“Dear Gemente Stein” my letter began. “I would like to participate in your triathlon.”
In 1985, I had more discretionary income then sense and thought nothing of traveling to the Netherlands to plunge into 63° water before biking and running over hill and dale. The advert in the athletics magazine read “Gemente Stein, Half Iron Man.” Wouldn’t you think that “Gemente Stein” was a person?
It turns out that “Gemente” means “the town of.” So in the days before email, I wrote “Dear the Town of Stein.” Cultural insensitivity? Youthful exuberance? Poor planning?
But the race organizers did not seem put off by my blistering ignorance. I also asked where I might rent a bicycle and for the name of a local hotel. Hay and Ciska—people as it turned out, not municipalities—suggested that I stay with them and borrow one of their bicycles. No payments or rentals required.
“The older I get, the faster I was” is increasingly true over time. Rather than inflict memories of hypothermia—and more hills than dales—on my gentle readers, I will reflect instead on another Dutch word, “Gezelligheid.” Several English adjectives are necessary to convey a sense of “conviviality,” “coziness,” “relaxed,” and “pleasant.” My Dutch hosts pointed to transparent lace in windows. “You see in,” Cisca explained. “The door is locked, but the home is open.”
Which is indeed what I observed as I limped—remember the hills!—around town in the days after the event. Dutch families eating; Dutch families sitting; Dutch families talking. There seemed little distinction between public and private life. No thick curtains. No shutters. By comparison, Miami homes resembled fortresses, farther back from the street with covered windows. Homes in the Netherlands seemed an extension of the public square, the open air cafe.
Those suffering from substance abuse disorder lie, cheat, and steal in order to support their needs. “May I please pawn this family heirloom in order to score some oxy?” are words no one ever spoke. Alleys not thoroughfares, prevarication rather than plain speaking, are the hand maidens of getting high. An activity that ultimately harms both the individual and the community is clandestine by definition. In recovery we say, “we are only as sick as our secrets” and “sunshine is a powerful antiseptic.” If we are still isolated, clandestine, and lying, we are probably still using.
“The truth shall set you free” is only the first half of the saying. “But first it will make you miserable.” And the truth is a hard deer to hunt. Are there unspoken truths in your home? Would you allow tourists to walk by your house and look through your windows? Would neighbors be welcome to view the soul of your family?
Or are guilt and shame served unspoken at your dinner table? Are you raising your kids in a way that you would prefer not to discuss? Do you yell when you should probably smile? Do you send the kids to their room when you could just as easily snuggle on the couch and read Winnie the Pooh together?
Addicts don’t get better because they attend meetings. Addicts get better because they are willing to participate. “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Next time you think you have a problem with your kid—she isn’t doing well in algebra—kick it around with your community. With any luck at all, you may be reminded that there are better things to do with your kids than obsessing over algebra. The solution–making your opinion known then letting her figure it out for herself–may be as clear as a window in Gemente Stein.