Of Lights and Tunnels

About 17 years ago, I was in between the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility (Nevada County Jail) serving 40 days of a 60 day sentence for a probation violation and the Calaveras County Jail for a 90 sentence on the charge that got me violated in Nevada County. I was coming off a six or seven months relapse after being clean (or sober, depending on one’s brand of recovery) for a little more than nine months after all the original trouble that got me on probation in the first place. Another violation would send me to state prison. I was again clean/sober — both by force because I was in jail and by choice because I didn’t want to go to prison, but I wasn’t happy about any of it. Those were not good days.

At the end of 2003, at about nine months of staying out of trouble, of staying straight, of “doing recovery,” I thought I had it going on. In some respects, I did. I went back to school and attained the kind of success that far surpassed anything I ever experienced academically prior. I regained the trust of my family. I felt better — physically and mentally — I had a clarity I could not remember ever feeling. But I also felt a power over myself, and my own wants and desires that was wholly unfounded. I felt “in control” of much that I was not and, I believe, will never be in control of. I felt that I could use drugs, and the drug alcohol (although, for me it was primarily other drugs), “recreationally.” That turned out to be absolutely false, but I not only didn’t know it, I didn’t even consider it — I probably didn’t want to know it.

I also wanted it all — all that stuff, not just the material stuff, but the status and the stature, the standing and the prominence, and, of course, I wanted the material things, too. I wanted what I saw others had, but I didn’t want to wait for it. It’s important to understand that these concrete thoughts were not bouncing around in my head, I was not saying these things to myself, but in retrospect, the thing the drugs always gave me — instant gratification — was still driving me. I wanted it all and I wanted it now.

That week in between jails was difficult. I had 40 days clean and all the motivation in the world to stay clean, but despite that, I wanted an escape. I didn’t “want it all right now,” I just “wanted it all to end.” I was pissed off all the time — nothing, it seemed, was going right. I knew where I could find instant gratification, I knew where I could get instant relief, but I also knew where that would get me. I also knew, by then, with a clear, albeit angry, mind, that instant gratification only lasts for an instant. But I just could not see any light at the end of any tunnel. All I could focus on was staying out of prison and to do that I had to stay clean. But that was not at all easy. Fortunately, I would be locked up again soon before I could make another fateful decision.

The old Calaveras County Jail was a miserable place. It has since been replaced with a new, modern facility (so I hear), but at the time it was an ancient, overcrowded hell-hole. However, the fact that it was overcrowded worked to my advantage. Where I would have had to serve 60 days of that 90 day sentence, I was released after only eight days. And eight days was enough. By the time I got home I was still angry (and, to be clear about that, although I had plenty of anger to go around, and many undeserving people got the brunt of it, I was really pissed off at myself), but I had around 60 days clean and a bit of a foothold in recovery once again.

But the light was still nowhere to be found. I saw that others who were doing this recovery thing had found something, and I really did see it. Over time, many had achieved big, fulfilling lives. I wanted that, too, but I just could not see it for me. It was just too far away. I just needed to stay out of prison — and that turned out to be challenging enough. There were a couple of days when it was close, but I made it. I finally made my way back to school at the local junior college and, as time went on, things gradually got better. It was somewhere around six months clean that a revelation washed over me — I’ll never forget it. It’s as simple as it is powerful: I realized that I had gone a few days, maybe several, without any anger. It might not seem like a big deal, but being pissed off all the time is fucking exhausting and to realize, in retrospect, that I was free from it for a sustained period of time — and, also, not even knowing, specifically, that was what was draining me until then — was like a wave crashing over me.

Of course it didn’t last, but the anger, over time, continued to diminish and the peace and serenity in my life began to increase. I continued with my education, transferring to California State University, Sacramento where I earned my BA, with honors. I then enrolled in the communication studies MA program at CSUS, earning a master’s degree. I then applied to and was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University where I advanced to doctoral candidacy before settling on another master’s degree. During all that time, I stayed clean, stayed “in recovery” and dealt with life as it came — not all good, not all bad. I didn’t always handle every situation perfectly or even “well,” but I also didn’t ever self-destruct over anything, either. The success that eluded me my entire life — the bottom that always fell out eventually — still hasn’t, for 17 years now. And that light? It’s as bright as the sun now.

In the last few years, my focus has been not so much all that “stuff” — both material and status — that I so desperately wanted (or, thought I wanted) all those years ago, but rather, it’s peace. It’s serenity. I know that conflict is part of life, I know that it is unrealistic to think that I can totally avoid it, but I can do quite a lot to mitigate it, to moderate it, to not invite it and, where it comes to my own domain, to show it the door. I have come to a place that probably has to do with not just the years of recovery from addiction — which includes but is not limited to just the complete abstinence from all mind and mood altering drugs — but also an age where I simply do not feel like wasting my time with bullshit. I will not tolerate drama, I do not do passive-aggressive, if you ask me what I think, be prepared for the truth.

All those years ago, I wanted the things I have now. The money, the nice house, the motorcycles (yes, plural, and I can’t even begin to say how excited I am about the one I’m picking up tomorrow), the ability to not worry about paying my bills and living paycheck to paycheck. I thought that’s all I wanted; I thought that would make me “happy” (a misnomer; what I want is contentedness, satisfaction, peace — happiness is and must be fleeting). It turns out that those things are a result of all else. I enjoy the “things,” I like my stuff, but that stuff absent the intangible peace and peace of mind it took, literally, all those years to attain, would be meaningless. I know, because I’ve had “stuff” before and it never gave me what I really sought. But, I never really knew what I was looking for. It took 17 years to get here, there is no way I could have seen that 17 years ago.

#peace

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Michael Althouse

Lecturer/professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento. www.michaelalthouse.com