Addicts, Heroes Among Us

“My brother was turning blue, he was not moving, not even breathing. I put that bag on his mouth and started squeezing air into his lungs. I could see his chest move. He finally started waking up. I didn’t have to call 911 that time,” my patient recalled.

What defines a hero? Is it saving a life? Is it saving many lives or simply saving one’s own life?

Heroes come in many shapes and sizes. Typically we think of the ordinary citizen in the right place at the right time to catch a falling baby, stopping a child from running in front of a car or saving a choking victim in a restaurant. What about the fireman who willingly puts himself at risk to run into a burning building to save someone? Or the soldier who willingly commits unbelievable acts of bravery to save his fellow soldiers. The super hero dressed in tights battling it out with an evil villain. We love the story of a normal person who discovers a super power and chooses to discard their old ways in favor of fighting evil for the benefit of the innocent. Why do we love this narrative so much? Is it simply the fantasy of acquiring super powers. Is it the adoration? Is it saving a life? Would we simply misuse our super power for personal gain? What about the addict who fights a battle in his own mind, against the good of staying sober versus the evil of continued use?

Some of my patients tell me such tales. Like the above story, many of them have seen their friends or family overdose. They help them breathe, call 911 or even give Narcan. (The antidote to opiate overdose). Many of them simply fight a war in their own mind every day. A hero in their own mind.

In every story of a super hero there occurs this pivotal moment where they go from an ordinary human to something else. They face the decision to let go of their old self and to adopt their new identity. Spiderman must give up part of his love for Mary Jane. Ironman turns his back on his investors. Thor gives up some of his royal godly indulgence. This idea of giving up their previous goals in favor of their new found ideal may be the single most courageous act. Only through sacrifice can they become the super hero as we know and love so much. The degree of any success for that matter depends directly on the amount one is willing to sacrifice, the amount of instant pleasure foregone in order to reach a worthy ideal. This story line dates back many years in human history.

The hero’s journey, copyright every religion and cultural folklore, goes like this:

Boy is a spoiled brat. He lives a lavish indulgent life. Boy is cast out due to some transgression. Boy learns the true meaning of his life. He learns that instead of self pleasure, selfless service to another means more. Boy returns home to give up his old ways and fight for good above evil. Boy becomes hero.

It is because he willingly gives up his comfortable easy life to take on a greater responsibility that we love these stories so much. When the addict gives up what they love the most a hero will emerge.

A true story.

Robert. Born in Manhattan in 1965 was raised by a drug addicted father who gave him marijuana at age 7. Both his parents were actors and Robert followed in their footsteps, both in acting and drug abuse. He became an addict at age 8. He gained some notoriety playing an addict on screen and received an academy award nomination at an early age. Unfortunately the pressure of Hollywood caught up to him. His only coping mechanism was booze and blow. Soon he spiraled out of control. He ended up in jail, a black sheep cast out of Hollywood. Fortunately he received help from another Academy award winning actor who was working AA’s Step 12 (helping another). The boy gave up his previous life of indulgence and sought to return home to Hollywood and fight his addiction. He became a man. Unfortunately he couldn’t get insured as an actor but eventually his friend covered his costs and soon he was able to garner a few acting rolls. He regained stability and ultimately landed the roll that would not only change his life but would also symbolize his emergence as a Hero. His name is Robert Downy Jr and today he is one of the most successful actors. That role was Iron Man and he is currently listed by Forbes as the highest paid actor in Hollywood. His friend was Mel Gibson who was once blacklisted due to alcoholism but made his amends and regained the trust of the Academy with several nominations for his latest film. These two men represent the quintessential example of the Hero’s journey and Robert Downey Jr made his comeback by playing a super hero. His success in the role of Ironman may just be because deep inside he was truly a hero, fighting the “enemy” of addiction in his own mind.

An excellent quote;

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are” – Frigga (his mother).

We are all supposed to be perfectly good people, but we know that’s not true. Who we truly are is what we cannot change, however we can choose how to use our true self. We were born with certain genetics but molded by circumstance, each of us different. The choice stands to use who we are to continue to fail or to succeed. The final step of the infamous 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous urges one to help another. The alcoholic has to accept who they are and use that knowledge to help another. That is why AA has been so successful.

Marcus Aurelius stated in his Meditations that “The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” The addict that turns his addiction into a way of helping others in turn will heal their own addiction. That is the mark of a true hero, to be able to turn one’s struggle into a cause.

Those that fight their own addiction on a daily basis are true heroes of their own mind. An internal battle rages in their heart between good and evil every day. The desire to be a better person versus the temptation to not. The wish to help versus destroy. The angel on the one shoulder and the devil on the other. They must choose whether to change the way they feel instantly versus patiently waiting to do so.

The choice is yours. Rescind those temptations to slack off, over indulge and be unproductive. Refute the temptation to take the easy road of comfort and feeling high. Work toward a high ideal and help others on the way. That is the path to heaven. (Heaven as in a place in the hearts of those you helped, a place where your ideas will remain after you’re gone. I have a whole argument about where heaven really is but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Thanks for reading.

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