Lessons from Recovery May Help Heal the Political Divide

This was the second US Presidential Election I’ve participated in as a voter since I entered recovery from alcoholism and pornography addiction in early 2014. It is also the second time in as many elections that, regardless of the outcome, I think the lessons I gathered from my recovery process are ones that all Americans could use in the aftermath. Unless you’re in that narrow margin who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden this year (of which I actually am), one of the last two elections left you jubilant while the other left you downtrodden.

We’re a sick country right now and have been for a while. As a society, we’re not interacting well with one another and that’s the only way we’re going to turn things around. I was like that as an addict for 24 years. Addiction is such a self-centered world, that the key for recovery being successful, at least for me, has been improving my outlook of the world and how I interact with the people in it.

I’m not excusing any behavior I find reprehensible on either side of the political spectrum. There are some very broken things that need to be fixed. This country and its citizens need a big dose of recovery and I think the lessons I learned in recovery are lessons that may help this wounded country and its people.

There is very little you actually control in this world

One of the toughest lessons I had to internalize during early recovery was that neither my opinions, nor my arguments toward fairness and justice, really changed anything. For keyboard warriors who hide behind fake screen names, that’s one thing, but I was an active journalist for 20 years when I entered recovery. For many years, one of my duties was to write opinion pieces that were read by tens of thousands of people. You can mistakenly believe your words have far more power than they actually do. Recovery gave me some perspective.

I absolutely agree that voting is a sacred right and despite the fact that it divides us on a very basic level, it also allows for consensus. Growing up in my family, on Friday nights, we would go out to eat. We tried to decide together, but my brother and I would opt for McDonald’s because of the toys in the Happy Meals while my parents were angling for a better sit-down experience. Finally, my parents decided to move to a system where we took turns picking, with no veto power for the others on the weeks it was not your turn to choose.

I look back now and recognize how this showed the differences between a democracy and a dictatorship. It was great to be the dictator on your week if you wanted McDonald’s, but you simply had to accept the decision on off-weeks. With the democracy, you’d often lose, but felt like you had a stake in the game. I think it hurts more to lose in a democracy than to simply accept defeat from the beginning in a dictatorship.

Accepting I’m but a small voice, and accepting I can’t manipulate and charm my way into creating the world I want was rough in recovery. I was a master gaslighter who knew how to get his own way — or I at least conned myself into thinking this was the way things were. “Radical acceptance” was the term that kept getting thrown around in rehab. You can have your say, but you don’t control everything, and most often, it’s just easier to accept that than expend energy on every losing battle.

Nobody is out to get you

Addicts are suspicious people. Most of us break the law and those who don’t spend a lot of time simply hiding their addiction. It becomes easy to believe that there is something more nefarious going on behind your back. Addiction makes you paranoid. Recovery is seen as brainwashing.

Do I believe that there are likely a few hundred cases of voting irregularities? Human error dictates there must be. There’s a poll worker who tallied the wrong name. There’s a voter who put an X instead of filling in an oval. A ballot somewhere is sitting between the seat and floor of a mail truck. Mistakes happen. Do I believe that there was a calculated and well-coordinated effort to alter the election involving tens of thousands or millions of ballots? This is the government. They don’t run that efficiently or secretively. Until I see evidence beyond hearsay, I think I know what happened.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories floating around by the losing side right now and I can understand that. As an addict, I often didn’t want to accept the most obvious answers. I could rationalize drunk driving to the point that I still have to remind myself they were faulty arguments. Somehow, I believed that alcohol did not hit me the way it hit others, I had better skills at driving than the average intoxicated person, I’d tell myself it was mostly straight roads to get where I was going and if I concentrated, it was probably safer than when I was driving normally.

The reality is, drunk driving is illegal because you are impaired. The reality of this election is, more people voted for Biden than Trump and Biden received more electoral votes. It’s really that simple.

Photo by Tania Malréchauffé on Unsplash

We are more alike than we are different

In kindergarten, we had an election for which Peanuts character should be “President” of the class. This was 1980, when Ronald Reagan won his first term in office. The candidates were Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy. I hope in 2020, Lucy takes Snoopy’s spot. Back then, they chose a dog over a female as a candidate, but that’s a different discussion.

I voted for Linus. No idea why. My demeanor as a kid was more like the fatalist sad-sack, Charlie Brown. But I remember it was so clear to me Linus was the correct choice. The teacher had one or two kids speak on behalf of the person they liked. I don’t remember if I was one of them. It was just obvious to me that Linus was the clear answer, the only answer.

And then Charlie Brown mopped up the floor with the other two. Linus even lost to a dog. My candidate was in third place. I simply could not understand how anybody chose either of these two fictional characters from a comic strip I’ve never enjoyed. It wasn’t just a rejection of Linus. It was a rejection of me.

The vast majority of people who voted for Joe Biden could not fathom how anybody, much less more than 71 million people, could vote for Donald Trump. It’s also clear that those who voted for Donald Trump cannot fathom how more than 75 million could vote for Joe Biden. The reality is, numbers dictate that there is somebody out there who disagrees with you on every major issue: the environment, gun control, abortion, taxes, etc. The reality also is you could be very close friends with them in real life.

We are far more alike than we are different. The problem is that we have different ways to get there. We all want the best for our children and to be able to afford a decent life. We want criminals held accountable and we want clean air and water. Back in the days when people didn’t wear their political affiliation on their sleeve, I remember being surprised when I heard certain people were Democrats or certain people were Republicans… much like I was surprised when I found out someone had an addiction I never detected…much like people were surprised to find out I was an alcoholic and a porn addict.

I’m not asking people to convert to a different political thinking. I’m asking we see that we have more in common than different and it’s time to focus on the commonalities. The 12 Step system works for so many people because it’s about commonality. Nobody cares who you vote for in a 12 Step room. They care about you as a person struggling with the disease of addiction. They are there for your recovery. It’s time we start using that kind of compassion in the real world. We’re different, but we actually want to get to the same place. We just have to focus on the common factors we share, not the differences.

In rehab, I met 18-year-old Mexican meth addicts and 72-year-old heroin addicts. For the first time ever, I met people with tattoos all over their face, members of biker gangs, people with eating disorders and a guy legitimately addicted to video games. I got to know all of them on very personal levels. It turned out, they were far more like me than people I knew in my everyday circles of “normal life”. And I never learned how a single one voted.

Trump being defeated does not mean the villain lost. Nor does it mean the hero lost. He, like Joe Biden and like you and I, are neither heroes nor villains. We’re too complex for comic book stereotypes. We are all simply human beings with flaws.

Practice Empathy

If you voted for the Democratic candidate twice in a row, you know how horrible and inconceivable it felt to lose in 2016. If you voted for Donald Trump twice in a row, you know horrible it feels now. Much like I mentioned above, there’s a commonality that we all have. I have written more specifically about empathy here.

Addiction is a very selfish thing, whether the addict realizes it or not. I didn’t think about the women in the chatrooms I frequented at the tail end of my porn addiction. They were props. Instead of wondering what happened in their past that would allow them to follow my depraved requests, I just kept making more exotic demands. I didn’t care about anything else. Recovery was not an option. I just needed my addiction fed.

Losing sucks, whether it’s a board game or your 401K in a market crash. Losing usually involves not having control over all variables. If you did, you wouldn’t lose as much, or at least feel as bad when it happens. You can’t control the millions who came out and voted the opposite of you, so there’s an element of risk in investing yourself emotionally in a political race.

Politics is not sports. The decisions our leaders make will have an effect on people across the world. It’s far more important than if a baseball manager pulls a tiring pitcher off the mound or lets him continue. While we feel deeply about sports teams we love, those are just games. Politics is not. We need to mentally win and lose differently in politics than sports.

To this day, I have to practice and work on my empathy. Addiction made me a selfish, egotistical, self-centered person for decades. I still have to think about how my actions and decisions impact others. I’m happy that Joe Biden won, but I shouldn’t be celebrating that, at their core, over 71 million Americans just took a very real gut punch. This is not a time to gloat. It’s a time to feel empathetic for those who lost more than a baseball game. Just remember what losing feels like and treat others the way you wish to be treated when you’re on the losing end.

Let History Be Your Guide

The sun will rise tomorrow, the birds will sing and in the next 200 years, there will be many Democrat and Republican presidents, just like there have been over the last 200 years. The sun rose and birds sang then, too. We always like to frame our existence as being in the most historic and important of times. I urge everyone to read the Alexander Hamilton biography from Ron Chernow, regardless of your political leanings.

In reading that book, I couldn’t decided if Alexander Hamilton was the protagonist or antagonist. For many people, he was both. I think the most effective politicians, regardless of affiliation, genuinely want the best for the country and its people, yet also battle with a streak of Machiavellianism.

I hate using definitions straight from Google, but: “Machiavellianism in psychology refers to a personality trait which sees a person so focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals.”

Doesn’t that describe the dark side of most politicians you know? It also describes just about every addict I’ve ever met. Whether your goal is passing a piece of legislation or getting your next addictive fix, there’s a lot of Machiavellianism potentially lurking in both situations.

Hamilton had some fantastic ideas and left more of an impact on this country than probably 90% of our presidents. He was also a liar, womanizer, had a fast temper and did just about anything to get his way. He died in a duel. His inability to back down meant he couldn’t walk away. Most addicts can’t either.

Let Go of Resentments

When I entered rehab and recovery, my list of enemies was long and bitter. I came into the situation believing these people drove me to my addictions and if they would have been more fair and acquiesce to more of my ideas, I would still have active relationships with them. It’s an unhinged viewpoint.

Now is not a time for Democrats to “get back” at Republicans for the perceived wrongs of the last four years. It’s also not the time to Republicans to cross their arms and pout, refusing to play the game for the next four years until they have another chance to be on top. We’re not going to achieve as much as we can together if we continue to spend so much energy on the hate and anger that keeps us apart.

Prior to the election, neither political party would give an inch on a new stimulus bill. Neither could handle seeing the other side “win” so close to an election. Allegedly, Dems wanted $600 for a weekly stipend for the unemployed, while Republicans wanted $400. Is it that hard to see $500 as the answer? They both saw it as giving in, and losing. That meant millions — Republicans and Democrats — suffered. It’s pathetic.

Want to know why somebody voted for Joe Biden or Donald Trump? Ask them. If they say that they didn’t like the other guy, ask them what it was they didn’t like. And don’t debate them. Listen. Accept that is their position is as valid as the decisions you have for voting for your candidate. You can moralize and intellectualize later. Just listen. It’s OK to have very strong views as long as you accept the other person does as well. Understanding the other person first is how we’ll reach that middle ground.

I think it’s healthy to debate our views. That’s what the country was founded upon, but our opponents are not our enemies. Look at the example of Justices Ginsberg and Scalia. They were as opposite as you could get when it came to interpretation of the Constitution… and they were the best of friends. If they can do, why can’t the rest of us?

I’ve written about how after a week or so at my first rehab, I let down my guard and decided to get with the program. I hope you’ll read that post. This was when I wrote a letter to a former business partner letting go of my resentments toward her, apologizing for my part in things going wrong, and saying I accepted any apology she would ever give. I never sent the letter. It was just an exercise, but I felt great afterward. The anger and hate were gone. Sure, it flares up now and then, but now it’s more a disappointment that the two times I reached out to her for a conversation, it was met with silence. She’s not ready to forgive, forget and move on. That’s on her, not me, and I feel bad for her because of it.

Talk about it

As I mentioned in the section about being more alike than different, there’s one thing that I’ve found universally works for people who are on either ends of an emotionally high to bring them back to earth: Talk about things. It’s the foundation of the 12 Step world, but even if that’s not the right path for you, as it wasn’t for me, I found through recovery that whether I’m talking to my therapist, a fellow addict, my wife or a friend, I need other voices in my life. I need to be heard and need to gain the perspective of others.

I’m not going to agree with you if you have very different views than mine, and there are many subjects that you probably have no chance of changing my opinion, but I’ll listen to you if for no other reason it’s the decent, human thing to do. I think a lot of my recovery has come from recognizing it’s not always about what I’m saying, but it’s about being heard. It takes no effort to simply listen and acknowledge the other person is, well, a person. I think a lot of the time, that’s all we’re looking for. I also think that many people end up turning to addictions and taking extreme political positions because they’re not being heard.

When you’re on the victorious side of an election, talking about it can help make you realize that nothing has actually changed yet. There is only the promise of change. Actual change takes time and hard work. If you’re on the losing side, talking can be cathartic. It’s OK to express sadness, anger and confusion. There are very few things like an election to illustrate you think differently than the majority at any given time.

Communication is key in all moments, but especially ones of extreme emotion and in rare situations. You only vote once every four years. When your candidate loses, it’s four years before you get another chance to vote. That stings, but talking about that sting is important. So is understanding the world isn’t suddenly a better place if you won, no matter how much you demonized the opposition.

Conclusion

I know if you’re on the winning side, you’re probably telling me not to rain on your parade and if you’re on the losing side, you want to explain to me what happened. It’s OK. It’s a transitional period not only for government, but for your outlook on it. You’ll adjust. We all will. Let’s just hope we can do it with more grace and dignity than we’ve shown over the last decade. It’s time for us all to enter recovery.

Lead Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

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Learn more about how to watch my TED Talk on December 6.

7 thoughts on “Lessons from Recovery May Help Heal the Political Divide

  1. Basically my life does not change if my team wins or loses. My life goes on in my home, on my street, among my circle of friends, etc. All I can do is do my best to live a life worth living, a life with no regrets.

  2. I admire your optimism concerning our social and political future. Spiritually speaking, though, our country’s on a steep decline and history shows repeatedly that never ends well. I pray for mercy.

    1. I think that there is something to be said for that, but much like when one political party loses, I think there are questions that need to be asked. Why are thing declining spiritually? What are REAL solutions to get it back? Is there a new spirituality that we need to evolve into? Look at the Shakers, who have their last surviving group about 15 minutes from where I live. They were completely unyielding and once the final two old ladies die, they’re done. I don’t think fundamental foundations need to change, but I do think that things need to adapt. Religions that have stood the test of time have had leaders willing to bend to the era slightly.

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