The “Walking Wounded”

Note: this article was written a few years ago, when I was working in the addiction treatment field.

It was brought to my attention recently that, in the opinion of a correspondent, I live in a world “full of walking wounded who are having a hard time dealing with life in general.” The gentleman seems to feel that I thus have a jaundiced outlook on life, and that this does not have a salutary effect on my frame of mind, nor on my worldview.

That’s interesting. All this time, I’ve been under the impression that I have a positive outlook on life in general—largely due to the fact that I work in a job that I love, see daily the results of my labors, and know that I’m contributing usefully to the society that has nurtured me for over half a century, and to the people who comprise it.

The fact of the matter is, most of the people I deal with aren’t “walking wounded.” They are mostly ordinary, everyday people who happen to have a problem. They come from all walks of life—postmen, firefighters, cops, accountants, janitors, software salespeople, nerds, clergy, television personalities, doctors, judges, prom queens, former athletes, current athletes, politicians, career military people, teachers, farmers—well, you get the idea.

Some of them don’t even realize, when we first see them, that they have a problem. They may be convinced that the world is a sucko place, for a variety of reasons, and all they want is to turn it off. They may believe that everything outside themselves is the problem, and that they only use drugs or drink because the rest of the world are such assholes. They may pontificate about my skewed attitude toward life. They may be running from a past so horrendous that I can’t even imagine it. Even those often manage to carve a “normal” life for themselves, once they’re helped through the pain.

Many of my clients are successful, in their own right, far beyond the “station” that most people would ascribe to folks like me. They function in their narrow world of commerce, or intellectual pursuit, or medicine, or whatever, until finally their superior abilities can no longer make up for the way that alcohol and drugs are dragging them down.

The people with whom I and my colleagues deal are, in many cases, contributing members of society who ran out of road and found themselves at the edge of a terrible, frightening abyss. Others are young people: the law student who finally lost her way completely in the second year of law school; the teenager who ran from an alcoholic family into the arms of his own addiction, drawn to people and behavior on the street that was modeled for him from the time he was an infant. The young woman who looks in the mirror and sees a 70-pound fat girl looking back. The people so far out of control that they are unable to deal with numerous physical problems that, in turn, drag them down further. Many of them perceive no way out.

We know a lot about the causes of addiction these days. We even know, finally, why the urge to drink or use drugs again can come along and smack you upside the head after years of sobriety — or we think we do. If we don’t have it quite right at the moment, we will soon. We know that just about every alcoholic and addict can be helped. We also know that there’s nothing we or anyone else can do if they don’t want help. Some folks just can’t face the unknown world out there on the other side of the bottle, or joint, or crack pipe, or bent teaspoon, or roulette wheel, or prescription bottle, or shopping cart, or computer monitor—or else they believe they can’t, which is pretty much the same thing. Don’t look back! — something might be gaining on you.

I see people who look at me as if I must be some sort of god, simply because of the fact that I don’t drink or use drugs, one day at a time. They can’t conceive of one hour at a time! I see people who look at me as though I were the Antichrist, because I threaten, at least by implication, their relationship with the chemicals they perceive as their only friends in the world. (I run into those on the “outside,” as well.) And I see these same people, a few short weeks later, unable to thank me enough for helping them to look their demons in the eye.

I see smiles where there were none. I see trust blossoming in people who for years have trusted no one. I see hope of a better life in people who didn’t know that there could be a better life. People just like me. And like you — and you — and you…

I watch these folks getting better every day, and I help it happen. I see clients walk out the door of the treatment center with literally a new life ahead of them. I attend 12-step meetings and see people like Megan, who was nearly subhuman when she came into my detox last year, and is now a beautiful, happy, vibrant young woman, head held high, excited about getting on with her life — excited by life!

Yeah. I’m really a negative kind of guy, no doubt about it, and so are the other folks I know who work in “the field.” Who wouldn’t be…surrounded by miracles?

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