The kind of workout that comes from ditch digging cannot be replicated with any number of twenty minute sessions on your Bowflex, or countless hours starting at the ass in the front of your spin class. Back breaking physical labor is something that I have lost in my life for a few years now, and when the opportunity arose to help a friend of mine dig a drainage ditch in the crawl space below his house, I jumped all over it. I did it for a number of reasons. I did it to remind myself that no matter how hard up I get, I would do well to avoid going back into landscaping (my god I’m out of shape). I did it out of a genuine interest in spending time with my friend, also because one of the things I have been afforded in my early recovery is this amazing skill to say I am going to do something and then actually show up and do it the next day (this one’s just not getting old) and lastly, because I am trying to hone a knee jerk impulse towards doing the next right thing. And well, this looked like just the thing. So we dug for a few hours, I stayed for dinner, it was nice, and by and large I’m not too sore.
It’s an incremental way to live. “What’s the very next right thing for me to be doing?” And like so many things in recovery, it might be applicable to everyone. It is necessary for people who have been to the edge of terminal drug use because for us, the sum of a long string of tiny bad choices adds up to death. Well, I guess there’s no reason to get preachy about it, that can also true of anyone. I think what I was getting at is that for people who don’t have a chemical dependency problem, the sum of the same bad choices I might make, leading me to death, would only lead them to a life of unhappiness.
When I look back on my years of relapse, there were a handful of times when I managed to line up a few days in a row. A clumsy child, I would carefully place one in front of the other like a line of dominoes, my pudgy hands sweating with the anticipation of inevitable catastrophe. For the longest time, I couldn’t even place two ivory pieces on end. I would just stand one up and knock it over that very morning, full of anguish about the numbing repetition of my life. Then I would get some help and make a line of seven, or thirty, only to succumb to the excitement of tapping that first piece. No matter how many days I stood on end, making a long looping row, my downfall always came from one tiny gesture, a flick so subtle and far removed from the opening of the bottle as to be lost in the thicket of stress that was the weeks leading up to that fateful drink.
Over time, I came to recognize a behavior that was an early choice in that long line leading me to the liquor store minutes before it opened. Funny as it may sound, my first red flag on the road to relapse was refusing to floss my teeth. Countless times, I have sobered up with nothing to do but endure painful reflection,looking back, wondering where things went all pear-shaped. Was it when I stole the money? Maybe it was that evening four days ago when I lied about my plans? As I follow the breadcrumbs, my walk takes me back through the woods. My shaky, detoxing hands pick up one after the other until I find myself about two and a half weeks before I got drunk. I look up into my own face staring back at me from the bathroom mirror, saying “fuck it, I’m too tired to run this piece of string through my teeth for forty five seconds.”
And there it is, the very first sign of my changing attitude. In that moment, I am no longer breaking the world into manageable, bite-sized bits, no longer looking for the next right thing to do. I have turned on the tap that, weeks later, becomes an unmanageable torrent, sweeping me up in it all the way to the liquor store at ten in the morning. The opportunities to start this flood are presented moment to moment every day, something as simple as “should I eat lunch today?” can have startling ramifications in the weeks to come. It is a life of constant diligence but, luckily for me, it is also one that affords life and death choices very regularly, giving me something to be overly dramatic about as I write. Which is good, because if you were to look at my day on paper, you would be well justified as you questioned whether I have anything to write about at all.