Twenty-five years ago, a runaway New York Times bestseller took America by storm. In the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, author Robert Fulghum enchanted his readers with new insights on everyday living. He explored the profound wisdom of following the simple rules of living most of us are taught at an early age:
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Be nice.
This is really good stuff, and I highly recommend doing all of these things. Yet there came a time in my life when such conventional wisdom failed me. It’s not that these concepts were no longer good, they just weren’t enough. A problem of such complexity took hold in my life that the regular rules no longer seemed to apply. Anyone who’s lost a child to addiction knows this to be true.
When my daughter’s addiction took hold — first to alcohol and then to meth — the torment of losing her to the streets was nearly unbearable. I found myself helpless to stop her or to change her or her circumstances. Being nice wasn’t enough — LOVE wasn’t enough. Playing fair got me nowhere, and I really found myself wanting to hit people. I didn’t know how to move forward with such a gaping hole in my heart.
The first answer to my dilemma came by way of a provocative comment from one of the many treatment counselors I hounded on the telephone: “Get your eyes off the problem,” he said. Huh? What does that even mean? How does one solve a problem without looking at it?
It took me a while, but over time the clouds parted and the haze cleared. It was in a 12-step meeting for families affected by a loved one with substance use disorder when the light bulb finally came on. Counterintuitive for sure, but I’d been trying to change the wrong person.
I did everything in my power to help my daughter, to advocate for her and to intervene. But in the final analysis, I was powerless to truly change her and learned I could only change myself. And doing so paid large dividends. In fact, when she ultimately sought treatment and entered recovery, I’d become healthy enough to properly support her.
Through my own support groups (there were three), I explored new ideas and experimented with new behaviors. Yet it was really by observing my daughter and her newfound friends in the recovery community that I truly started to “get it.” I learned more about love and life than I ever could’ve thought possible.
I sometimes muse that everything I really needed to know about life I learned from drug addicts. It’s true: I amassed life-changing lessons from the most unexpected source. I will forever be grateful to the many courageous men and women in recovery I’ve come to know and love, and who’ve blessed me just by being who they are. They’ve taught me things like:
- I can’t change others, I can only change myself.
- If I keep doing what I always done, I’ll keep getting what I’ve always gotten.*
- Wherever I go, there I am.
- Don’t take someone else’s inventory.
- It’s not my business.
- Keep your own side of the street clean (or stay in your own lane).
Like the kindergarten wisdom of Robert Fulghum, this is basic stuff — but profound nonetheless. And learning these concepts has changed how I look at the world and how I approach problem solving. Who knew that I was the only person I could change — the only person I could save? I sure wish I’d learned that in kindergarten.
*Attributed to W.L. Bateman