In the context of human beings, words are one of the most powerful self-generated wonders of the universe.
After being born, most people do not retain their memories until approximately age three.
That’s probably because it takes around three years of being human to develop enough capacity for words to produce a basic life narrative. We, in innocent and basic childish ways, begin our stories.
Stories that continue on to adulthood. Mold and shape the way the world is seen, experienced, and interacted with. How people are related to. How we view ourselves and our capabilities.
My story; how I told it to myself and others.
And based on other stories I’ve heard on my tumultuous road to recovery, I was not alone in those thoughts and feelings. Not by a long shot.
While every story possesses its own unique features, certain terminologies appear repeatedly in recovery-based narratives.
“My name is so-and-so and I am an alcoholic.”
“I am an addict, in lifelong recovery from the disease of addiction.”
“The disease of addiction has taken everything.”
“Once an addict, always an addict.”
Words. Threads weaved together, building tapestries of stories that hum through minds and hurl from tongues.
Words and stories provide us a method for comprehending the mysteries of life.
As such, everyone has mastered storytelling.
Imagine not having the ability to think (or say): “I was born. I live. I will die. These are the people I love. This is what I want to do.”
Without that ability, what would life mean to us?
It would mean eating and pooping, hunting and roaming. It would be a life of instincts, driven by deep-brain survival mechanisms.
But we have these weird frontal lobes in our brains, that facilitate this amazing phenomenon called analytical thinking. Developing language. Not only for thinking, but communicating our thoughts to others! Collaborating. Generating ideas. Building on those ideas until we have skyscrapers and iPads. Hi-definition televisions, and a robot on Mars.
It is of particular importance that as new ideas are built on the trusty foundations of old ideas, new language likewise evolves from the base of the old.
Language associated with outmoded ideas is ineffective at the task of describing new ideas.
The other day, I referred to an digital music playlist as a CD. Whoops.
If I did the same in a decade or so, people under a certain age may not understand me at all.
Because ideas change, and so do words.
It’s fairly cut-and-dry with technology. Humans design technology, so we can easily figure out and agree on sets of terminologies.
Alas, we did not design ourselves or the universe (that I know of), so certain terminologies regarding the human condition are ambiguous and up for debate.
In other words, no one argues that the Wii U was created in six days by Abraham Lincoln, who rested on the seventh.
We know that did not happen. There is no mystery.
But much is a mystery.
Like why a human being would fill his or her body with toxic chemicals again and again and again, despite the persistent crying and pleading from cherished loved ones.
Why would someone do that, even if they do not wish to? Even when they vow to themselves and others that they will stop, but they are not able to?
It, along with plethoras of mysteries of life, seems inexplicable.
Thank goodness we have words and stories to create meaning and fill in the gaps.
Stories to explain mysterious human motivations.
Interpreting abstract inner workings (conscious, subconscious, collective unconscious) and pursuing a basis for inconceivable human actions (genocide, addiction, Charles Manson getting married in prison).
In times of my own confounding and inexplicable behavior, I’ve often smashed into dead ends while trying to figure out how to tell the story, how to make it all mean something.
In 2006, prior to my first exposure to treatment for substance misuse, my vocabulary was not very developed in explaining the why of my condition.
If you were to ask me why I could not stop downing absurd amounts of drugs despite my best attempts to stop, the best I could have done was:
“Uh, well, uhhhhh…. I dunno, could you tell me? This is starting to drive me crazy!”
Since I couldn’t seem to fill in the gaps on my own, I jumped at the opportunity to have someone explain it to me.
Entering recovery blew my mind. Finally, answers!
Counselors and fellow addicts provided me with language to understand my addiction. A vocab to describe it.
Life finally made sense. Kind of.
Andrew Hicks the addict. Addiction, a lifelong disease, was the reason I hadn’t been able to stop using.
The professionals told me so. Many others in shoes like mine agreed.
Those who didn’t concur were just in denial, of course. They’d come around. Or die.
Anyway, it was relieving, to finally have language for the struggle. Words for the unspeakable.
My personal pandemonium, at long last, had a coherency about it.
But is there only one way to tell a story?
Only one narrative to explain addiction? A singular vocabulary, a sole set of terms?
Of course not.
The narrative of the disease model of addiction is based on deeply-ingrained beliefs. And it is not difficult to comprehend where those beliefs came from.
How many times can we hit the same dead ends before conceding to powerlessness? And what could it be other than a lifelong affliction, if one achieves decades of abstinence and then falls back into the hole as though he or she never left?
Persistent patterns of behavior produced a culture of beliefs about addiction.
From those beliefs, certain words were utilized in describing the problem:
Addiction. Disease. Addict. Alcoholic. Druggie. Junky.
Only gets more ostracizing from there.
Those words became templates, to shape the developing beliefs of people who had not yet invented their own vocabulary. Like with me, prior to entering recovery.
Then, the words create stories to explain what was previously unexplainable.
And goodness, do we love our stories!
Once our stories are established, and we firmly believe our interpretation of the events of our lives, it can come quite naturally to defend against interpretations from other sources.
If you feel a resistance to these words, then you know what I mean.
I might be threatening your story, just by theorizing that there may be more than one meaning to it.
Changing minds is not my intention.
Every mind is precious, and its interpretations valid.
Your story is yours to tell. I would never wish to take that away from you.
The sole point I wish to make is that I spent a startling portion of my life being a shadow of what could have been, in great part due to the language I used to describe my condition.
The story I told, and the beliefs I held about my addiction and recovery were fundamental aspects of my impairment.
Not everyone thinks of addiction as a disease. There is quite an argument going on about this topic, in academia and recovery agencies and amongst those in recovery.
Many who claim addiction not to be a disease are adamant. With fiery fervor.
They have a strong slew of logical points to back up their case.
As do proponents of the disease model.
So, is addiction a lifelong disease, or isn’t?
It absolutely is. If that’s what you believe.
And if that’s the case, I applaud you for it. You have my full support. You have bravely found a language for a most frightening aspect of your life. You’ve faced it. Named it. Owned it.
You kick ass.
You are free to hold onto it, work with it, keep the story close to your heart. You can do great things. Many in shoes like yours have!
If you want to imagine and invent new language, new possibilities, and new beliefs, that’s an option too.
Yes, addiction can be a lifelong affliction.
But it doesn’t need to be. It is not ordained.
There is no need to shift perspective, unless there is a desired advantage in doing so.
Hypothetically, how might one shift that perspective; one who sees a benefit to playing around with beliefs and ideas pertaining to addiction and recovery?
There are many ways. Some ways, I don’t know about, will never know about.
But I’ll share what little I do know and we’ll see what happens.
We’re constantly forming and upgrading beliefs about the world and ourselves.
If you happen to disagree, then you have a belief to that effect.
Far as I know, it’s impossible to be human without beliefs.
(Suffice to say, the previous sentence represents one of my beliefs)
My beliefs most naturally change due to logical realizations. Realizations that make sense to me. Basically, stuff I figure out for myself.
Or, someone persuades me with their own logic.
Now we are back to when I entered early recovery, when my empty brain was filled up with “addiction as a disease” data.
Made great logical sense. I was satisfied with that information. It became my belief.
But through several future logical realizations on my part, that belief shifted.
Perhaps it will resonate with you, click with you.
If you desire that shift, I hope that’s the case. Whether you struggle with your own destructive tendencies or strive to help and understand a loved one.
(Either way, you’re awesome)
But maybe the logic that speaks to me, works for me, is no good to you. That is fine.
I don’t know your inner workings. What you’ve got going on in that beautiful head of yours is all yours and I have no expertise in your internal affairs, your ways of thinking.
Of one, and only a single thing, I am certain of about you.
While my logic may or may not penetrate your sensibilities in a way that contributes to the shifting of your beliefs, I know beyond a morsel of all doubt that, should you see the particular advantage of changing your mind, such a feat is not only possible. It is imminent.
I can say this, because while we all have wonderfully unique approaches to comprehending ourselves and our individual relations to the world, we indubitably share certain commonalities.
See, I know I am not so unique as to be capable of changing my beliefs while others are not.
My process of relating to myself and the world may be dramatically different than yours, but we’re made of the same stuff, you and I. On every meaningful fundamental level, we’re the same.
For the next month or so and beyond, I’ll continue exploring the logical points that have changed my beliefs, and most probably saved my life. At very least, saved my dignity.
I do not, on any level, believe that I am an addict. Nor do I believe that you are, or anyone.
Not fond of the word. Sometimes, it is required to communicate with people who speak in that particular language.
But the words I use in my head, the words reflected by my beliefs, and which fortify and nourish my beliefs; and the words that I promote the use of for the empowerment of others, are worlds away from that language.
From my frame of reference, there is no practical purpose for words like addict and alcoholic.
These words drive the stigma. They’re the mark of Cain. Cause separation, create scapegoats, fuel fear. Promote relapse.
Speaking of relapse, that word can take a hike too.
It’s a loaded word. Relapse is the big monster, hides in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Biding its time, waiting to take everything away.
Screw relapse. The word is icky, stained with fear and blood.
If we need a word for the falling back into old patterns, let’s change its name to wash the ickiness out.
I prefer reversion.
And goodness, the word addiction? Its days are numbered.
More useful to call the condition a dependency.
But on a substance? A drug or drink?
Dependency on coping with life in limiting and destructive ways.
These changes in language are far from trivial.
These words represent a paradigm of thought that changes everything from the inside out.
In About Me, I say, “My name is Andrew Hicks, and sometimes I behave in self-limiting ways.”
It may be more accurate and definitely more comprehensive to say, “My name is Andrew Hicks and I am in perpetually recovery from the underlying emotional traumas and ineffective beliefs that have in the past had the effect of driving me to utilize destructive, anesthetic coping mechanisms.”
But let’s just reign it in, be concise.
My name is Andrew Hicks, and I am awesome.
(I used to believe it was egotistical to claim my own right to awesomeness, but that belief got the note card treatment)
And guess who else is awesome?
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
Here are some resources on shifting beliefs:
Also published on Medium.