One of the more important tools I developed in recovery has been the practice of radical acceptance. I was once called out for not having any radical acceptance ability when I was in rehab and it forced me to reflect on the accusation.
Several of the residents were allowed to attend an “outside” 12-step meeting, meaning they went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting off the rehab property with regular community members. On their way back, they stopped off at a store and bought candy and energy drinks, which were both forbidden at the rehab. Their car was searched upon return and the contraband was discovered.
The next day, at our large group morning meeting, one of the counselors told us because of the actions of those four residents, all visitor’s passes would be cancelled the following weekend.
A few of the residents who had family or friends visiting got visibly upset and/or angry.
“This is meant to make you all accountable to one another,” the counselor told the group. “It’s a skill you need to develop. If you were in an office and one of your co-workers was flaunting the rules, your co-workers would come together and set them straight.”
I had always thought I had an overdeveloped sense of justice/injustice, and it was going off like a light on top of a firetruck. I couldn’t stand to see many of my friends denied visits with their families.
“Your rationalization is bullshit,” I said loudly.
“What is that, Mr. Shea?” the counselor asked.
“That’s a pathetic rationalization. First, if we were co-workers, that person would get fired. The entire team wouldn’t. Sure, we could complain to the boss about them, but none of us even knew what these guys did. Second, making each other accountable isn’t actually the way the world works. That’s why we have police and the legal system. We don’t punish all of society for one person’s wrongs.”
“Mr. Shea, do you family visiting you?” the counselor asked.
“No, they’re all in California or the northeast. They’re not flying to Texas to see me,” I explained.
“Then why does this particular situation concern you?” she asked.
“Because it’s not fair,” I said. “It’s not fair to the people who have family and friends coming.”
“Yet none of them are talking,” she said. “It’s you, who doesn’t even have a stake in this.”
“Whatever,” I said, and let it go, seething silently.
It kind of bothered me none of the people affected spoke up. It bothered me even more when a few hours later, I saw them joking and laughing with each other – and the counselor who delivered the news. It dawned on me that I was more upset about a situation that had no bearing on me whatsoever, than people who were directly involved. Something didn’t make sense about it.
Later that day, I sought out that counselor and told her that while the (in my eyes) unjust punishment was still bothering me, the others seemed to move on, and I didn’t understand how they could just do that.
She told me that she knew I believed I had a strong sense of justice and injustice, but she recognized it for what it was. It was really about power and control. I disagreed, but she pointed out as long as it was my allies, I was fine with other people in control, but the moment someone had it and I felt threatened, I confused it with injustice.
“You know you’re probably going to see a little jail time for what you did, right?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I explained. “Technically, I already pled guilty, but when I get home, they’ll look at the fact I went here and to another rehab for alcoholism and that I’m in therapy…”
“You’ll probably do 6 to 12 months,” she interrupted.
“My lawyer is hoping for no time,” I said.
“They always hope for that, and I hope you get no time, but if you do, be prepared that there is nothing you can do about it,” she said.
I looked at her somewhat blankly not wanting to admit she was correct.
“Do you know why none of your friends are still freaking out about their visitors? They’ve learned to practice radical acceptance. That’s where sometimes, no matter what happens, you’re not in control and you just have to accept it and move on.”
It took some reflection, but I was able to recognize plenty of times in my life that I tried to manipulate a situation I didn’t want to accept under the guise of injustice. I also recognized how many times I ended up begrudgingly accepting something I couldn’t control, and how when I finally let it go, it rarely stuck with me very long.
As I’ve made my way through recovery, I’ve done a lot of reading about radical acceptance. That counselor simplified the concept. For me, what’s it really about is the pain and suffering that comes from not being in control.
When I don’t let something I can’t control go, I suffer more pain than if I just moved on. Refusing to accept the pain by refusing to let things go just brings additional suffering, and who really wants that?
About eight months after my conversation with the counselor, I got a sentence of nine months (of which I served six.) As the judge was reading her verdict, a bit of a calm came over me. I now knew what my punishment would be, and I was at peace with it because there wasn’t anything I could do about it and it would be a waste of time to try.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean being lazy. It doesn’t give an excuse to not standing up against the real injustices of the world, but for people who were power-hungry control freaks like I was, it’s a way to gain perspective.