enough… do people want to see me levitate?
I am alone now
I am beyond recriminations
Curtains are shut
The furniture has gone
I am transforming
I am vibrating
Look at me now
Nick Cave, Jubilee Street
Do you have to have all your amends in check, debts paid, before you are truly in recovery? Am I recovering? I won’t even begin to consider whether you can ever be “recovered”, another controversial position in the rooms of AA. Maybe another day!
Looking at how I understand recovery, and I can only share my own take on it of course, I think it is all these things. And perhaps none. Recovery is so intensely personal, but I hope that the feeling of realisation, the cessation of the craving, the freedom that comes from a mind clear of substances can be universal.
There’s bound to be issues along the way. Like everything else in life. A flat tire. An unexpected bill. But do these things equate to failure, to a need to hit reset, unplug, wait 30 seconds and then reboot the system?
My recovery is recovery because I choose to see it as such. It’s not so much the fact that I’m not drinking. It’s not a negation of the fact that I am an alcoholic, that the first drink could and most likely would take me right back to that sad, lost state of living as a drunk.
But it’s also so much more than the presence of alcohol or the lack thereof. And I certainly don’t value my recovery less because by some standards it might be considered early. For me it’s not a sentence to be served, it’s not as simple as having time sober in proportion to the time I lost to the whisper and ultimate scream of the bottle.
Recovery for me cannot be achieved at some future date, and really I try not to concern myself with tomorrow’s sobriety. As I’ve mentioned I’ve made that mistake before. My recovery is an ever present commitment to a way of living. Clean, free, able to make choices and respond to this moment. And the next. But the next can only happen in light of what I do right here, right now.
In this way then, recovery for me is the Noble Eightfold Path, and particularly Right Effort.
Right Effort is the energetic will (1) to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising, and (2) to get rid of such evil and unwholesome states that have already arisen within a man, and also (3) to produce, to cause to arise good and wholesome states of mind not yet arisen, and (4) to develop and bring to perfection the good and wholesome states of mind already present in a man.
Walpola Rahula, What The Buddha Taught, p48
In line with my karma, I find myself at this point in time, conditioned by what has gone before. With a multitude of future possibilities that I really don’t need to concern myself with as they haven’t happened yet.
But in this moment, I can set my intention, my will and my effort to respond with wisdom and compassion to my situation, hopefully generating the seeds of positive potential for the next moment.
Recovery is the eternal present tense. The immediate. Recovery, for me, is recovery in the moment, this moment. Then the next. But right now, now.
Like addiction itself can bloom at any particular moment like a flash flood, or that person you idolise in the rooms for their clean time (20 years! how!?) might stumble and re/lapse, a life without addiction is a life lived second by second. But then again, isn’t every life lived in this way?
Buddhism stresses that time is not all it seems in it’s concept of tiny units of time called kasana. A thought is said to take 60 – 90 ksana, and there are 900 instances of arising and ceasing in one ksana – there are 32,820,000 ksanas in one day! That’s plenty of moment by moment opportunities to set intention… and complicates the view that it’s a certain unit of time that equates to a successful recovery.
I understand people’s need to have some clear definitions to understand and engage with things like addiction and recovery. They are difficult subjects to engage, especially for loved ones hurt by the actions of an alcoholic, or someone for whom their first thought is simply, “you just need to drink less”.
But for me it’s such a reductive way to perceive our stories. Like our common understanding of time, this perception of recovery as a period of time spent overcoming one’s demons does not marry up with my reality of right now.
This mind wants to see the end of the war, the flags raised, the boats coming home, the fireworks. To know it’s over and we can all move on with our lives.
My mind sincerely hopes the sum total of my present moments is an outward display of my “recovery” as those close to me would have it. But I think they’ll only come to understand this looking backwards and “seeing how far I’ve come”. That is for them to choose, should they even concern themselves with it.
For me though just now. Press publish. Now. Sober, grateful, setting my intention. Eating, grateful, setting my intention. Typing, grateful, setting my intention. Arising, ceasing. Just now.
When here, it is here, now.
When there, it is then.
But when “then” was “now,”
“there” was “here.”
Whenever anything happens
it happens now
and “now” is this “happening.”
Each moment, when it is this moment, is right now.
But “then” was once “now” and “right now”
tick tick tick
is now “then.”
This moment is not the past moment, not the future moment
but in this moment
what happens as this moment
both shows and hides the past.
Commentary on Dogen’s Wild Time – a great read!
Brad Warner, What is time?