You are walking along a path high in the mountains. You can see that there are steep drops off to the left and right. But the path is pretty wide and you are staying more or less in the middle of it, and you feel confident that you are not in any danger. It took you a long time and a lot of physcial and emotional hard work to get up to this path, and you have no plans to waste that effort by falling down. Plus you have been up here long enough to trust yourself, which increases your comfort level.
Your confidence makes you feel free to begin looking around at the scenery -- there is so much to enjoy up here; the view is breathtaking. When you next glance down at the path along which you have been walking, you realize there is a small fork off to the left, and you are on the point of veering that way. Your confidence has long been second nature, so you turn onto the fork without thinking about it, without needing to think about it. You assume you can handle whatever you might find, wherever it might take you.
But whereas a few years ago you might have exercised more caution in an unfamiliar bend of the path, you overestimate your hiking skills now, or maybe you underestimate the tricks and turns with which the path continues to surprise you: Almost instantly the path veers perilously close to a drop-off, and the ground here is covered with slippery small rocks and pellets, and you find yourself, to your stunned amazement, on the verge of going over the edge. And the worst part of it is that, in the midst of your terror, you realize that you also very, very much want to go.
Okay it might be a little bit cliched but the "pathway" metaphor is excellent for what it's like to recover from addiction to drugs and alcohol. Emotionally I've never been great at dealing with the ups and downs of life, except when I was drinking, which tended to smooth things out for me. And without going through pain you can't grow, so I did as little growing as I could get away with. So here I am at the age of 31 with only about five years of actual, adult growth under my belt, and I can tell you that it feels every day a lot like I'm walking along a (sometimes rocky) road.
Initially, for like the first year or so after I quit drinking, the path consisted of steep ups and downs, and then gradually smoothed out a lot. Until I quit smoking, and it got violently rocky and turbulent again, worse than ever maybe, like a funhouse path or one of those crazy sideways houses they have in action parks (I got depressed and had to go on antidepressants).
Anyway, I've already told a lot of this story. The result has been that lately, I'm feeling better and better (incidents occur and I get pissed off, but they're molehills compared to the mountains that I used to endure emotionally). I'm sober five years now, and much of what used to be a struggle has eased substantially. I can generally handle most of what life hands me without feeling like I need or even want a drink (or a cigarette).
But I went to a party the other night and I don't know why, maybe it was collective biorhythms or astrological funk forces, but it was a weird fucking party. People were taking off clothes, licking cake frosting off other people's faces, howling, basically acting insane, even though nobody was drinking. And I don't know how it happened, I didn't expect it, but all of a sudden a friend of mine was giving me a shotgun hit off his cigarette, and I inhaled it (and then I FLIPPED out).
Now you might think -- I also might have thought, once upon a time -- that a shotgun hit off a cigarette is not such a big deal. But it's the slippery slope that you have to worry about with addiction. I mean, I really watch it with cough syrup, for example -- I don't have any with alcohol in it -- and I don't take anything that I think could be described as a "self-prescribed mood changer." I take very seriously what I ingest, and I'm very careful.
Or I have been for the past five years. Lately, though, I kind of fucked up with this homeopathic remedy. It wasn't that there was anything in it that was a mood changer, and it didn't contain alcohol or anything like that; instead, it was that I just took it, and I didn't even stop to consider what was in it. I started having "drunk dreams" (where you forget you don't drink, and you find yourself in a bar getting plastered; people who have quit smoking often have smoking dreams -- same idea) and after a few weeks I finally put the dreams together with the homeopathic remedy and stopped taking it until I could find out what was in it (fortunately, nothing). But the point was, I had taken this shit for a couple months before it occurred to me to wonder if it was alright for me to take it. And that worried me.
And then I found myself having a (truly) secondhand smoke. (Oh, in case you don't know, a shotgun hit off a cigarette, or off a joint, or off an opium stem, is where someone takes a hit and blows it in your mouth. It got the name from when they would blow the smoke down the barrel of a shotgun and you would put your mouth on the other end. Like in Platoon, you might remember.) And I felt myself on the slippery slope and I felt like there was nothing to hold me back from going over the edge.
The worst part was, I forgot that it's not really my own doing in the first place that has gotten me sober and made me quit smoking. I do really attribute that accomplishment to "higher" powers than my own. I have written in this space before about my search for a faith (of whatever sort, in whatever deity) that works; and it's not just for the sake of idle party chatter, that search. It's a desperate, fundamental need for safety, for sanity, that makes me go looking for a god.
So when I was thinking I was on my own out there, that I was going to have to on my own recognizance make sure I didn't smoke or drink, it was terrifying. I could almost see my demons breathing fire and hovering over me, and I can tell you I am no match for them! They are stronger and much more powerful than I. And then, thank god, I called someone, who reminded me that I am not alone in my struggle.
So back to the scene on that steep edge of the path: You sieze hold of a substantial tree limb that overhangs the edge, thank god, and it holds, and you pull yourself up and out of danger.
You burst into tears (for if you don't, you're going to shit your pants) and basically LOSE it for a few minutes, then you blow your nose and you pull yourself together and you sprint back to the main path.
Double checking your bearings, you carefully turn back onto the main path and focus all your attention upon staying on the track, and you continue on in this way for awhile. You keep thinking about the accident you nearly just had, in fact you bear down on the memory in your head, because it feels as though, if you can keep it in mind that accidents like that can happen if you aren't paying attention, then it might help you keep your attention focused on being careful.
Since the cigarette incident occurred, I've been reminded, basically, of who I am -- a recovering addict and alcoholic. That means I have a lot of work to do to stay recovering and not slip back into the old ways. Sure, it's by the grace of god that I'm not drinking and not smoking, and yet so much of the responsibility lies on my shoulders. I have a friend who says, "God does for me what I can't do for myself -- and does not do for me what I can do for myself." It's my job to not drink (and I think not-drinking is an action). Or metaphorically again, I mustn't pick at the scab that is healing over the wound.
And then, before you know it, you are calm again, and you feel a restored sense of safety, and your confidence begins to return. You walk on for a fair distance, and nothing else bad happens. You return to your earlier enjoyment of the journey. Your fear has completely receded, and with it your gratitude at having been snatched from the jaws of death. And you know, deep inside, that if you don't keep hold somehow of those feelings, the fear and the gratitude, there will be another accident up the path somewhere, and the next time you may not be so lucky.