Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned From Drug Addicts

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This article was first published on my blogspot at addiction.com

Twenty-five years ago a runaway NY Times bestseller took America by storm. Titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” author Robert Fulghum enchanted his readers with new insights on everyday living. He explored the profound wisdom of following the simple rules of living most of us are taught at an early age:

  • Play fair
  • Don’t hit people
  • Put things back where you found them
  • Be nice

This is really good stuff, and I highly recommend doing all of these things.

Yet there came a time in my life when such conventional wisdom failed me. It’s not that these concepts were no longer good… they just weren’t enough. A problem of such complexity took hold in my life that the regular rules no longer seemed to apply.

Anyone who has lost a child to addiction, if even just for a time, knows this to be true.

When my daughter’s addiction took hold, first to alcohol and then to meth, the torment of losing her to the streets was nearly unbearable. I found myself helpless to stop her, change her or to change her circumstances. Nice was not enough… heck LOVE was not enough. Playing fair got me nowhere, and I really found myself wanting to hit people! I didn’t know how to move forward with such a gaping hole in my heart.

The first answer to my dilemma came by way of a provocative comment from one of the many treatment counselors I hounded on the telephone. “Get your eyes off the problem,” he said.

Huh? What does that even mean? How does one solve a problem without looking at it?

It took me a while, but over time the clouds parted and the haze cleared. It was in a 12-Step meeting for families affected by a loved one with substance use disorder when the light bulb finally came on. Counterintuitive for sure, but I’d been trying to change the wrong person.

I did everything in my power to help my daughter, to advocate for her, and to intervene. But in the final analysis, I was powerless to truly change her and learned I could only change myself. And doing so paid large dividends. In fact, when she ultimately sought treatment and entered into recovery, I’d become healthy enough to properly support her.

Through my own support groups (there were three!), I explored new ideas and experimented with new behaviors. Yet it was really by observing my daughter, and her new-found friends in the recovery community, when I truly started to “get it.” I learned more about love and life than I ever could have thought possible.

I sometimes muse that everything I really needed to know about life I learned from drug addicts. It’s true. I amassed life-changing lessons from the most unexpected source. I will forever be grateful to the many courageous men and women in recovery I’ve come to know and love, and who have blessed me just by being who they are. They’ve taught me things like:

  • I can’t change others, I can only change myself
  • If I keep doing what I always done, I’ll keep getting what I’ve always gotten*
  • Wherever I go there I am
  • Don’t take someone else’s inventory
  • It’s not my business
  • Keep your own side of the street clean (or stay in your own lane).

Like the kindergarten wisdom, this is basic stuff, but profound nonetheless. And learning these concepts has really changed how I look at the world, and how I approach problem solving. Who knew that I was the only person I could change… the only person I could save?

I sure wish I’d learned this in kindergarten.


*This principle is often attributed to W.L. Bateman

Author: Barbara Stoefen

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  1. I can so relate to this post, Barb. It was a shocking lesson to be sure, but as you write, “… I’d been trying to change the wrong person.” And as you describe, it was learning to focus on what I could change – myself – that has opened a life beyond my wildest dreams AND allowed me to better engage with and support my loved ones whose struggles with drinking I’d been trying to control.

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    • Thanks so much for your comment, Lisa. It frees us all, doesn’t it!

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  2. I appreciate theses vital concepts for any family member struggling with their loved one’s recovery, Barbara. I agree that it all starts with self care. I also like the CRAFT approach as it gives parents tools to help their child, but works well with the 12 step philosophy. I have wished from day one that I knew many of these concepts before my daughter went down this path. Then again, we can only do better as we know better. Thanks so much!

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    • Love to receive your comments, Cathy! You bring such wisdom and knowledge to the conversation. “We can only do better as we know better…” amen to that!

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