Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Playing the cards you're dealt

Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game. Voltaire

I work in an environment where people have been dealt hands of constant sorrow. Their lives in tatters, they fall farther and farther from where they wanted to be into a place they can't imagine. Stuck in the grind of rock bottom, they cannot conceive of ever getting up again and end up gambling every day with the one thing they fear losing the most; their own lives.

Drugs. Prostitution. Dealing. Gambling. The list of addictions goes on as each individual loses a grip on their power to decide how to play the cards differently. On how to play a different game and win.

Life becomes a constant struggle of making sense of nonsense as they lose all sense of direction, all sense of the possibility of a different life other than the one they've got.

Yesterday, we said farewell to two counsellors who are moving on to roles outside the homeless sector. Jack* came to thank one of the counsellors for her help and to wish her well. Five months ago he moved out of the shelter. He's got a job. Rents a house of his own and has been clean and sober for six months.

"She saved my life," he told me as we sat and chatted before the ceremonies began. "She didn't give up on me." He smiled, his eyes twinkling. "And she wouldn't let me give up on myself."

"How long had you been on the street?" I asked him.

"Five years," he told me. "I'm a truck driver. They took my licence away when I had a stroke."

He was thirty-five when he had the stroke. It was drug related. He'd managed to keep his hand in play, always on the edge. Always looking out for the next big hit. Drive. Drugs. Drink. Drive. Drugs. Drink. And then the stroke hit him. A card he'd not seen before. He dove into drugs with a vengeance. Life became a constant round of drugs, drink, dive.

He didn't know what hit me. He didn't care.

"After the first couple of years I sorta wanted to get off the merry-go-round but I just kept sliding down," he told me. His candor was refreshing. His honesty compelling. "It was easier to stay down than to get up so I kept sliding. And then, one day my buddy Dave came back from rehab. He was committed to being straight. To staying off the drugs. He made me go see the counsellor and here I am." He pointed to the woman who dealt him a card he didn't want to lose. "She's persistent. She doesn't give up."

He's looking good. Clear eyed. Fresh. Proud. He's restoring his relationship with his son. His dad. His mom. Even his ex-wife is speaking civilly to him again. He's reclaiming much of what was lost and has a passion for sobriety and for helping others find theirs.

"I go to several AA meetings a week. I'm committed to staying clean."

In his twenties, life dealt Jack the high-life. He made good money driving. Had a home. A family. A comfortable existence. He also liked to drink. Couldn't drink and drive and so he started using. Drugs kept him alert. They gave him a sense of direction he'd never imagined.

Thing is, life doesn't deal you drugs. People do. And the cards are always stacked in the dealers favour. For Jack, drugs were an easy way to keep driving. When he first tried crack he had no idea he'd keep going back for more and more and more. He had no idea that playing that card would lead him to the street where all he ever wanted was to numb himself enough to forget where he was. The dealer kept dealing and Jack kept playing.

Sober at last, Jack can play his cards with a clear head, a steady hand. With a twelve step program under his belt, Jack has tools that will help him decide what to do with cards that are dealt, with triumphs and with losses.

Sober at last, Jack is in control of the cards he plays. He knows he can't control the game of life. He can decide who he deals with. He can decide how he plays the game.

Everyday I witness people falling down without any idea they have the power to get back up. And everyday I meet someone who has stood up and found themselves back where they belong. Playing the game of their life for keeps. Playing it like it is the only card they've got to lay down.

It is.

The question is: Are you deciding how to play your cards or are you laying down your hand in defeat before the game is ever played? Are you letting the cards you're dealt determine how you play the game or, are you playing for keeps every card you're dealt, confident in your ability to handle triumph and defeat with grace, ease and dignity?

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