Three of My Most Important Life Lessons That May Help Your Personal Growth and Sobriety

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Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be explained by those symbols called words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I reflect on my life, I realize there are critical life lessons that make me into the person I am today. They are difficult to put into words, but they exist inside me –in my body, in my mind and in my soul. These essential lessons were mainly taught to me in my early childhood before I had any memory of how I learned them. They were also relearned by me when making wise and unwise choices and by being given second chances to learn. These lessons are all the result of many caring adults being devoted to me throughout my life. They are the kind of lessons that can be learned by any of us at any point in our life, provided we have people who love us at a very deep level and provided we allow them to love us. These lessons are the pillars of my life that enable me to live each day with profound and palpable gratitude. They allow me to grow, to avoid the deception of any addictive tendencies and to provide deep love to others. There are no words of thanks that could adequately express my gratitude to those who’ve taught me such lessons. The best I can do is to offer these lessons to others with profound love myself. They are:

Lesson #1: The most important human need is the need to attach

We humans really do need each other. Because we are mammals, we have more in common with chimpanzees who like to hang out in groups and groom each other, picking fleas off one another. The need we have for each other is immense. We are social animals. Our social media connections are built on this critical need. Our brain development, physical health, safety, mental health and life satisfaction are all developed by our membership in a group. We are not like reptiles who live all on their own, don’t suckle their young and may eat each other. We mammals are built for cuddling, bearing our young, live and loving partnerships. We often exhibit empathy for each other. These tendencies were all developed in us by evolution. You can see this need in us when a fire breaks out and our family members are saved. The first question people ask, after losing all their worldly goods is “Is everybody OK?” You can read about this phenomenon in A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis MD, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, MD New York:  Vintage Books, 2000. Getting close to others and belonging to a group is the number one in life satisfaction.

Nobody on his deathbed said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” —Paul Tsongas, United States Senator from Massachusetts

Attachment and addiction recovery

Getting close to others and belonging to a group is the number one in life satisfaction.These life-saving attachments can be seen in addiction recovery. Addictions are obsessive thinking and uncontrollable impulses to consume substances that can be looked at as avoidance of allowing others to nurture us. Our genetic make-up and early childhood experiences impede our connections to others. As addicts, we learn to starve for love. We don’t allow intimacy to get in the way of using a substance, which becomes the be-all and end-all of our existence. Essentially our normal human craving for fulfilling emotional attachment becomes replaced by unfulfilling use of substances. Addicts become split into a cunning, using false self and a nurturing true self. They still look for love but they look for it in all the wrong places. And they become emptier and more lonely over time. Addicts cannot stand to be around caring people who don’t use as their shame only gets more exposed. Their only hope is to be around other addicts who have a desire to stop using. In that way they can heal and unite both parts of themselves—their using self and their true self. The nurturing this allows him to receive from fellow addicts is miraculous and life-saving. Addicts in recovery are the most forgiving and spiritual people on the face of the earth. They often go to places that non-addicts have never visited in their lifetime. However, some addicts who are unable to recover just tragically die from their illness. Most addicts who do recover have far better lives than if they had not had an addiction to challenge them.

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I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am aware that we save each other some of the time. The miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated, or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. —James Baldwin, 1964

Lesson #2: To be a whole person, we must devote ourselves to a mutually intimate and respectful relationship to one other person for the rest of our life

Erik Erikson, a famous German American psychologist identified this stage as the Intimacy versus Isolation stage in human development. It is the critical crowning glory of attachment when we can unselfishly be devoted to another person’s well-being and happiness while that person is also devoted to our own. Many of us stumble in this stage as we make our way through bad relationships and divorces. Hopefully we learn from our mistakes until we eventually get it right with one other person. Often we need the guidance of a caring professional helper and 12 step group to make this transition as we can’t see what we can’t see. Some of us in a committed single life devote ourselves to a life-long friend or vocation to the well-being of another precious person who is also devoted to us.

Addicts cannot stand to be around caring people who don’t use as their shame only gets more exposed.In my life the earlier misfires still linger in my heart but largely I have learned what I needed to learn. Like others who stumble in this stage I focused too much on getting the perfect partner when I really needed to focus on myself and accepting the abundant love I am offered and being a better partner myself in receiving them. I had to learn that women offer me more than just how they looked and that I myself needed to step up to the plate to love and respect them. This is how I learned to pick out my mate. Women in this culture get too little acknowledgement for their smarts and too much attention for how they look.

Over time and much daily communication, I decided to listen to my wife and trust her, especially when it made me uncomfortable. She always looks great to me even as we age together. It helped to read John Gottman’s books Why Marriages Succeed or Fail Simon and Schuster, 1994 and What Makes Love Last Simon and Schuster, 2013.  Now I am in love forever with the love of my life. I go to places with her that I never dreamed of before and I become a person that I never knew I could be. What I learn now feels like journeying with new discoveries to places I have never been. Every day feels like a day of gratitude in which I receive more than I feel I deserve from all the people in my life due to this special bond. It is a gift than only God can give me.

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Life lesson #3: To be happy we must live with generosity in the experience of something much bigger than our self

Our Higher Power is always with us each day in ways we seldom see. Usually, we experience such companionship when we get close to another person and something much bigger than ourselves inexplicably comes about. When a long term addict finally decides to give a 12 Step Meeting a try, when we make up with an old friend whom we’ve been alienated from, when we volunteer with older people or children, when we first meet the love of our life or when we sit with a loved one on his death bed, God often comes by to visit. Something bigger than our self has intervened in our life and we are changed forever. If we allow Him, God will speak to us in our dreams. The more we listen the more He speaks.  Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about this phenomenon in When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Good Enough: A Search for a Life That Matters Touchstone Press, 2001 and Who Needs God, Touchstone Press, 2001.

Something bigger than our self has intervened in our life and we are changed forever.Some of us even have personal experiences in which we meet God in near death episodes. You can read about a research neurologist’s powerful experience of life after death in Proof of Heaven: A Neurologist’s Journey Into the After Life by Eben Alexander, M.D. Simon and Schuster, 2012 and in the book, To Heaven and Back by Mary C. Neal M.D., Waterbrook Press, 2011

Most of us may experience a Higher Power in 12 Step Groups and therapeutic relationships with sponsors and psychotherapists. Something magical happens in healing relationships that cannot be explained in words where growth steps and sobriety are attained without knowing how this happens. Sometimes the God between two people works in mysterious ways and helps both the healer and the client in ways never imagined. When two people together have an epiphany then you know that something divine has happened. You can feel the energy in the room. Often deep love and empathy are the contributing factors to the divine intervention.

“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” —Aeschylus (Greek playwright, 525-456 BC)

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). 

Last Updated on February 27, 2023

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