Some Things You May Not Know About Substance Abuse, Part 18: You don’t know what you can do

You could learn a lot about addiction and recovery by watching the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not referring to the scene where Dorothy and her friends pass out in a field of poppies. That’s the only outright drug reference I can recall. I’m talking about the way Dorothy and her friends are traipsing all over Oz, trying to find the Wizard who can give them what they need. You remember. Dorothy wants to go back home. The Tin Man wants a heart, the Scarecrow a brain, the Lion, some courage. They’ve all been told the Wonderful Wizard of Oz can get them what they want.

Dorothy and her friends go through quite a lot of trouble for the Wizard. Together, they confront the Wicked Witch of the West and her posse of terrifying flying monkeys. Dorothy gets captured, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion demonstrate considerable ingenuity, loyalty, and bravery to sneak into the castle, and Dorothy unexpectedly murders the witch with a bucket of water.

I hope I’m not spoiling it for you.

They return to the Wizard and demand an audience. There they find the man behind the curtain. They discover the Wizard is a fraud.

Things couldn’t get worse for Dorothy and her friends at this point, it seems. Here they are, Dorothy, stuck in Oz, the Scarecrow, brainless, the Tin Man, heartless, the Lion, without his courage, and the Wizard, with no power to help. They went through all that for nothing. It couldn’t get much worse than that.

The Wizard certifies the intelligence of the Scarecrow by presenting him with a diploma. He confirms the Tin Man’s humanity by giving him a ticking heart-shaped watch. He awards a medal to the Lion for his courage. By this point, you know that these characters had these qualities all along. They just needed someone to say so.

The thing that saves the day for Dorothy is that, unbeknownst to her, she had possessed, the whole time, the very means by which she could return to Kansas: the Ruby Slippers. A few clicks of the heels and she’s back in the loving care of Auntie Em.

I think you can see the parallels between the plot of this story and addiction. The object of addiction, the drug, is the Wizard. The addicts confer wondrous powers onto the drug. They’ll do anything for it because they believe it’s the very thing they need. They run grievous risks and commit horrendous crimes for its sake. Then, at some point, they discover the drug is a fraud. It does not have the powers they thought it had. It does not, cannot, give them what they want. This moment of awareness is an awful one. People do not want to feel that way, so they’ll engage in denial and hold out hopes in the power of the drug long after it’s reasonable to do so. However, becoming aware that the drug is a fraud is a necessary step in the process of recovery.

If that was all recovery consisted of, it would not be such a good thing. If all that you experienced in recovery was that the drug is a fraud and you have been wasting your time, then you might think you might as well slit your wrists. Fortunately, there’s more to learn. You can learn that all the qualities you looked for in the drug, you already possess. Indeed, you may have even demonstrated these qualities as you sought the drug.

The man who wakes up every morning, sick, homeless, and broke and, somehow, finds a way to raise money for smack should be teaching MBAs at Harvard. The crack whore, who, against all reason, braves the hazards of the street for a moment of pleasure, Medal of Honor winners should be saluting her. The sex addict who deceives and eludes the person closest to him; who knows him best, should get an Oscar for his performance. If addicts could recognize the qualities they have, they wouldn’t need the drug. If they could use those qualities towards an objective other than obtaining drugs, they could go far in life.

This is why you might not realize you already possess great powers. You started off life as child, utterly ineffectual and enthralled by the capabilities of the big people around you. You got used to being helpless. You may have even liked it and preferred depending on someone or something else, rather than taking responsibility for yourself.

Another reason you might not know you have great powers, is that you have not had a reason to use them.

This is how self discovery works: A boy, when he is growing up, is always getting beaten by his big brother in basketball. He believes he’s just not that much of an athlete, so be becomes a bookworm, instead. He gets good grades and is accepted into Harvard. There, on the Harvard Yard, he begins playing Ultimate Frisbee with the other bookworms. He discovers, out of the shadow of his big brother, that he’s more athletic than he thought.

As life goes on, he discovers more things about himself. Having spent so much time in school, he doesn’t believe he can succeed in the real world, until get gets a job and does just that. He dates lots of people and believes he is incapable of commitment, until he meets the right girl and cannot think of anyone else. His first child is born and he is overwhelmed by the terror of having to raise another human being, but he goes on to be a good father. The point is that we never know what we can do until we try.

Of course, trying something requires a key ingredient: courage.

What makes a king out of a slave? 
    
Courage! 
    
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? 
    
Courage! 
    
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? 
    
Courage! 
    
What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? 
    
Courage! 
    
What makes the dawn come up like thunder? 
    
Courage! 
    
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in apricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got?
    
Courage.
(Sung by the Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Movie, 1939)

The Lion was right to desire courage. Without the courage to use them, no other qualities count for anything. Here’s the thing, though. You don’t possess courage before you use it, you develop it while in the act of using it. You create it while facing your fears.