Addiction takes things from you — friends, money, jobs, family, hobbies, the things that make you who you are — but it also takes things you didn’t even know you had, things that were coming down the pipeline, possibilities that were never realized because addiction ruined their chance to exist.
Helping others is something I never thought I would enjoy, something I never did, something I never could do when I was stuck in my addiction. When I was isolating indoors, using all day and all night, other people were often nothing more than means to ends. I never thought much about them beyond what they could do for me, let alone about what I could do for them.
I never really understood people who volunteered, who gave their time willingly.
I never saw the benefit.
I thought I was all that mattered.
I was wrong.
I learned precisely how wrong in the way I usually do — by experiencing something profoundly different from the status quo and seeing the truth of what’s right for me reflected in the lives of others, in places that are so different the newness of it all forces me to view my life in a different light.
When I was still in school and still very broke, the idea of travelling the world wasn’t exactly a possibility I entertained. However, thanks to my membership in Alpha Chi honors society, I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to Antigua, Guatemala, an incredible, ancient city nestled between mountains and volcanoes in the heart of the world, on a volunteering expedition.
For two weeks, I got to see gorgeous views like this on a daily basis, but the tropical paradise was only a backdrop for the real work we’d traveled to do.
Specifically, we were going to a free school for underprivileged children called Education for the Children, where we actually got to teach some of the kids there and work directly with the staff to write curriculum (mostly I just did the editing — our Alpha Chi sponsor, Dr. Jeanne Tunks, did all the heavy lifting).
Here are some of those kids I taught — they were awesome!
These children lived (and still live) in a profound level of poverty, something I could not and still cannot really wrap my mind around. It goes beyond dirt floors and a lack of drinking water.
Most of them live in a village on the side of a mountain, a mountain that periodically experiences catastrophic mudslides that literally wash the entire village away. The school is often the only place they can feel safe, the only place they can get a shower and have a meal, the only place they can drink clean water.
I was 3 years sober at the time, and I understood in a vague way that these things were realities of the world. Experiencing them was different. I felt something in me then that I can’t say I’d ever felt before, even when volunteering at home as part of my recovery — I felt a compulsion to help, to do something without payment, a compulsion that came from within (rather than being suggested as a way to enhance my recovery).
Up to this point, my Upventurs had mostly been getting outside of the house and into nature, but this trip taught me something else: that I feel a profound sense of adventure when I’m actively helping other people to become the best versions of themselves that they can be.
Helping others is my Upventur, and Guatemala helped me to discover it.
For 3 years, I had understood in a vague way that helping other people was not only something I now could do, but was something I should do, that helping other people helped me stay sober in a mysterious-yet-real way. It was still essentially a means to an end.
Helping these kids, giving my time, helping this school, was initially a pretext for getting to travel the world at a reduced cost — a means to an end.
That pretext fell away when I found out how much I enjoyed helping these kids (and the heroes who have dedicated their lives to giving these kids a chance).
Landing in another country, visiting this school of children who live in a constant state of anxiety and fear and destabilization, seeing and feeling the reality of that, and then giving my time willingly, helped me to experience the act of service in a uniquely personal way that the familiarity of helping people at home simply never impressed upon me. The different surroundings, the language barrier, the severity of the situation, the beauty of the land in which their horrible situation existed — all of this combined to show me how I really felt about service work.
It wasn’t just about helping me stay sober anymore. When I was working with those kids, I found that I enjoyed the act of helping them more than the beauty of the country itself — an odd and unexpected feeling. Helping others was no longer a means to an end.
It was an end that was itself exciting, an adventure worth striving for. The feeling of joy I got from seeing these kids succeed at something I helped them do was indescribable. The feeling of gratitude the teachers showed me was profoundly impactful. I’d felt and experienced these things countless times while helping others at home, in sobriety, but for some reason, the strangeness of the locale forced me to be more aware of everything, to look at it analytically in a way I wouldn’t in a familiar place.
This experience showed me that adventure is not only about the outdoor places we visit, beautiful and enchanting and exhilarating as they may be, but about the interior places we visit when we do something that surprises us, that reveals something real about ourselves, something that often requires a change in outside circumstances for us to experience.
Something clicked in my head then, something beyond the realization that helping people is itself an adventure — I wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t willing to help others, and the exotic landscape I got to travel would have likely forever remained outside my reach if I hadn’t first been willing to reach out my hand and help.
When I was willing to help, with the idea of helping others as the only goal, the universe seemed to reward me. When I brought up the idea of volunteering in Guatemala to my teacher, I knew almost nothing about the country (or where in the country we’d go). For all I knew, we’d spend most of our days in a huge city nowhere near the outdoors I love so much.
I was astounded and thrilled to learn what an amazing city and part of the country we’d be visiting.
These two Upventurs — one I didn’t know I had, one I didn’t plan on experiencing — came together naturally then. All I had to do was stop thinking about myself and focus on helping someone else, and I got the opportunity to experience something different and learn something new about myself.
Which allowed me to do things that, in my wildest dreams, in my deepest addiction, I never thought I’d do, like climb a volcano and roast marshmallows over a heated vent.
Helping others is my Upventur — what’s yours?