Do you remember the first time you saw the sky?
I do. I can’t recall it with a confident sense of time and place. I don’t know how old I was, which neighborhood backyard I was in, what I was wearing, or even who I was with. That memory is infused with a transcendent sense of Presence. It’s more like I remember what I was, rather than where I was.
I think you know what I mean. I looked at the sky day after day, as far back as I can remember, but all at once I seemed to really see it. The familiar night sky shifted in an instant from deep violet and pitch all speckled with starlight… to unfathomable distances, impossible heights and depths, peopled end to end by worlds alight with ancient energy.
I had made contact with Reality. I had seen – for one eternal moment – the world I had always lived in (and still do). It filled me with what I can only describe as Joy. It was a revelation.
What happened next? I can’t say. I assume my endlessly churning mind started up again. Whatever anxieties and curiosities seemed important back then probably reared up (as they often do) and skittered across the windshield of my inner eye. I probably thought of dinner, or school, or some argument.
And the thought-fog descended. I was me again. In my awkward body, with all my regular fears and passions.
My life is peppered with moments like that; fleeting moments of what I now know to be Awareness. It’s what recovery calls Conscious Contact, what some Romantics knew as The Sublime, what C.S. Lewis imagined in Narnia. It has always been, for me and many of the people I have known, the greatest of conscious experiences. There are accounts and descriptions of it in every language, culture and tradition I’ve ever cared to explore, but the simplest and most accessible way I have ever heard it described was by an individual, five days into detox from heroin and alcohol, who said:
"I Felt Connected."
That’s where we’re headed with this. I’m sure you’ve wondered by this point in the article what in the world all of this has to do with substance use disorder, or more pointedly, the treatment of and recovery from substance use disorder.
Many individuals in long-term recovery have said to me (in so many words) that they were never obsessed with what drugs and alcohol did to their brains or to their bodies, but with what it did for their consciousness. Their great secret was that in some strange, synthetic way drugs and alcohol produced a vital sense of connection with the world; that here and there, in the right place at the right time, they could get themselves back onto that childhood lawn, gazing in awe at the night sky, without the noise, the fear, the trauma, the crippling sense of apart-ness.
Across the hundreds of therapeutic relationships and thousands of meaningful encounters I have had with individuals in recovery, this phenomenon has been a constant. Worthy and enlightening essays and studies have recently brought it into public discourse; the idea that a thirst for belonging and connection motivates so much of the devastating pursuit of perception-altering drugs of abuse.
But this truth has been at the heart of recovery from the beginning.
Think of one of your own night sky moments. There’s no rule or formula for them. Maybe it was the birth of your child, or one morning on a fishing trip, or out of nowhere on a walk in the woods.
Think of one of those blessed moments where the endless chattering of the mind was suddenly interrupted, the rumination of the ego seemed to dissolve and there you were, completely conscious and present to Life.
I know it was fleeting, and I know it’s not the kind of thing you can remember like a history lesson or a math problem, but try to put yourself back into that space; that space that you falsely thought you’d found again, years later, in drugs and alcohol.
Remember that cool, quiet, peaceful sense of homecoming.
Now tell me,
Where is your shame?
Where are your fears?
Where is the craving and desire for the relief of drugs and alcohol?
Now imagine that we could capture that sense of presence and peace. Imagine that we could stretch that moment out across the timeline of your life, that you could rest there, somehow live there.
It's time we lost our minds and came to our senses.
Treatment and recovery, facilitated and shared by conscious, compassionate people understands this. Effective approaches to treatment include this essential foundational pillar: that long-term recovery is possible if we can reestablish that sense of connection.
If we can find a way back home to ourselves.
If we can become a part of, rather than suffer apart from.