I remember hearing from a few of my friends who had children before I did that they will change your life and you just can’t help but look at the world differently. I remember thinking that was just one of those “the roses smeller better, the birds sing louder” things you’re supposed to say when you’ve ushered new life onto the planet.
Then I had kids.
And these people were right. Having children and helping to raise them (though my wife deserves probably 80% of the credit) is the most rewarding thing I’ve done with my life. But when it came to noticing the world differently, I absolutely understood what they meant.
Parents view other couples in the world in one of two camps: having kids or not having kids. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, the size of your house, education or where you go on vacation. You either have kids or you don’t.
For those people who don’t have kids, they don’t truly understand how it changes you. Suddenly, your life loses all spontaneity. Your No. 1 priority in life is to make sure this child doesn’t die and therefore, you have to plan out every moment of every day. While those plans evolve as the child grows, it’s more than a decade before you can begin to let your guard down and many more years before it can drop entirely – and I doubt when they are adults you ever really do.
Childless couples tend to not understand how drastic the priorities and choices of their friends with children have to change and in a lot of cases, these friend groups drift apart. It’s simply impossible to understand or relate to someone who has a child if you never have. In many cases, the childless couple thinks you’re making excuses and are generally way off base. They just don’t get it.
The reason I bring this up is because this is how I feel about non-addicts trying to understand addiction.
People who have never had an addiction just don’t get it. Unfortunately, the vast majority never will. There are plenty of non-addicts who work with addicts, but even they can only see the results of addiction. Broken relationships, lost fortunes and legal problems are easy to witness, but understanding the process of what went into it can only be understood by the addict. Understanding why losing everything still doesn’t get a lot of addicts to stop is something the non-addict just can’t fathom.
I don’t know what it’s like to feel the need to have the rush that comes from betting a week’s salary on a hand of blackjack. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I need to force myself to throw up because my body is ugly, or feel the need to eat half a cake because that might make me feel better. I don’t understand many different kinds of addictions, but I understand addicts because I am one. Those people would rather not indulge in their addictions, but they don’t have the tools or ability to stop.
I know what it likes to be flipping through the channels on an autumn Sunday afternoon, happen upon a football game and begin to salivate with the thought of beer. It still happens and I haven’t picked up a drink in 3.5 years. I know what it’s like to see a movie with a beautiful actress in it and immediately wonder if she’s been naked in any other movie and feel the need to look it up immediately. It still happens despite more than 3.5 of not engaging in that kind of behavior. I drive by places I used to drink and immediately long for a shot of tequila chased with Red Bull. I still fixate on the magazines wrapped in plastic behind the counter at the convenience store, wanting to know what’s in the magazine.
I know the gambler, the food addict or the eating disorder sufferer are all dealing with forces that feel like are beyond their control. Addictions are like magnets. You can try to repel, you can try to ignore, but the attraction is so, so strong. I couldn’t leave my kids alone when they were almost four. I can’t leave my vigilance toward my addictions alone while my recovery is at such a young age, too.
Non-addicts will say it’s a choice and you never should have started. Non-addicts will say you’re weak and should just walk away. You’ll never hear an addict say these things. They get it.
I’d give almost anything to be among the ignorant. I wish I never had any idea what living with an alcohol or pornography addiction is like. For many years, I knew my relationship with booze or porn wasn’t healthy, but nothing to freak out over. I made it to work every day. I paid my mortgage. My family loved me. That’s not the life of an addict.
I was wrong. It’s the life of plenty of addicts.
I wish there was an easy way to explain to non-addicts what it’s like, but much like explaining what it’s like to have a kid to the childless, it’s something that can only be understood through experience.
Instead of seeing the addicted as just like you, but somehow flawed, view them like a childless parent should view their friends with kids. They’re playing by a different set of rules, have different priorities, issues and problems that you don’t understand or relate to, but that doesn’t make them any better or worse. It’s OK to not understand. Just don’t condemn.