Recovery for a Higher Purpose
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it. –Michelangelo
It is one of the most beguiling qualities of the experience of addiction: it sucks up everything of importance in your life and casts those cherished assets into the remotest reaches of one’s heart, leaving nothing but itself. This all occurs an inch at a time and second by second–increments so small they escape the category of decisions. It is at the end of such a process that one cluster of fears stands greater than the full awareness of what has been lost. That is the terror of one’s own emptiness and the gaping nothingness of one’s future. Those latter breakthroughs of consciousness can fuel unending cycles of oblivion and sickness and take damaged souls to, or beyond, the brink of suicide. These same fears pose a significant obstacle to recovery initiation. That’s why the promise of recovery must offer more than the removal of alcohol and other drugs from one’s life. For the person staring into the abyss, the promise of recovery to a life of meaning and purpose may be far more potent than the promise of recovery from addiction.
That’s why as a world we need more than the faces and voices of people who have recovered from addiction; we need the faces and voices of people in recovery who have recovered to do things of great personal and social meaning with their lives. The message must move beyond recovery is possible to the declaration that, with recovery, anything is possible. The message must be, as Richard Peabody suggested in his 1930 classic text, The Commonsense of Drinking: The same excessive forces that once brought disintegration can, when properly channeled in recovery, fuel personal achievement, personal fulfillment and important social contributions. Ernie Kurtz and I have variably described this transformative potential in recovery, this potential to get better than well, as enriched, amplified, or transcendent recovery.
I am not calling for tales of extraordinary achievement by a small cadre of recovery superheroes. Nor am I calling for more recovery celebrity stories. I am instead calling for a greater emphasis on the personal and social contributions of the mass of people in long-term addiction recovery.
The extent of such contribution will rise exponentially in the years to come for one very singular reason: people are beginning their recovery careers at earlier and earlier ages. When the normative period of recovery initiation was mid-life to late-life, the time required to heal oneself and clean up the debris from one’s addiction career left few years in life left to fulfill this larger service mission–beyond service to one’s family and helping others achieve recovery. The growth of young people in recovery means less time required to remove such debris and more years in recovery for potential achievement and cultural contribution.
Addiction recovery has for more than two centuries been portrayed in a three-part story style–the addiction story, the transition story, and the life in recovery story (e.g., A.A’s “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now”). When recovery came late in life for most, the addiction story contained for more details than the account of life after addiction. These latter details are the stories yet to be fully revealed–not just proclamation of the status of recovery but the “recovery to” story and what that has meant personally and to families, communities and countries.
Proclaiming one’s personal accomplishments is not what I am suggesting here–an act more akin to the narcissism and grandiosity of active addiction, than the personal humility that is often linked to amplified states of recovery. But ways must be found to convey this potential to those seeking recovery, to the families praying for such potential, and to communities who have little awareness that such potential even exists. So it is up to each of us to go beyond telling our own stories and begin telling the stories of others who, after healing themselves, work to heal the world in small and profound ways. It is up to us to become part of a collective force of people in recovery pursuing such a higher purpose. It is in answering the question, “Now what?” (“Recovery for what purpose?”) that we can personally affirm that recovery can be and often is far more than removal of alcohol and drugs from an otherwise unchanged life.