Like many of you, I’m sure, I was crushed by the results of the Tennessee football game on Saturday.

It’s a familiar trap for the Big Orange faithful: We buy into the hype going into every season, and up until the first offensive series, we’re convinced that this year will be the one that turns it all around. And then a boneheaded fumble lead to a Georgia State touchdown, and we never seemed to recover.

As we made it somewhat respectable, if one could call the worst loss in program history since that 2008 debacle vs. Wyoming “respectable,” with a few seconds left, I begrudgingly decided to head over to the inaugural Take Back Blount observance of International Overdose Awareness Day. I didn’t want to go or do much of anything else, but after an hour, as I slipped out quietly and headed home, I chastised my stupid foolishness.

How, I wondered, had I assigned so much meaning to a silly football game, by a team of kids for a school I never even attended, when so many of my friends and neighbors were living with such real, visceral pain?

I suppose that skewed perception is a gift of recovery. Twenty years ago, I could have easily been one of those names; if I hadn’t found and embraced a new way of life thanks to recovery almost 18 years ago, I probably would be.

I’m one of the fortunate ones, and on Saturday evening, gathered in a semicircle down along the banks of Brown Creek, I was reminded that as a survivor, I owe a debt to those who didn’t make it.

As addicts and alcoholics, we cause so much pain to the living. Our loved ones bear witness to our slow deaths, but they also shoulder the burden of our selfish, dishonest and thoughtless decisions.

That we’re under the influence of a disease that has hijacked our brains is little comfort when we clean out their bank accounts or pawn their possessions; that we don’t want to hurt them matters none when their heart break with betrayal; that we apologize a thousand times over is no balm for their emotional wounds, even though we mean every word.

They live in the constant fear of a phone call or visit from law enforcement, and no matter how much they prepare themselves or steel their hearts for it — because reality and logic and headlines and the experiences they glean from other families who go through similar tribulations all tell them that the bitter ends of addiction are very real — it still destroys them, every damn time.

Standing in that circle, each of us holding candles and speaking the names of the dead, I saw a mixture of humanity: hollowed-out husks of fresh grief and pain, still trying to come to grips with it all … numb masks of acceptance without any idea of where to go, what to do, next … tears of remembrance and eyes fierce with determination by those, like my friends Tim Webb and Jan McCoy, who have transformed pain into action.

And then there were the folks like me. The addicts who made it.

I think I speak for us all when I say that we stood there awash in a mixture of emotions: gratitude for our lives … sorrow, for the peers who almost made it but chose to use one more time and lost their lives … and a touch of survivor’s guilt, especially when each person began to speak those names. I held it together until the microphone was handed to 5-year-old Axel Mullins, who stared into his candle’s flame as his grandmother handed him the microphone.

He leaned forward and said a single word, one word that set off a grenade in my heart, and my eyes couldn’t stem the tide of tears any longer.

“Mommy.”

Oh, my heart.

I can’t begin to imagine what he feels … what his grandparents feel … what all of the loved ones of those who have died because of addiction feel, each and every day.

Driving back home, the Western sky was awash in purple and orange swaths of color, the sliver of a giant fingernail moon hanging overhead. Across the country, the world even, other communities gathered to remember those lost, and I couldn’t help but shake my head at how consumed I had been a couple of hours earlier over a paltry football game.

There are greater things of more pressing urgency than sports or Netflix or politics, and yet we allow our minds and hearts to be consumed by such insignificancies.

To my brothers and sisters on the other side, free now from the bondage of addiction, I apologize. And to all of you, I vow to continue to speak truth to this plague that’s killing so many, because there is a way out.

“The message is hope, the promise of freedom: that an addict, any addict, can stop using, lose the desire to use and find a new way to live.” It’s written in the 12 Step literature of the program I attend, and it’s a promise that’s been fulfilled in my life. And it’s available to everyone. I don’t know if we’ll ever live to see a time when International Overdose Awareness Day is unnecessary, but I, for one, plan to continue to spread that message as often and as loud as I can.

Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com.

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