The comedian Dave Gardner used to remark, “Folks are always saying, ‘Let’s do this again!’ But friends, you can’t do anything again! You can do something similar!”
I think about Gardner’s bit of wisdom when I hear people in early recovery talking about returning to their families and friends and “making it up to them.” (This also brings to mind the idea of pushing toothpaste back into the tube.) We say these things with the idea that we will be able to return things to the way they were “before” — if there ever really was a before.
That’s a lovely idea, but it’s not the way reality works. We can’t recreate the past in the present. We can’t make others feel the way we want them to feel, or make them forget the things we’d like them to forget. If we return to our friends and families thinking that those things will happen, we are most likely setting ourselves up for terrific, ongoing disappointment and stress.
Stress often triggers relapse.
I’m not trying to shoot down anyone’s hopes and dreams here. What I want to do is give people in early recovery a realistic view of the past, and what can be done about it.
First of all, we need to understand that our perception of what happened is not the same as that of our loved ones, and that their perception is what counts. We can’t change the feelings involved, either: the resentments, the memories of promises not kept, opportunities missed and so forth, and a lot of anger. We can’t “do it again,” because the people are different now, and we can’t fix them.
If we expect to be welcomed with open arms and step right back into the role of father, mother, son or whatever, without any friction — well, it ain’t gonna happen. People take on different roles when there is an addict in the family, and sometimes they don’t care to give the power up. I mean, c’mon! What reason is there for them to think that we won’t blow it again? We need to convince them by our actions, because our word became meaningless a long time ago.
When we accept these facts, we are a good part of the way to where we need to be. All we can do is show them that we are different now, one day at a time. We need to be willing to accept their right to feel as they do. We need to demonstrate our reliability, our honesty, and our commitment to sobriety. We need to be able to admit to ourselves that the forgiveness will have to be earned. We also need to realize that time is on our side. These people want to trust us, believe in us, love us again. We just can’t choose when it will happen.
You see, they’re scared to death. They’ve heard innumerable promises. We need to start keeping them. They’ve had myriad disappointments. We need to do our best not to disappoint them. They’ve relied on us in the past, and we didn’t perform. We need to show that we are reliable. We’d like to be respected again, and we have to earn that, too. They love us, but we need to behave in such a way that they won’t be afraid to show that love.
When we say the Serenity Prayer, we ask for “courage to change the things I can” and “wisdom to know the difference.” We can’t change other people; we can only change ourselves. We need the wisdom and patience to keep on doing that until others can see that we have changed, and until they begin to believe that we will remain the person that we are becoming. Even when that happens, we won’t be able to do it all over again and get it right.
But we can do something similar.