What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire

It’s 11:45am and I’m standing at the train station waiting to go to work, the sky hanging low and heavy with the promise of sleet. I’m late. I’ve just finished my morning internship shift, where I processed two clients out of our therapeutic relationship together because they’re both graduating next week, and I’m feeling pensive about it. Both of these clients came to treatment because of alcohol abuse, and they’re unusual in that regard – many of my clients come to our program because they’re in deep with the “hard stuff”, like crack and heroin and methamphetamines.

But these two women, they’re different. One is incredibly depressed—she wears her depression like a safety blanket wrapped tightly around her wherever she goes. The depression is a force that you can feel as soon as she sits in the room with you. It is thick, like fog. It is familiar. It makes it exceedingly difficult to get close to her.

The other is incredibly anxious. She often speaks about feeling as though her whole body is buzzing with cortisol, electrified. From our very first session where I tried to calm her using breathing techniques and a softened voice, to this last where she exuded both optimism and fear for the ending of her time in treatment, I often felt like her anxiety was reaching out of her fingertips and bouncing off the walls in the small basement therapy room.

Addiction shows up in so many different ways, and it puts on so many different faces. It hides quietly behind anxiety, depression, trauma, anger, insecurity, fear, and loneliness, whispering in your ear that you cannot survive these things without it. It hides behind celebrations and joy, waiting to dampen them. Even as we stare back at our own sallow faces full of regret and despair, we reach back into our addictions for another taste of the nectar, thinking this time will be different—or perhaps knowing full well that this time won’t be any different than the last, but we’re going to do it anyway dammit.

I get on the train and I bury my face in my phone. I think about these two women who left my care today, and I’m proud of them. It’s likely that I will never know what happens next in their lives. I won’t ever be able to read the next chapters in their stories. But despite what they’re working against, I have hope for them.

Addiction takes a torch to the mind and scours it, over and over. Sobriety is the regrowth of the underbrush that protects the forest floor: all the weeds and the flowers, the grass and moss, bushes with berries, and the saplings that eventually turn into trees, whose roots work to prevent a devastating landslide.

Unlike nature, however, our minds don’t require the systematic burn and purge of active addiction to thrive. We don’t need to constantly rebuild ourselves from scratch. We can let our minds grow and heal, slowly. We can put the matchbook safely back in our pockets and tend to our land. We can take credit for the flourish when it arrives.

The process of starting the fire can itself become addictive. The act of clearing away the growth and healing with a raging flame seems counterproductive, but for many of the people I’ve worked with during my time as a therapist intern, the drive to destroy progress is powerful. Especially when their growth is really starting to flower—it’s too easy to look at the beauty and sabotage it, because so many of them feel as though they’re not worth it, or that they don’t know any other way to live. How do you learn to live in the forest when so much of your life has been consumed by dancing through hot coals and fire?

Through every attempt at sobriety I ever made, the urge to destroy my “clean” days and go back to zero came on hard. It had ferocity, with determination like claws ripping through my psyche. It got me every time until one day, it didn’t have me at all. Until I stood in the line of that destruction and made myself believe that the only way out was through.

As Bukowski once said: what matters most is how well you walk through the fire. 

What’s humbling to me is the fact that the only things separating me from my clients are the simple strokes of luck that graced me on my path from addiction to sobriety. There were plenty of times that I could’ve gotten in trouble with the law because of my drinking. My parents could have vocalized more fear about how often I was getting fall-down drunk. I could’ve wound up with alcohol poisoning or nasty, shaking withdrawals. Partners and friends could’ve looked at me with pity and frustration. But, they didn’t. I didn’t. I never lost a job or hurt anyone physically because of my drinking (thank god). Relationships might’ve been strained, sure, and perhaps some were inevitably lost because of it, but I think part of the losses I experienced was a product of starting relationships on false pretenses in the first place. Relationships born out of drunkenness and instability and insecurity. Relationships built on the foundation of my addicted self.

That’s not really the point, though. The point is that in reality, not much separates me from my clients, especially the ones who struggle(d) with alcohol. In them I see the future of me, were I to keep drinking. In them, I see minds ravaged by fire. Repeatedly. Over and over. Ad nauseam. Amen. Their heavy woolen blankets of depression and their electrified cortisol-overwhelmed bodies speak to one of the many truths about addiction: its effects can be long-lasting and severe. The longer the fire is allowed to burn, the further the healing growth takes to grab hold.

But it can. And it will. If only you give it a chance.

I get to work and am cold, tired. I sit at my desk. It’s quiet. The first thing I do is make myself a hot lunch and grab a free LaCroix from the fridge–one of the perks of working where I do. Of course, with free LaCroix and diet coke comes beer on tap from the kegerator in the kitchen. There’s a liquor cabinet somewhere around here, too.

I’ve only ever drank alcohol with these people twice, way back when I first started my job in June of 2016. The first time, I sat on the rooftop at our old building and shared a pitcher of some flat, hoppy beer with my male colleagues, the development team. The second time, I tried and failed to pour a nice glass of whatever was left in the keg, and got mostly a cup full of foam. I drank what I could and left feeling frustrated.

These days I suck down as many free LaCroix as I can get away with as I eat my lunches at my desk. I think about my split career–one foot in software development, the other in mental health–and I get lost in trying to keep the two straight. I wonder what life will look like a year from now, once I’m nearing the end of my program. Where I’ll be and who I’ll be working with. It’s enough to make my head spin.

I am thankful. At first, I didn’t want to work an internship at a treatment facility because I thought it would be too difficult. I was scared of having to work with clients whose problems so sadly mirrored my own problems of the not-so-distant past. I was scared of burnout and resistance and relapse.

But my clients have shown me a little bit about what it means to try again, and again, and again to control the burn and eventually put it out.

They’ve shown me that the mind might become ravaged by fire but the soul persists and endures, often indefinitely, until it finds a way out.

They’ve shown me that if someone with an addiction wants a change, they will try over and over and over and over and over again until they figure the damn thing out.

I know I did.

5 thoughts on “What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire

  1. Robert Crisp says:

    First (probably because I’m in a writing mood), I love this post from a writer’s standpoint. If you ever want to talk shop, let me know…but onto the content of your post, which I love, too. I understand both women you describe, and their descriptions mirror my own experience in rehab at different times. I also remember my intake counselor expresses mild disbelief when I told her that drugs weren’t part of my story. “So you’re just an old-fashioned drunk,” she said. “We don’t get many of those.”

    Also, my counselor at rehab played a vital role in my recovery. Three years later, I’m still sober, and she has opened up her own therapy practice, and I had my first session with her last Friday. I hope it encourages her to see me still hanging in there. And now, she gets to help me deal with my anxiety, OCD, and a host of other issues. Lucky her. : )

    I hope you’re well. It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • okayishness blog says:

      Thank you! I appreciate it 😊 I’ve been trying to get back to my creative voice lately and I’ve found this to be a good spot. I enjoy your poetry, as well 🙂 also, I’m sure your counselor was happy to have someone who wanted to continue the work with her. That’s a good sign for both of you, therapeutically speaking. Best of luck in that and thank you so much for your kindness.


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