Can We Ever Be Free?

It’s the evening of Independence Day here in the U.S.A., and people are talking a lot about freedom. I’ve been thinking about freedom, too, and how the concept applies to me. For me, living in active addiction is the opposite of freedom, no matter what is going on around me. The freedoms that my fellow citizens speak of today–and as imperfect as things are, we do have some that I’m grateful for–don’t mean as much to me when I know I am a slave to a tyrant from whom no revolution can save me.

WARNING: Author is entering "word geek" mode. Skip if desired.

WARNING: Author is entering “word geek” mode. Skip if desired.

The words addict and addiction come from the classical Latin word addictus and other related words. The noun addictus refers to a debt slave, one who has amassed enough debt that he is bound over to his creditor and forfeits his rights as a free citizen. The Roman Empire commonly practiced slavery, but addictus referred specifically to one who becomes a slave in this manner rather than being born one or captured in battle. The word began to be used in its modern fashion around the 17th century, to refer to someone who is devoted or yielding themselves to something; someone who has “bound themselves over.”

So far, this makes sense to me. I “borrowed” from my drugs of choice and other behaviors, and at some point I lacked the resources to redeem what I owed and was bound. We are all slaves to some of our circumstances–I didn’t choose to be bipolar, for instance–but when it comes to my addiction, there were choices involved. So, understanding that I am bound, how do I become free? Many believe that certain addictions, once established, are with us for life due to a combination of physical and psychological changes. As one rehab counselor was fond of saying, “Once you’re a pickle, you can’t go back and be a cucumber again.” This idea is behind the custom of saying “recovering” instead of “recovered.” I know not everyone agrees, and that debate’s beyond the scope of this piece. My personal belief is that I will always have the potential to return to active addiction. Does this mean that I will always be bound, even if I am living free of active addiction? Is there such a thing as freedom for me?

Thinking about this made me look deeper at the Latin. The word addictus is formed from two words: ad which means to or toward, and the verb dico, which means to speak or tell. The connotation was thought to be one of passionate advocacy of something, and in some cases to the point of giving oneself over wholeheartedly. This then came to be used when they needed a word for binding oneself over to another person.

Let’s hypothesize for a moment that I will always be an addict. That being an addict is about more than my current behavior, but rather describes a fundamental quality now. What I’m finding in my own recovery process is that I needed to throw myself into it in a passionate way for changes to happen. The passion that evolved from my desperation is an attitude I need to hold on to in order to stay willing. This passion has consequences in every area of my life, and takes me places I could or would never go without it.

Here is what I think on this Fourth of July: I think that some kinds of freedom are out of my reach. I’m not going to be free in the sense that I’ll be able to drift through my life, doing what I want when I want it. I will always be bound. But here’s the key for me: that binding can take a different form. Those Latin roots, and their idea of speaking toward something, tell me that I must accept the need to be devoted and passionate. I must care about something enough to lift my voice for it.

My debt is not paid, but only transferred to a better creditor. No matter what name I give that creditor, be it a deity or the universe or my fellow humans, today I accept that a force outside of my personal ego holds a piece of myself. It always will. I suppose one could argue that this is a spiritual reality for any conscious soul. The only difference is that being an addict has placed me in a position that will not let me ignore it any more. That’s where I’ll end tonight’s chain of contemplation, with a final prayer of gratitude for the liberties I have been granted.

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