Something very disconcerting has been happening over the last couple of months in the midst of COVID-19. Instead of speaking about people, everyone has begun talking in numbers. Politicians, health experts, and the everyday person all have opinions which weigh up the numbers of dead. Some insist we must do everything to limit the number of dead. Others argue that economic collapse will cause more deaths than the virus.
The reason this disturbs me so much is this: for the individuals who make up those dead, the numbers don’t matter. If I die, the amount of people who died at the same time does not factor into my personal experience. In other words, when speaking about these numbers, we’re making flippant assumptions about deep philosophical and existential considerations.
I’m not going to discuss whether there is a “correct” way to speak about the numbers of infected and dead. But this has brought up something that used to bother me tremendously when recovering from addiction. Did I have control or was I just a statistic?
The addiction numbers game
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 40% to 60% of people with substance use disorder relapse at some point after treatment. This number used to terrify me. I was determined to get clean and stay clean. I had committed to never use substances again. I had made promises to family, friends, and myself. But so had each individual who made up that 40% to 60%.
The numbers proved to me something I’d had no intention of accepting. I did not have control. No matter how hard I tried, I might end up becoming part of that number, even if treatment had worked.
Turns out, this discovery was not a bad thing. In fact, without it, my recovery would have almost certainly been cut short.
Acceptance and control
A crucial aspect of recovery from substance use disorders is the relinquishing of the control we think we have. As addicts, we thrive on denial. We see the world and ourselves as we want to, rather than as they are. We continually insist that we have control, even when it is clear to everyone else that we do not.
When I entered recovery, I had not relinquished my supposed control. Yes, I had accepted that I had a problem and that I had no control right now, but I intended to wrestle back that control in rehab.
Every recovering addict can relate to the terror of starting at day 1. Once you have made it one day sober, you still have the rest of your life ahead of you. The thought of having to survive until you die sounds like no life at all. And this is exactly the reason giving up control now and in the future is crucial.
One of the mantras of the 12 Step Program is that we do it “just for today.” This is an assertion that all we have is the present. Whatever happens tomorrow cannot retrospectively change what happens today.
Relapse happens. The numbers reflect that reality. As an addict, you have to accept that you may well be among those numbers at some point in the future. And you have to accept that it does not matter right now. Yes, you will do everything you can to augment your recovery. But if you do eventually relapse, you can only deal with that reality at the time.
The current crisis has had me thinking about numbers and statistics a lot. These numbers are just one indication that we do not have control. No matter what we do, we may end up a part of them. However, as recovering addicts, acknowledging this reality is what gives us hope. Only when we stop obsessing about what we cannot change can we find peace in what is happening right now.