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Recovery is not a Destination

When I was a new-comer I spent a lot of time watching and listening to old-timers in meetings. I didn’t trust easily, was constantly skeptical, so really, I was studying to see when they would slip up. Show their real colors. You know, fail the booze smell test.

Then I would know recovery was all a bunch of BS and I could use that as an excuse to go back to drinking and drugging, which in spite of my bravado in early recovery, was what I really wanted to do.

Now I’m an old-timer. I still study old-timers. I don’t trust easily. And still own a healthy streak of skepticism. 

The difference is I am no longer doing the smell test. And I no longer need a reason to go get loaded.

Being an old-timer in recovery means simply that I have strung a considerable amount of time, in my case decades, between swigs, tokes or snorts. It is about math. Numerology. It is a label.

True, I had to do certain things to qualify for that label. In my case it was meetings, step work, service work. But basically, it was putting in time between binges.

My attitude about old-timers being liars, braggarts or preachers changed in my first two years. At some point before my second sobriety cake night, I took stock of the people who had sobered up around the time I had. Guys and gals who were no longer in the rooms. Or on the planet any longer for that matter. Paul. Mike. Damian. My own sister Gail. Somehow the desperation I needed to find crystalized when I realized it was true; not everyone makes it.

Paul had been a tough fisherman. Died of a heart attack just before his 28th day in treatment. Mike had 19 years. His wife left and he got into pills. Had a stroke. Died drunk. Damian continued to walk the streets even though she went to meetings. Got beat up, went back to the needle. My sister relapsed after nearly a decade. Went back to alcohol. Suicided.

So, after collecting a few of those order of service programs from a bunch of funerals, all of a sudden some of the things the old-timers used to say back started to make a whole bunch of sense. Go to meetings. The old me drank, the old me will drink again. Keep coming back. If you don’t sit in the barber chair you won’t get a haircut. Nonsensical musings which I came to look for, to appreciate, eventually to mimic.

It began to dawn on me that old-timers are not the enemy. It’s not like the way we used to look at our parents as if they didn’t have a clue. These people are addicts just like me. They drank and drugged, fought, ended up in cells, drove drunk, broke hearts. They shook, shivered, could barely lift their heads up from their pillows many mornings. They came to. They said they would never do it again. They said sorry. Often.

And they had what I didn’t have. A way to stay sober. Many of them even seemed happy.

Being an old-timer doesn’t mean we are saints however. In fact, anyone who thinks they’ve got it going on because they haven’t used in a long time may be in grave danger. Every bit of evidence collected on addiction shows that relapse can happen at any stage of recovery.

Which is where the curiosity about old-timers for me at least, remains. I ask myself questions about what I’ve heard, and who I’ve heard it from. Is it in the literature? Is it truthful? Is it helpful? Is it closeminded? Is the person who said it convincing? Or does it sound kind of weak, especially coming from them?

Maybe that sounds kind of harsh. Maybe even judgemental. I like to think of it as assessment. Using my Spidey senses, the same senses that told me whether someone was safe or not when I was out using. If they come into the rooms spouting a do-as-I-say attitude but have little or no visual or spiritual proof that they have contented, attractive sobriety, that not-as-I-do thing, then why would I follow their lead. Be they an old-timer, new-comer, or anyone in between?

Here’s what I’m pretty sure about after 30 years in the rooms of recovery, fully abstinent from alcohol or mood-altering drugs; One, I’m glad I survived my using years, and stuck around long enough to get the benefits of recovery. Friendships. Perspective. A sense that I can do this, no matter what “this” is.

Two, not everyone who has time in has what I want. For instance, I’m into politics, I golf, I swear more than I should, and frankly I don’t believe in a monolithic God. So, I may or may not grate on your nerves. At a meeting. Over coffee. In a blog. That’s just life. No matter how long we’ve been sober, not everyone is going to tickle our fancy, right?

So, on the subject of the value of old-timers, I say understand this: They are proof that we can stay sober in spite of a world of hurt in most cases. They are the living, breathing history that no teacher, scientist or counselor can provide unless they are sober themselves.

But also, it’s important to use our assessment skills to decide if we want what they have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it. Trust your radar. Look them in the eyes and ask them about their recovery if you have doubts. Then take what you like, and leave the rest. It’s all part of the learning process, of growing from new-comer to old-timer.

Jeff V is a man in long term recovery from substance use disorders. He is a father, a journalist, a Canadian Forces veteran, and spent 12 years working in the addiction treatment field. 

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