Commonality of Consciousness
This morning, my husband shared this article on how important it is for veterans to share their war experience so that they may be included in the “commonality of consciousness” and experience the healing power of humanity. If you are a vet, or perhaps especially if you know and love a vet, I would greatly encourage you to take a look at the article as it is a perspective we don’t often hear from the military community.
The article, or rather opinion piece, resonated with me so strongly when I read it. Perhaps initially because I could very well imagine my husband and myself as the two engaged in conversation at the beginning. As I read on, and reflected on its message, what struck me most strongly is that this is all information I know all too well from my experience living and working within the recovery community. We say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets” and encourage each other to unburden ourselves from the guilt and shame which keeps us bound to our illness. At the same time, veterans are so often held in this status of “other than” and encouraged to keep their demons to themselves for fear that the darkness which inhabits them will infect our pristine little peaceful world where war only exists on a movie screen.
Nearly every recovery story I’ve heard includes a line like, “In my family, we didn’t discuss things like this. All the ugliness was kept in the shadows. We couldn’t let anyone see that we weren’t perfect.” My family was no different. If someone was doing something inappropriate, we didn’t speak to that person directly. Instead, we spoke in hushed whispers behind their backs. We wielded the blade of passive aggressiveness like some sort of ancient samurai artform. It is hard for a person to know where they stand in an environment like that. “Yes, they say they love me, but what do they really think?” Now that I am open and somewhat outspoken about my addiction, I have had a few private conversations with some family members who have been willing to either identify with me or secretly discuss “the elephant in the room.” Still, the imagery of “everything’s fine” covers all. Primarily, we keep our discussions on trivial matters like television shows and pretend that these gaping rifts between us don’t exist.
Now, my purpose here isn’t to call my family out or to blame them for what I’ve done in my life. For the most part, I have a very close-knit, loving family and I am grateful to have been born into such an amazingly smart, funny, personable group of folks. I only wish to illustrate the difference between the world in which many of us were raised and the world in which we find recovery and the ability to connect with our fellow travelers. The difference between these two worlds lies in our ability and even encouragement to share openly and honestly to an empathetic audience, be it one or many.
Empathy is found in shared experiences. One alcoholic can well understand the insanity of the disease present within another alcoholic because he’s been there and he’s experienced the insanity himself. As a drug addict who found recovery through a group of alcoholics, I have had to extrapolate empathy through identifying with emotions and thought processes rather than specific actions. I sat in rooms hearing “alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful” over and over again. I didn’t fully grasp the power of the phrase, though, until I went to another room where I heard “cocaine is cunning, baffling and powerful.” My first time hearing that, I blurted out, “Oh, it IS!!” Though I was able to identify more closely with specifics in that other room, I felt my recovery was more well-rounded and complete by empathizing with those who had different experiences from myself. By refusing to pigeonhole myself in a room of people with the same experience, I was able to connect with others who had similar experiences and ultimately learned to empathize with people who have had wholly dissimilar experiences from my own.
Take PTSD, for example. Post-traumatic stress is a term we often reserve for survivors of wartime actions, but veterans aren’t the only ones who suffer. I have experienced bouts of PTSD related to my own drug-addled past. Even those who have experienced similar events – say two soldiers engaged in the same devastating firefight – can have PTSD manifested in vastly different ways. They can either chose to isolate themselves from each other because their symptoms aren’t identical or they can seek to bond over their shared tragedy. Neither of these options are necessarily healthy, though. In one instance, they are both plunged into a perpetual state of isolation where they feel no one can understand what they’re going through. In the other instance, the two are bonded in darkness, and focus on morbid reflection, as that is the only way they can feel true connection to another human soul.
Alcoholics and addicts often have a tendency toward this same community through morbid reflection. Using the term “normie” to describe someone who is not an alcoholic separates us from the rest of the world by creating a mythical “other than.” While, yes, we are bodily and mentally different from our fellows with respect to alcohol, we are not so different with respect to life in general. Life sometimes gets hard to handle for everyone. Simply because someone doesn’t use alcohol or drugs to escape reality doesn’t mean that they have all of life’s answers. Our so-called “normies” often engage in any number of addictive or negative behaviors just like we do. Their behaviors just aren’t always as life-shattering as ours.
I recently watched through the entirety of the TV series “Dexter” and I often felt empathy for the title character. Now, I don’t often identify with serial killers. How could I? I’ve never killed anyone. Too, why on earth would I want to? Who would want to examine the similarities of their own tiny darkness to that of someone who ritually takes human lives with impunity? Sin is sin, though. And it is not the atrocity of the act, but the separation from God which defines sin. As Sufjan Stevens says in his haunting ballad, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”
We have all been through trauma of some sort or another. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It is our choice whether to protect our fragile egos by hiding our darkness or to seek the communal spirit of humanity, despite the difference in the details. True recovery; true humanity is not achieved until we are able to see past our own darkness and seek out the shared light in all those around us.